Do you remember the first time you saw the stars again?
A large meteor strikes earth, initiating what may be an extinction event. The space program hits the fast-track, as do certain elements of social progress. Neither movement goes smoothly.
The 1950s could be like that.
In Mary Robinette Kowal's 2018 alternate history hard science fiction novel, a former WASP pilot, now a NASA computer, and her husband, one of the country's top aerospace engineers, survive the meteor strike that may doom the human race. Survival will become more likely if some of humanity can move off-world— but cultural baggage, social prejudices, personal conflicts, and even medical issues-- impede those efforts.
The novel initially does very well with its premise. Kowal,a Hugo and Campbell Award winner, has used her considerable gifts, and consulted astronauts, experts, academic research (the novel contains a bibliography), and a 1960s test and fighter pilot to help her ground her fiction in science. She plays on a nostalgia for the early Space Age without being blinded by it, and she spins a story that's equal parts human drama, science, and wish-fulfillment.
Elma York, our hero, is an exceptional woman and role-model, but she's a woman of her time. Self-doubts plague her. She knows she excels at certain skills, but society keeps telling her men are better at these things. Amidst the hard science we have a conflicted personality, pervasive sexism, and rampant racism. These things don't help the human race, and they certainly won't take us to the stars. The people in power in this novel need to come to this realization.
The novel bogs down after the initial chapters. The story limits itself in part due to a decision to publish the story as two books1, but other issues arise. Given the number of people who have died and the prospect of more serious things to come, the characters and society appear remarkably unaffected. Their workaday attitude in the face of a looming climate-related disaster feels a little off.
Kowal writes with a snappy, readable style, but it can become a little overt at times, stating interpretations and motivations that should be left for the reader to discern. We know, for example, why the dickish character Stetson Parker casually mentions a certain medical situation. It isn't necessary to remind us. It's great that the Yorks have a generally happy, nurturing marriage and a healthy sex life. I don't even mind that, during the very few sex scenes, Kowal makes predictable techie/rocket science jokes about sex. But she needed to trim these. If you've been around techies, engineers, or space exploration groupies, you've heard them before.
Clearly, however, when someone feels the need to critique the incidental sex scenes, the positive aspects of the book must outweigh the negative. Kowal has crafted an intriguing alternate Punchcardpunk reality, a new old Space Age that should please fans of traditional science fiction and readers of more recent trends.
Title: The Calculating Stars
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
First published July 3, 2018
1. As of this post, the second part, The Fated Sky, has been published. She had previously written three short stories set in this universe, and she has two additional sequels in the works.
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