The Fated Sky (2018) continues Mary Robinette Kowal’s LADY ASTRONAUT series, covering the ground from the first peopled space flight ever to a peopled mission to Mars. Kowal has created an intriguing and exciting alternate history and there is nothing to stop her from writing more stories and books in it (more will be coming), but The Fated Sky completes Dr. Elma York’s pursuit of her dream.
When the book opens, Elma has not been chosen for the first peopled flight to Mars. Two teams are already in training. Elma is on the Moon, piloting shuttle flights for the engineers and scientists on the moon base. When she returns to Earth, though, a flight error and the crash of the rocket she’s on suddenly, drastically change things. Elma is offered a place on one of the Martian teams. It isn’t because of her skill set or experience; as “The Lady Astronaut,” Elma is the face of safe space travel, and her presence is largely dictated by public relations concerns.
While this is the answer to Elma’s dream, it is tainted in several ways. It will mean three years away from her husband Nathaniel; it means postponing, or probably abandoning, their plans for children, and more immediately, Elma discovers that she has displaced another scientist on the mission, a woman friend. It is hard not to notice that once again a white European-American woman has replaced a person of color.
The Fated Skies deals in-depth with racism. There are Black scientists on the Mars mission, but strangely, the duty roster never seems to give them meaningful assignments in their field. Leonard Flannery, who is Black, has the most experience with EVAs — spacewalks — than anybody on the two ships, but he is never assigned to one. Meanwhile, back on Eearth, a misguided activist attack by a group who fears that marginalized people will be left behind on a dying planet has fanned the flames of racism, and there is a concerted effort to tie Flannery to this “terrorist” group. The book is not just about racism, though: it’s about living in zero-gee; it’s about the day-to-day life aboard a space-craft; it’s about what astronauts do when things go wrong.
Several things do go wrong and Kowal writes about them with convincing authority. On the other craft, an outbreak of E.coli has fatal consequences for one crew member. A micro-asteroid collision creates a leak that must be patched, and most worryingly, the ships lose contact with Mission Control shortly beyond the halfway point of the mission.
Elma’s engaging narrative voice brings the LADY ASTRONAUT books to life, in humorous and tragic ways. Elma’s experience with something called “the bag” is written in unsparing, concrete details, interspersed with Elma reciting the prayer for the dead. It is harrowing. In other areas, plans for distilling alcohol, and deciding who has kitchen duty, provides levity, as does the crew’s interest in learning swears in each other’s languages.
Elma finally begins to understand the arrogant and prickly mission commander, Stetson Parker, much better. While one revelation about Parker is no real surprise, it is well done, and makes the détente between the two of them believable.
One concept that plays out is the idea that well-meaning people who think they are helping by “protecting” others are, in fact, enabling racism. Mission Control has decreed that Flannery will do nothing meaningful on the ship. This is to “protect” him because of the allegations back on Earth. Parker follows these orders, with some devastating consequences. Only then does he realize that the right thing to do is to give assignments to the best-qualified people.
It’s also made clear by a character of color that the academic degrees that make someone “most qualified” for space exploration are those that require wealth to complete, thus ensuring that certain people will always be screened out based “objectively” on “qualifications.”
As with The Calculating Stars, there is a leisurely sense during stretches of the book, which are basically Elma trying to fit in, and thinking about things. The book is not slow, and a lot happens in what is basically a year and a half. When I reviewed The Calculating Stars, I said I missed a sense of what things were like on Earth. With the racial tensions and the intervention of a group that tips over into terrorism, we get a better idea of what’s happening back home. This is all in service to the Mars mission; there is a sense of increased urgency as tidal waves, floods and hurricanes swirl over the earth’s surface.
I enjoyed the book and it made me think, but Kowal made a couple of choices that jarred me and threw me out of the narrative. The Mars launch happens in 1961, but Elma refers to “the Lost in Space robot” being more graceful than she was in a space suit. Lost in Space premiered in 1965. Even more distracting is the name of the activist group kicking up a fuss back home. It’s Earth First. Earth First! is the name of an actual ecological activist group. In 1990, two members in California were seriously injured by a bomb under the driver’s seat of their car, which the FBI said they put there themselves to transport it. While “Earth First” certainly fits the intent of the Earth group in the novel, Earth First! is still around today. I assume both of these anachronisms were intentional for some reason, because I can’t believe a Tor copy-editor wouldn’t catch them, but they are more disconcerting than intriguing. When Kowal has done so much research and paid so much attention to the details of space flight, these tiny things add up and undermine my faith in the story from time to time.
Overall, though, The Fated Sky completed Elma’s story and left me satisfied. I recommend reading both of these books close together, if not one right after the other, because they basically work as one long book. I like the characters who live in the alternate world, and the sense of adventure it brings.
I didn’t think it was possible for Mary Robinette Kowal to improve upon the spectacular storytelling within The Calculating Stars, but somehow she did for The Fated Sky. Returning characters like Elma York and Stetson Parker are given greater depths to their personalities and backgrounds, new characters like fellow astronauts Florence Grey and Leonard Flannery are actively changing history and popular culture by virtue of their contributions to the Mars lander project, and the continuing turmoil back home on Earth as people (very justifiably) fear being left behind adds a background note of constant stress while Dr. York and the others cope with trauma and peril on their long journey. The Fated Sky ticked all my boxes for a thrilling-yet-emotionally-brutal adventure in space, and I am all set to jump straight into The Relentless Moon next.