Alternate history stories always bug me, because I want to know everything when it comes to how different the world is. In The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, we have a world that is driven to the psychological and physical brink of extinction and then proceeds to fall right back into old habits, despite one literal earth-shattering event.
It all begins when a large meteorite plummets to Earth and destroys most of the east coast of the United States in 1952. This ignites a global surge into the space age because once the fallout of the impact settles, it will only be a few handfuls of years before humanity may find their familiar home inhospitable. This is where Elma York enters, as a former WASP pilot and a brilliant mathematician she is uniquely placed to be involved with the International Aerospace Coalition’s mission to colonize space and put a man on the moon. The only problem is that Elma isn’t content with just a man on the moon, she wants to be an astronaut.
When it all comes down to it, this book is a fantastic look of the 1950s(things haven’t changed as much as we’d like), gender dynamics, race, and the amazingly short term memory and attention span humans have. All of this rolling out in the 400 pages or so that Kowal has managed to write out. And she did a bang-up job telling a story, which at its core is deeply personal, but overarching in its message, because if humanity wants to achieve any sort of independence from Earth, then it’s going to take more than just the United States to do it. Kowal managed to create a very human story that is centered around the desperate fight to save the human race from its more oblivious or indifferent members. And this personable story is centered around a very fun, authentic pair of scientists.
Elma York is a great woman to follow, who is both bold and brave when talking numbers, but also incredibly anxious when she has to speak or do anything with a crowd watching. Elma’s husband Nathaniel is wonderful as both a man and husband and their newlywed romance is a refreshing point of interest, especially in the context of the impending disaster. If anything Nathaniel may be too perfect through some lenses, but the novelty of it was great all the same.
Kowal wrestles with not only humanity’s struggles with race, gender, and traditional ideas but with science itself. The research that can be clearly felt in this novel and see by the biography at the back, affirms that plenty of homework was done to make sure that the math and launches feel real and not only window dressing.
Clearly, a lot went into this novel and it did not go unnoticed, which is one reason why it isn’t a surprise that this novel won the Nebula and is also a Hugo finalist. Encompassing not only women’s struggle, but the struggle of African Americans, Kowla has brought this novel full circle to show that the problems in her novel, based in the 1950s are still surrounding us today. And it is all the more haunting that such issues in her novel remain when fire rained down from the sky.
Readers of historical fiction or science fiction should be pleasantly tickled by this novel. People who saw the movie Hidden Figures will absolutely adore this book.