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The Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette KowalThe Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Lady Astronaut of Mars, which won this year’s Hugo Award for best novelette, moved me. It was well-structured, all the ends tucked in and callbacks in the right places. It used symbolism and literary reference and pointed to issues of the human condition at large, like career versus family. All of this would usually add up to five stars from me, particularly since the author has as beautiful a voice on the page as she does when she speaks. It’s the kind of strongly written, human story that wins Hugos, and it reminded me Mike Resnick‘s “The Homecoming,” also Hugo-nominated (though that one didn’t win).

But it’s one of those stories that bombards the characters with pain and just doesn’t let up on them. Now, that’s a legitimate way to write a powerful story, and this is a powerful story, but… it somehow felt like a trick to me, a way to build empathy quickly in a short compass which didn’t allow for a slower growth of identification through the actions the characters take. Instead, we come to empathise with them because of bad things that the author has happen to them and difficult decisions that they’re faced with because of the bad things. As I say, a legitimate way to write a story, but I still felt that my emotions were being deliberately manipulated by someone who knew exactly what she was doing — ironically enough, in exactly the way that the main character’s emotions were being manipulated by one of the other characters, something she resented.

The retrofuturistic setting of The Lady Astronaut of Mars leads to a couple of moments of near-infodump, too, and places it in an earlier age of science fiction. Again like the Resnick story, it could have been written 50 years ago, technologically speaking, and while this is also a legitimate thing to do, I do like my SF to look forward from today, not from 50 years ago.

The Lady Astronaut of Mars is very skilled and very powerful, but I was left with reservations.

Publication Date: May 27, 2014. Winner of the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Novelette. Thirty years ago, Elma York led the expedition that paved the way to life on Mars. For years she’s been longing to go back up there, to once more explore the stars. But there are few opportunities for an aging astronaut, even the famous Lady Astronaut of Mars. When her chance finally comes, it may be too late. Elma must decide whether to stay with her sickening husband in what will surely be the final years of his life, or to have her final adventure and plunge deeper into the well of space.


  • Mike Reeves-McMillan

    MIKE REEVES-MCMILLAN, one of our guest reviewers, has eight bookcases which are taller than he is in his basement, and 200 samples on his Kindle. He's trying to cut down. A lifelong lover of the written word, he's especially a fan of Jim Butcher, Lois McMaster Bujold, Terry Pratchett and Roger Zelazny. He reads a lot of indie fiction these days, and can report that the quality and originality are both improving rapidly. He himself writes the Gryphon Clerks fantasy series, and numerous short stories. Mike lives in Auckland, New Zealand, and also in his head, where the weather is more predictable and there are a lot more dragons. He rants about writing and genre at The Gryphon Clerks and about books he's read at The Review Curmudgeon.

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