The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Fated Sky is the sequel to The Calculating Stars, one of the best books I've read this year. This is, in many ways, a more grueling book, and offers drama quite different from surviving a meteorite obliterating the East Coast of the US and the struggle to become a female astronaut. In The Fated Sky we find Dr. Elma York struggling to find her place on a crew that she never expected to be with, on a mission to Mars she didn't expect to be on, after the International Aerospace Coalition begins to realize that she's a powerful publicity tool to exploit when it looks like their federal funding is going to get cut. Sending the famous Lady Astronaut to Mars makes for excellent press. What it doesn’t make for is peaceful crew relations when you bump an astronaut who’s been training with the crew for a year, to make space for the Lady Astronaut. It also doesn’t help Elma’s feeling of anxiety to throw her into the mix, playing catch up and Mars Mission poster girl. She finds herself dealing with an unhappy crew and her own feelings of self-doubt about her readiness for the mission and choice to be away from the husband she loves for three years. Add to this an international crew that includes African-Americans and an apartheid-loving South African. Plus, a growing disquiet at home with the very real backdrop of what it means for everyday Americans who sense they will ultimately be left behind on an unlivable earth because they don’t have the skills or the right skin color to be selected for living on a new lunar or planetary station. All in all, you have serious stressors that Elma will be dealing with, in addition to her own worries.
The mission that Elma embarks on turns out to be both more tedious and more grueling than the reader might anticipate. Very sobering and occasionally harrowing moments are tempered with the day to day realities of a long space journey. Kowal continues to explore marginalized groups in her alternate history of the space program, showing us the racism and sexism astronauts could have to deal with both publicly and with each other, and giving us surprising moments from characters like Parker and Clemons, who we may have disliked at times in the first book. The decision-making process that informs the IAC’s choices are often painful and the consequences can be unbearable and stunning.
I continued to love Elma, her endeavors to always do right, even in the face of resistance and dislike from her fellow crew members. There's a line back on page 58 that lingers with me. For a woman of a certain age, it sums up so much. "Goddamn it. I was never going to get over the feeling that I needed to apologize for wanting to excel." (Elma then proceeded to count primes.) Her struggles and her resolve are marvelously rendered. I also remain forever a fan of quiet Nathaniel, the other Dr. York, who is the behind the scenes hero for Dr. Elma York and the space program.
This was a fabulous sequel to The Calculating Stars, and frankly, I’ll be hard pressed to decide which of the two books to nominate for a Hugo next year. I may well nominate both.
I received an Advance Review Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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