It’s finally time for my first Sci-Fi Month review! I feel like I’ve been slow in getting started, but I definitely started with a winner…
Series: Lady Astronaut #1 | Publisher: Tor Books | This edition: Kindle | Rating: 5/5
On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.
Elma York’s experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too.
Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.
It occurred to me while I was reading this book – and bear with me, this is going somewhere – that, judging by what television and films give us, if most people were to think of the term “period drama” they would think of Jane Austen, the Regency era, corsets and manners and very English people. Pride and Prejudice, Downtown Abbey, etc. They would probably not think of something like this book.
But that’s the thing. I like to think of a period drama as one that evokes not necessarily that specific time period, but simply any time period that captures a generation not our own, or a historically significant event/series of events. Jane Austen might be the default, but what about everything that’s happened in the last century?
With that question in mind, it’s one of the most significant technological advancements of our time that provides the setting and the focus of this novel. The space race encapsulated everything that makes a good period drama: the politics, the prevailing social attitudes, even the fashion trends – they all play their part in making this novel so wonderfully evocative of a period in history that we can only look back on, now. And Mary Robinette Kowal handles it all with remarkable loving care.
That doesn’t mean that she puts rose-tinted lenses on this view into the past. She plays with historical accuracy, of course – she has to, it’s a science fiction novel – but I first discovered her work by reading The Glamourist Histories, which were undoubtedly more your usual period drama kind of story, and I fell in love not just with the expected trappings of it, but all the little ways in which Ms Kowal subverted them. In those novels, the protagonist is a woman in possession of skills that it’s considered inappropriate of her to possess, never mind use. Her story is one of fighting established ideas about her proper place, as much as any physical or material threat.
Ms Kowal does the same with The Calculating Stars, and all it took was the threat of the world ending. It’s bitterly ironic that, when it comes to accepting women as their equals, some men will fight it even when they’ve all just survived a war, and then while a global climate disaster is looming. You’d think they had bigger and more important things to worry about than who got credit for what.
You would think.
But while this book focuses on the struggles women face in society as much as that society’s struggle to survive, it certainly never implies that these women are flawless just because they’re all smart, and all fighting the same fight. They all have their own internal struggles because they’re not all the same, and certainly not flawless. Elma, in particular, landed a few emotional gut-punches on me as a protagonist. Namely, because she suffers from anxiety. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, she has to face this problem and deal with it while having internalised so much of the stigma that still surrounds the issues of mental disorders today.
It’s my view that any period drama will only succeed in hooking an audience if it somehow feels relevant. Pretty clothes and quaint manners aren’t enough. As with any truly engaging story, it has to go deeper, and what lies beneath the surface of a person’s manners isn’t always glamorous or even attractive. From the beginning, we see Elma as a person with a brilliant mind who’s capable of remarkable things – heck, the book begins with her and her husband surviving a meteorite strike by their wits, and Elma’s pilot skills, alone. That sets a wonderfully reassuring tone for the book, but for any of the conflict to feel personal it has to come from within a person. Elma’s struggle with her anxiety made her painfully real to me; the genuine warmth and solidity of her relationship to Nathaniel, her husband, is what reassured me through the worst of it.
(Dr Nathaniel York is a male ally, written perfectly. I don’t care how cynical you are about such things – we need more of this.)
I need to sum up before I really give in to rambling.
The Calculating Stars is absolutely one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s perhaps not unique, thanks to all of its parallels with Hidden Figures (the film was released around the same time), but as Ms Kowal herself points out in the afterword, this is more reason to celebrate the existence of both. We know all about what the male astronauts who were the face of America’s Space Race managed to achieve. We need more stories about the women who got them there. We need more stories about history’s women. Period.
So rather than just flailing in my excitement about this book, I want to thank the author for writing it. And with that done, I’m going to go and buy The Fated Sky, and find out what happens next.