Elma York and her husband Nathaniel are on a long deserved vacation in the Poconos after a very busy time at work, when an world altering event happens: a meteor strikes DC and the eastern seaboard, leading to massive destruction, earthquakes and tidal waves. If Elma and Nathaniel had been home, they never would have survived, and it’s a miracle they make it out of the Poconos alive, using their unique expertise from working in the space program to predict some of the immediate after affects and plan their escape accordingly.
Elma was a WASP pilot, and has PhD in math and physics, while her husband is an engineer in the US space program. They end up at a military base immediately after the impact, and Elma is the first to make the calculations that identify this event is an extinction level event. Due to the location of the impact, the world will experience a few years of cooling followed by global heating until the Earth will be uninhabitable. Due to this, while the government focuses on ways to rebuild, the world also works together to on an accelerated space program with the goal to colonize the Moon and Mars to save humanity.
Set in the 1950s, the novel explores many of the themes that Hidden Figures brought to the light as far as women and race in the space program. Elma is a computer but she also dreams of more, and wants to be an astronaut. She faces sexism and discrimination, but also finds a very supportive group of friends in her women’s flight club, and has her eyes opened to racial injustices. Due to the club, she is able to get public sentiment on the side of allowing women into the program – after all colonization does require women, and her media appearances get the conversation to shift from comparing space exploration and colonization to Christopher Columbus’s voyages and to realize that the pilgrims are a more apt comparison to use. The novel also shows the racism involved in this program with the program primarily having white male astronauts to start, and indirectly raises questions about who might be left out of colonization efforts based on the official approaches to pilot/astronaut selection.
Elma does have a bit of a nemesis at work, Colonel Parker, someone she had previously worked with during the war, and she also struggles with anxiety regarding public appearances based on her school experiences. Despite all the high stakes of the novel and the conflicts Elma faces, it also never seems like her issues are insurmountable and they feel more like minor hurdles on her path rather than true obstacles. Her husband is incredibly supportive and very modern, and is always her number 1 cheerleader when Elma faces sexism and questions about her place as a woman in the work force. He almost seems unreal.
Basically, as much as I enjoyed this novel, the careful and detailed exploration of the premise, the dive into the women’s lives and relationships, I also felt like there was some tension lacking in the plot because of how easily Elma seemed to deal with everything. I mean, she’s obviously a genius and a good pilot so of course she would be able to prove herself in all these situations and it was an enjoyable read, but I think that lack of question of whether she’d be able to succeed also prevented the novel from being great rather than just really good.