BOOK REVIEW | The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
The Calculating Stars is a science fiction novel based around an alternative narrative of space flight after disaster strikes the USA.
The story starts in 1952, with Elma York and her husband, Nathaniel, taking a break in their mountain cabin. As they are doing what a married couple do, disaster strikes the USA and the rest of the world, when a meteorite strikes Washington DC with a force greater than the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in firestorms that rages for hundreds of miles and other extinction level disasters.
Not only does the meteorite destroy most of the Eastern Seaboard, but the result is an extinction level event that has repercussions all around the world, and to the future of Planet Earth.
The event will lead to the climate drastically changing and the Earth will become a barren wasteland, unfit for human habitation.
As a result, the remaining US Government begins to hasten its plans for space travel with the goal being that humanity will spread amongst the stars and humanity will colonise other planets in order to maintain its survival
As the International Aerospace Coalition (IAC) sends men into space. One woman, Elma York. An experienced pilot in World War 2 with the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) and who is now employed at the IAC, will fight to send women into space.
Elma’s struggle to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that she will challenge the conventions of society for the right of women to fly to space as well as men
For those expecting a science fiction driven book full of space ships etc, I would turn away now. However, if you prefer a character driven story with science fiction and alternative histories as its backdrop carry on. It is not say that there are no sci fi elements in the book, it is just that they are interlinked into the story so well you do not notice them as much.
Mary Robinette has cleverly developed a character driven narrative and whilst the book has some grand sweeping sci fi aesthetics, they are well and truly placed in the background in favour of telling the story of our main character, Elma York, as she recovers from the shock of the disaster that is central to the story, to her fighting for the rights of women to be considered equal to men and be sent in to space as astronauts.
The story starts in 1952, and Kowal’s story captures you immediately when you learn of the first effects of the meteorite. This first part of the book deals with the immediate aftermath of the explosion as Elma and Nathaniel first navigate through the horrific aftereffects. As the story progresses, Kowal eloquently describes the shock and grief that Elam experiences and the feelings of displacement as she realises that she is a refugee.
However, the book covers a massive time span, I think it is about nine years in all and we follow Elma through that initial shock to her role as an astronaut. Let me tell you, a lot goes on in this book! At first, we deal with the impact of the meteorite, both it’s personal cost to Elma, and the wider effects on the earth. Secondly, as the book moves on the book deals with how the effects of the meteorite are dealt with and what solutions are raised to deal with the disaster. And finally, the book then moves onto Elma’s life in the IAC and her struggle to become an astronaut. Interwoven with all that, Elma and her husband, Nathaniel rebuild their lives in the wake of the meteor.
The characters in this book stand out so much. I think that it helped that I listened to the audio version of this book and Mary Robinette Kowal’s narration really brought the character of Elma to life. In fact, I have got to admit that I developed a little bit of a literary crush on the character of Elma. She is at once endearing, smart (she is a maths genius that can compute numbers with an almost preternatural ability), strong and can cook fantastic pie, bliss.
That is not to say that Elma is a perfect character, in fact she is far from it, as at times she can be utterly unaware of things that are happening around her and also a little self-absorbed. As she moves through the story, she battles sexism, racism and anti-Semitism in order to reach her goals. In addition to that she also must battle her own mental health problems.
Apart from Elma, other good characters are peppered throughout the book. The villain of the piece, Stetson Parker is also a good springboard for Elma as he represents everything bad about the male dominated world that she inhabits, and she clashes with him constantly throughout the book. However, he does not fall into a total parody of the typical male sexist and he becomes quite a rounded character as the book progresses.
At times, I did find some of the characters a bit two dimensional and I did have a problem with some of the sexy time scenes, I have to say. For me, they went a bit too much into the realms of double entendre. However, this might be my problem and no one else’s.
This is a surprisingly good book that I really enjoyed. I say surprisingly, not in the sense that I did not expect it to be, but in the fact that I actually knew very little about it and did not read the blurb about what the story was about. The book delivers laughs, emotions and is an engaging read from start to finish.