Elma York has a PhD in physics, and her husband has one in engineering. They are enjoying a much-deserved weekend getaway in the Poconos in 1952 when a huge meteorite destroys Washington DC and much of the North American eastern seaboard. Experts fear the aftermath will create an extinction-level event, and this accelerates the race to the stars. Elma has a front row seat, but she wants more; she wants to go into space.
2018’s The Calculating Stars is the first novel of Mary Robinette Kowal’s LADY ASTRONAUT series. Kowal has written two short stories, “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” and “We Interrupt this Broadcast” set in this world, but in this book, through the eyes of Elma, we watch as Americans go into space for the first time — American men, that is. We watch, too, as Elma and a handful of others fight for women’s rights to be astronauts. The book spans four years as Elma and her friends fight for the right to go into space, and we see who is chosen, and who, once again, is left behind.
I enjoyed this book very much, due mostly to the distinctive narrative voice of Elma, our first-person narrator. Elma, the daughter of a general, was a WASP pilot during World War II. She is a math genius. She is Jewish, raised in the American South in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. She has an intelligent, strong, loving husband, a passel of insecurities and flaws, and a wicked sense of humor. And she loves to fly. One of best things in the book are the moments when Elma seems to forget the story for a moment and drools over a plane… or when she describes flying.
Elma has a strong man at her side, but she has an equally strong male adversary in test pilot Parker Stetson. Elma knew Stetson during the war. He was known for groping the other WASPS, all of whom feared to complain because of retaliation. Elma, the general’s daughter, reported him. As far as she ever knew, nothing came of her complaint, but Parker has never forgiven her, and he makes it his mission to see that she never gets into space. Parker is a good character: a raging sexist who is a good pilot and an excellent teacher, a man with pain and sorrow in his own life. And he definitely has the ability to ground Elma permanently.
Despite the shocking drama of the opening section and the seriousness of the catastrophe (life on Earth ending) The Calculating Stars’ story is only about an accelerated space race. It isn’t even a race in the sense of our historic competition with the USSR, but rather an international effort headed by the US. Elma becomes one of the women computers who writes the formulae for the orbital mechanics; she also, almost accidentally, become a spokesperson for “lady astronauts” (a name she hates) and a role model for little girls. She gathers around her a group of other women pilots: many WASPS, but several who were excluded from military service, although they were excellent pilots, because of the color of their skin. For an adult southern woman in the 1950s, Elma is surprisingly politically correct, almost immediately becoming enlightened to the issues to discrimination without much internal struggle. I only found this jarring because Elma’s southern voice was so complete and distinctive throughout the book. I never doubted that this woman had been raised in the south. Her expert use of that classic southern expression, “Why, bless your heart,” alone demonstrated that. And yet, confronted with the anger of a brilliant black woman pilot, Elma reacts not defensively, but with humility and grace. For a character who definitely has flaws and weaknesses, this was a surprise.
Elma’s primary weakness is a crippling anxiety, one that is well-grounded in her adolescence, convincingly portrayed and creates a real, and serious, threat to her ability to go into space. It makes a compelling counterpoint to a woman who never doubts a single mathematical answer she gives.
This story is all about Elma, so my one big complaint about The Calculating Stars is not exactly a criticism. I might call it a preference. The backdrop of Kowal’s alternate-history is the meteorite impact. In 1952, the entire US governance structure is destroyed; the resultant environmental changes create a “Meteor winter” for several years, followed by steadily rising global temperatures. Kowal uses snippets of newspaper headlines to indicate some global changes, but basically life doesn’t change much. They had four years of global cooling, but there are no food or coffee shortages. There is one food riot at a grocery store, but I’ve seen more consumer unrest at malls on Black Friday. In addition to nearly all of the Executive, Administrative and Judicial branches being wiped out, all of the government bureaucracy is gone; the Library of Congress, all government records. Every single state, in addition to finding space for refugees and dealing with stunning national grief, must mount new elections, and yet by 1956, when Elma’s husband Nathaniel is testifying in front of Congress, literally nothing has changed. No radicals of either party were elected; Nathaniel’s Congressional adversary is a traditional, nearly stereotypical, obstructive politician. There is no religious unrest except for one individual who is portrayed as insane. I suspect that these issues are merely dormant and will rear their heads in the second book, The Fated Sky, but it was a hole in the story for me, all the same. I understand that Elma is living and working in a “bubble,” but even when she goes out with friends for a meal, it is always at a glamorous restaurant that is “pre-Meteor.” I would have liked to see her grab a sandwich at one “post-Meteor” diner just for contrast.
As I said, I know this isn’t a book about how a world, a nation, or even a town deals with a cataclysmic change. It’s about a woman pilot who desperately wants to go into space, and the obstacles, internal and external, that she must conquer to do so. For that, and for the sheer delight of Kowal’s descriptions of flying, I recommend The Calcuating Stars.
I’d read some of the short stories from Kowal’s “punchcard punk” universe before reading The Calculating Stars, so I knew I was in for a treat here, and was I ever right! Extremely competent ladies taking care of business (and working overtime, woo); exacting scientific details about extinction-level meteorite strikes and orbital mechanics; well-meaning people being forced to confront and overcome social and racial prejudices; a narrative concept so plausibly and skillfully told that I had an anxiety knot deep in my gut during the whole time that I was reading. Good thing I already have The Fated Sky on hand so that I don’t have to wait even a moment to find out what happens next to Dr. Elma York!