Saturday 20 October 2018

The Calculating Stars — Review

In The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal offers an answer to one of alternate history’s most
The space race accelerates
in Mary Robinette Kowal's
new novels.
(Image via
important questions: ‘What if Seveneves was fun to read?’

While we quite enjoyed Seveneves, many readers described it as a bit dry.

A comparison between the two books is apt. Seveneves and The Calculating Stars are books that explore many similar ideas, but they do so in very different ways that will appeal to different people.

Both works start with a celestial catastrophe that will eventually make the planet uninhabitable and feature a re-invigorated space program that finds ways for the human race to continue without the Earth. Both works have feminist themes and both offer perspectives about how science and politics conflict.

Although The Calculating Stars is an alternate history in which an asteroid impact jump-starts an international space program in the early 1950s, it hews to the conventions and structures of the classic science fiction space exploration novel. This story is less about how the historical dominoes fall after a point of divergence, and more about how people work together to solve problems.

These problems range from purely technical ones, such as survival over long periods in outer space, to larger social challenges such as combating institutional racism. It is evident that Kowal has done her research on these subjects, delving into historical accounts of racially marginalized workers in the early days of the US space program.

The book’s protagonist Elma York is a mathematical prodigy and pilot who fights an uphill battle to become one of the first women in space. She is a likable protagonist from a very Heinleinian model - smart, resourceful and self-effacing. Her anxiety and self-doubt may get a bit grating at times, but the author does use these character issues to make serious points about the stigmatization of mental illness.

One of the aspects of the book that is particularly strong is the supporting cast, from the primary
Mary Robinette Kowal is best known
for her Hugo-winning short story
Lady Astronaut of Mars, which has
been expanded into these new novels.
(Image via
antagonist, heroic astronaut Stetson Parker, to Elma’s husband Nathaniel. It was refreshing to see a well-developed healthy romantic relationship in fiction. It was equally refreshing that every antagonist in the book was more than a one-note caricature — Parker has redeeming qualities despite his attitude towards Elma.

Mary Robinette Kowal is a clear, concise and thoughtful writer who structures her novels efficiently. The approachable writing style, enjoyable characters and straightforward narrative — not to mention the 1950s-era technological triumphalism — make the book feel like something Heinlein might have written had he been just a little more woke. 

Science fiction and fantasy have seen far too many trilogies over the years where the middle volume is largely irrelevant. Thankfully, Kowal eschews this trend by telling a story in two volumes, concluding with the sequel The Fated Sky. The narrative leaps forward in time by several years, but the story does not suffer. In fact, one wonders how many series might have been improved by such storytelling discipline.

Both Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky were published in 2018, and they could be nominated for best novel in tandem with one another, much as Connie Willis’ Blackout and All Clear were in 2011. But to our minds, the first of Kowal’s books is the strongest, and could easily have stood on its own. From the opening pages, in which Elma and her husband face disaster, all the way through to its elegant conclusion, this is an engaging narrative.

There is a long tradition of Hugo-Award winning short works being expanded into longer works that are later shortlisted in the best novel category. It would not be surprising to see The Calculating Stars — which is a prequel to Kowal’s Hugo-winner Lady Astronaut of Mars — make it to the Hugo ballot. We would be very pleased to see it there.

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