Mary Robinette Kowal seems to lean towards alternate history in her speculative fiction writing. The Glamourist Histories re-imagines the regency era with illusion magic. Ghost Talkers creates a WWII in which spiritual mediums talk to recently dead soldiers to get information on battles. In The Lady Astronaut novels, Kowal has dreamed up an alternate timeline where a gigantic meteorite strikes the Atlantic just off the East coast of the United States in 1952, destroying much of the Eastern seaboard and annihilating most of the US government. Recovering from that would have been bad enough but due to hitting the water instead of land, enormous amounts of water vapor went into the atmosphere, enough to block out seeing the stars, and this is the beginning of runaway green house gas effect that will steadily increase the temperature of the planet such that it will become unlivable for humans. The only option for the human race is to colonize in space.
Dr. Elma York is a brilliant mathematician and pilot, loving wife, Southerner, Jew, and was a Woman Airforce Service Pilot in WWII. She also has extreme anxiety when put in the spotlight. Throughout the novel she struggles with her anxiety, from the symptoms, including vomiting, to the shame she feels at this perceived weakness and concern at what others would think if they knew. As someone who grapples with my own mental health, I identified with much of Elma’s challenges and related to her in a way that I don’t often do with fiction characters.
Elma and her husband are among the first to recognize the repercussions of the meteorite strike and face an uphill climb convincing people that the fallout will be as bad as they predict. After all it’s hard to convince people that the planet is going to get to extreme high temperatures when the immediate aftermath of the disaster had plunged the world into unseasonable coldness. This feels incredibly relevant as we have so many climate deniers who refuse to look at the science and insist we are going to be okay regardless the data. Fortunately, in the book, there are those in power who do understand and set about catapulting the space industry to get humanity to the point of colonization as quickly as possible.
After WWII Elma put her mathematics to use by becoming a computer, a job she quickly resumed after the disaster to assist in the space effort. And while she finds a sense of purpose in providing calculations and creating equations for others to use, what Elma really wants to do is become an astronaut. While facing misogyny at every turn, Elma also becomes aware of her own blindness to the systemic racism that surrounds her. Struggling through her anxiety disorder and being frustrated by the sexism and racism that prevents qualified candidates from being admitted to the program, Elma pushes forward determined that for the space program to be successful it must include women and people of color.
I really enjoyed The Calculating Stars. The story felt timeless in regards to sexism, racism, environmentalism, and how popular opinion can sway even the most stubborn minded. The title is in reference to the women computers who the space program would be lost without. I have not read or seen Hidden Figures but I suspect if you liked that you will like this. The Calculating Stars is the first half of a duology that concludes with The Fated Sky, which I have just started reading. I am eager to find out how the story will end and if humanity will find a new home among the stars.