Blogging the Nebulas: The Calculating Stars Thrillingly Reimagines the Space Race

Editor’s note: The Nebula Awards are often described as the Academy Awards of SFF literature. Like the Oscar, the Nebula is voted on by the professional peers of the award nominees—members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There are six nominees in the best novel category this year; every two weeks between now and the awards ceremony on May 18, Ceridwen Christensen will be taking a look at each of them, and figuring their odds of taking home the prize.

The Pitch:

In 2014, Mary Robinette Kowal’s “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” was awarded the Hugo for Best Novelette. In that story, the titular lady astronaut, Dr. Elma York, is living on Mars with her husband when she’s confronted with a dilemma: she has a chance to undertake one last mission as an astronaut—she hasn’t flown in decades due to her age—or stay behind with her husband, who is dying of a wasting disease. We’re given some biographical information about Elma, her husband Nathaniel, and the alternate history they inhabit, but only in broad strokes. The genuinely heart-wrenching choice Elma must make is truly the center of the piece.

The Calculating Stars is a prequel to that novelette, and tells the incredible life story of the woman who will one day become the Lady Astronaut of Mars.

This is a book that starts with a bang, quite literally. Elma and her husband are vacationing in the Poconos when they’re hit with a flash so powerful that even behind closed eyelids, it is bright as day. Through their shocked conversation that follows, and then the subsequent earthquake, we begin to comprehend the suddenly changed shape of their world. Their first thought is of a nuclear attack by the Soviets, but when they start seeing ejecta from the impact site burning down from the sky, it quickly becomes clear that a meteorite has hit somewhere to the east of them (as scientists, they know nuclear weapons don’t kick up dust and debris). After a terrifying journey further inland to a military base in Ohio, Nathaniel is put right to work in his capacity as an engineer. (He was previously instrumental in a successful satellite launch that put an object in space before the Russians, so he’s known to the brass.) Though Elma was a pilot in World War II—a WASP—she’s sidelined by a fellow pilot (and grade-A jerk) she worked with during the War. It is 1952; President John Dewey and most of the government are dead; Washington DC and the several hundred miles surrounding it have been vaporized.

The scale of the disaster is staggering. Elma’s parents were in Charlotte, NC, in the affected area, and are presumed dead. She and Nathaniel, who lived in DC, only survived by happenstance. Things get much bleaker when, after Nathaniel asks her to perform some calculations for him, Elma figures out that the meteorite strike is probably an eventual extinction-level event. Because the meteorite stuck water, not land, the resulting vapor in the air will eventually cause a runaway greenhouse effect. (It is theorized that such a circumstance explains why Venus is a molten hellscape with sulfuric acid rain, despite being Earth’s twin in many other regards.)

The Space Race, nudged a little bit earlier in this timeline, is already in full swing. With global extinction looming, the imperative to get off Earth becomes that much more dire. The Calculating Stars details a Space Race not against the Soviets, but against time.

Elma pushes doggedly towards her goal of becoming an astronaut. Though she’s a strong and gifted woman, she is beset by doubts and healthy attacks of Impostor Syndrome. Though they are completely standalone, The Calculating Stars makes “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” that much more poignant, as we live through Elma and Nathaniel’s long years of marriage. Though their relationship is not the primary focus of the novel, it is its beating heart.

Why it will win:

I think The Calculating Stars is in a very strong position to win the Nebula this year. Alternate histories maybe don’t have the best odds, Michael Chabon’s win for Yiddish Policemen’s Union 11 years ago notwithstanding, but Kowal’s has so much more going for it than mere subgenre specialization.

Its alternate history is incredibly well-researched (so much so that there’s a bibliography and a dense historical note at the end of the novel that will stack several more books onto your to-read pile). This is hard science fiction in the vein of Kim Stanley Robinson, who has two best novel Nebulas (for Red Mars and 2312). Kowal has a detailed grasp of the science involved and never hand-waves, but neither does she bore you with trivia; the novel remains firmly grounded in Elma’s character. That Elma’s relationship with science is foundational makes Kowal’s care with scientific detail all the more vital.

The Calculating Stars is also both timely and sensitive to history. Though Kowal began the novel before Hidden Figures became an unexpected blockbuster film, the success of the movie was a stroke of luck. It exposed to the general public the important work performed by the black women who served as NASA’s human computers. Though the 1950s and 60s of the “Meteor Age” of Kowal’s novel look very different (here Elma would mutter “it was a meteorite”), even in this changed world the social movements of the post-War era still proceed apace.

The post-Meteor world is more open in some ways: the Soviet Union collapses in the nuclear winter, ending the Cold War, and the race to the stars becomes a truly international endeavor. That doesn’t mean that institutional sexism and racism cease to exist, however: Elma and Nathaniel are initially placed with a black couple, the Lindholms, after they’re displaced, a Major and another computer, and the pair end up becoming their close friends. Through their contrasting experiences, we see not only Elma’s struggles as a woman in a technological field, but the perspectives of people of color as well.

Plus, the book is just cool. Mars is cool. Astronauts are awesome. Though the plot is often more political jockeying than breathless action after that initial section, it never feels slow. Partially because of the debilitating anxiety Elma experiences when speaking to groups (especially groups of men), even simple meetings are braced with tension. And while it is but the first in a duology—The Fated Sky was released only a few months later—it follows a clear trajectory right through to a transcendent conclusion, one that made me tear up—not out of sadness but in wonder.

Why it won’t win: 

I’m at a bit of a loss here. The Calculating Stars does face some stiff competition this year, though I think its most direct comes by way of Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver. They are both books by well established writers (whose first series, curiously, were both alt-Regency) who have serious chops. But even then, in historical terms, science fiction tends to beat out fantasy for best novel honors at the Nebulas. Honestly, The Calculating Stars has about the best chance to win of the nominees, based on the precedents and tendencies of Nebula voters in past years. But people are not statistics, and they may break for fairy tales over alt-history this year. Nebula voters have been tending more to fantasy than they did 30 years ago, so it’s not as strong an indicator as it once was.

Either way, you better believe that the next book on my to-read pile is The Fated Sky. I wouldn’t miss it. You shouldn’t either.

We’ll have one more entry in this year’s Blogging the Nebulas series, making our final prediction as to who will win. Look for that on Friday, May 17. In the meantime, find reviews of this year’s other nominees here. Previous years’ Blogging the Nebulas entries are here.

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