There is a tendency in some corners of science fiction to face backwards on the rocket: especially when it comes to stories exploring the early days of crewed space travel, the technological advances of the past become intertwined with the myth of “kinder, simpler” times, resulting in romanticized portraits of a period every bit as culturally complex and chaotic as our present day.
More honest, and honestly, more interesting, is the sort of fidelity presented in Mary Robinette Kowal‘s The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky, two new novels set in the same alternate history as her Hugo-winning novelette “The Lady Astronaut of Mars.” Not just fidelity to the laws of physics and the science of engineering, but to the social, political, and cultural realities facing women and marginalized groups in mid-20th Century America—even one radically impacted, quite literally, by a giant rock falling from the sky.
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The Calculating Stars opens in 1953, prior to the events of “The Lady Astronaut…”, on the lives of doctors Elma and Nathaniel York. Elma is a pilot, veteran, and brilliant mathematician. Nathaniel is a principled, methodical, and gifted engineer. They’re enjoying a short holiday when a meteor lands in Chesapeake Bay. Being scientists, Elma and Nathaniel don’t panic. They work the problem, determine what they need to do to survive, and do it. At the heart of vast drama and destruction on an almost incalculable scale, is a profoundly loving relationship between equals, just two brilliant people doing what they do best.
When it becomes apparent the impact has caused catastrophic damage at the crash site and, in the mid-term, to the planet’s ecosystem, Elma and Nathaniel become part of a relief effort not just for the country, but for the entire world. They’re the ones who figure out what the incident will mean for the climate, and how long we have left as Earth’s dominant species. They’re the ones who figure out the answer to humanity’s future lies on other worlds. And, with Nathaniel as chief engineer and Elma as a computer (the literal term for the women who calculated the math needed for flights), they’re at the forefront of an accelerated space program with goals drastically different from those that fueled our own history’s space race.
As I touched on in our interview with Kowal, the novel breaks down into three sections, exploring the immediate aftermath of the impact; the growth of a multi-national space exploration body and the movement to bring female astronauts to active duty; and Elma’s own journey into space, and the price she pays for it. In the latter two sections in particular, even as she details a truly plausible changed past, Kowal crafts one of the most subtle, nuanced explorations of anxiety as a concept I’ve ever encountered in fiction.
Elma is an instinctive math genius, a great pilot, and an empathetic leader, but she’s also someone who was pushed too hard as a child, and has had to struggle to succeed in environments hostile to her gender. As the book progresses, Kowal shows us just how much damage Elma’s past circumstances have done to her, and how much more could happen to scuttle her career, and by extension, those of the other women fighting their way into orbit beside her.
It’s a fiercely compassionate, clear-eyes, and clever novel, exploring mental health through the lens of one of the most buttoned up periods of western history, the consequences of grief and loss on people of faith, and its even greater fallout on those faithful who work in the sciences. It picks at the mindset that kept women out of orbit for decades, and offers up Elma as a logical catalyst to change that, or lock them away from the stars forever. And, most of all, it develops her as a real person rather than an untouchable icon: brilliant, heroic, and just as human as the rest of us.
Kowal also explores the implicit racism of the space program, and Elma’s growing realization of the problem. As a heroine, she is never knowingly cruel, but she also tends to miss what her colleagues have accomplished until it’s pointed out to her. Elma is fallible without failing, human without being shackled to the Earth, or worse, the kitchen sink. That makes her victories all the harder fought, all the more satisfying and all the more relatable. She’s one of the most well-rounded, interesting heroines you’ll encounter this year, and her story only grows more layered and interesting in the second volume.
The Fated Sky picks up a couple of years after the events of the first book, by which time Elma is an active service pilot working on the newly established lunar colony. But when an accident, and crime, bring her back to the public eye, the space program’s director seizes the opportunity to use Elma’s fame as a tool and reassigns her to the Mars mission (bumping her close friend Helen Carmouche from the roster to do so). The reasoning is simple; budgets are being cut, and the Lady Astronaut ensures press attention that will loosen pursestrings. The consequences for the crew are anything but simple.
Elma makes no secret of the fact she wants the job, but is broken up about the circumstances under which she got it, and the exploration of the fallout sees these books truly delivering on their premise. Elma’s fractious relationship with her new crew, led by old nemesis Stetson Parker, might serve as a standalone novel on their own. Here, they’re the backdrop to a story both more personal and far larger. Elma is a brave, brilliant astronaut. But she’s also a southern, Jewish white lady, and the novel is at its strongest exploring her realization of the way her own background defines her perspective. When someone points out to her the obvious institutional racism on display in the mission’s duty rosters, Elma wants to help, but learns, painfully, that her first instincts were self-serving, centering attention on her rather than those in need of assistance. It’s a deftly handled exploration of the concept of white privilege in a manner utterly in keeping with the time period.
Within this larger context, Kowal continually upends expectations. After one ship suffers a horrible viral outbreak, the moments that follow illustrate the difference between ground crew and flight crew, as Elma and her colleague are called on to do something utterly unspeakable. In another chilling extended sequence, the crew loses contact with Earth, not because of something wrong on the ship, but because of a disaster back home. Time and again, Kowal finds new directions through the cramped corridors of narrative and scientific realism. Time and again, the result is a memorable character beat, a well-earned emotional payoff, or both.
For all the invention on display, these are fundamentally stories about human kindness. Stetson Parker’s hidden depths, and the gradual not-quite friendship blossoming between Elma and her captain, lead to profoundly moving moments; likewise, the way Elma uses her relationship with Nathaniel as something to both put her back against and a foundation to build on.
These are fantastic novels, exploring many strands of a single massive story (one that will continue in at least two more volumes). It is a story of humanity evolving into the ideals we so often see and strive for in science fiction. It is also a story about sexism, racism, mental trauma, and sudden death, and shot through with pocket protectors, short-sleeved button-up shirts, and exhausted men and women hunched in control rooms, willing their colleagues to succeed. It is a story about ambition and hope, family, and exploration. While glancing backwards, it is a story that races into a future in some ways brighter than the one history gave us. Join Doctor Elma York and her intrepid colleagues there. You’ll be so glad you did.