When my book club chose our next read, The Calculating Stars (2018) by Mary Robinette Kowal, I’d never heard of it. The premise was promising, though, and from the outside, it looked pretty good. Apparently, it is the first book in “The Lady Astronaut” series and the winner of some awards, including the Nebula and Hugo for Best Novel.
In an alternate history of the 1950’s, a meteor strikes the Earth, causing tragedy and destruction as well as the promise of an inhospitable planet. The race to space is pushed forward with more urgency because the Earth will be warming up. I wasn’t quite sure how this premise was going to get women into space in the 1950’s, but I was interested to see what Kowal was going to do with this story.
If I had to describe this book in one word, it would be disappointing. Some of this stems from the friend who submitted this book for book club. She told me that if I liked The Martian, I would like The Calculating Stars. Well, I loved The Martian. It was one of my favorite books of 2015, and I yearn to have another reading experience as satisfying as when I stumbled upon that book. I cannot understand how she would equate it with The Calculating Stars. They are nothing alike. Nothing.
Elma York is a “computer” at “NACA” and a former WASP in WWII. She is a savant with numbers, and she is happily married to Nathan, the lead engineer of the space program. When a meteorite hits the Earth, the space program is moved to the heartland. Elma realizes that because of all the water in the air from the strike, the Earth will cool for some years and then begin to warm. It will grow hotter exponentially until the Earth becomes uninhabitable.
My favorite parts of the book were the beginning and the end. I thought Kowal did all right with the meteorite strike and the flight out to safety. I also enjoyed some of the insight into the astronaut training, which was about the last fifth of the book. The middle of the book, however, was repetitive and boring, with many lost opportunities. Elma does a lot of math and lives her life, but there was nothing that drew me in. There was also no sense of urgency driving the space program. Without any details regarding how the space program would save humanity or how they would choose who to save, the consequences felt very low. In fact, why is the moon or Mars a better option than a warm Earth? The Earth might be warmer (we never get any specific numbers), but I’d choose it over the Moon which ranges from 260 degrees F to -280 degrees F and no air to breathe. How is this a viable option?
Kowal brings up a lot of issues in this book, including: racism, sexism, religion, mental health, climate change, women in the space program, and survival. But these issues are addressed in such a clumsy and superficial way, that it trivializes them. For instance, Kowal could have done so much with a woman struggling in a male-dominated space. Whether it was at school, as a WASP, or as an astronaut, Kowal could have focused on the isolation, the judgment, and the assumption that women couldn’t do the job. She could have shown how the men dismissed her opinions, said she wasn’t a “real” woman, didn’t listen to her, and left her out of group projects. Instead, school was hard because she was so good, the teachers used her as an example, and the guys in her classes were jealous. Later, some of the men she’s worked with are handsy, but not to her, because her father was a General and her husband is very important.
I appreciate that Kowak was trying to make her book diverse, but her characters are flat and she does not adequately address the reality of racial discrimination. There’s an Asian woman. You can tell she’s Asian because Kowak says so, and she speaks in stilted English. The most distinguishing feature of the first Black woman Elma meets is that her house is really, really clean. Her son also goes to Cal Tech, which is interesting because after the first Black man graduated from Cal Tech in 1932, there was not another one at the school until 1961. Access to higher education and homes was a huge barrier for minorities that had long-term consequences, but it’s something that Kowal blithely ignores.
The relationship between Elma and her husband was also underwhelming. He is the most understanding man in the world and supports her in everything. He is thrilled when she gets accepted into the astronaut program. There is no discussion about the danger or their possible separation. They also had a lot of sex, which isn’t bad, except when it becomes monotonous.
Finally, Elma’s biggest problem in getting into space is that she couldn’t stand attention. It made her throw up. It got so bad at Stanford that she tried to kill herself–which was not given nearly enough attention or explanation. She begins to take some kind of popular tranquilizer that helps a little, but she doesn’t want to use it during astronaut training. Parker uses this knowledge to try to keep her out of the space program, but when it comes out everyone’s fine with it. Again, mental health is a worthy topic when fully addressed, but it was not satisfying here. It was kind of an issue and then disappeared without any real solution. It also left me with the feeling that Elma should not be going to space. There is a huge public relations aspect to space and it’s not for everyone. There is so much isolation and so few resources that it makes sense to only send the healthiest, both mentally and physically, up into space.
I could go on, but I’ve already spent a ridiculous amount of time on this review. Although there were a couple interesting parts, I wouldn’t recommend this one. I wanted more depth and more science.
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