These two books by Mary Robinette Kawal are a prequel to her earlier short story The Lady Astronaut of Mars and tell the story of the accelerated human exploration of space triggered by a catastrophic event. Our protagonist is Dr Elma York a young(ish) woman who is a mathematical prodigy and qualified pilot – having flown with the WASPs during the WW2. In these books we follow her journey through the 1950s to the 1960s dealing with a world in crisis, prejudice, and her own emotional issues as humankind has to make some big steps that not everyone is ready to cope with.
The first book features the world coping with the immediate aftermath of a meteorite strike that takes out the Eastern Seaboard and creates an immediate “nuclear winter” with a longer term forecast of a runaway greenhouse effect. Elma and her husband Nathaniel (also Dr York) are both scientists and are called to work on the project to give humanity a chance in the stars. Due to the constraints of the era Elma is restricted to being a “computer” whilst her husband is the chief engineer.
The novel explores a world that was already running parallel to ours before the event but accelerates after it. But it builds from the point that our prejudices still exist. Elma has to deal with sexism and intolerance (including about her Jewish faith) when she wants to become an astronaut but she can be blind to it herself. It takes other people pointing it out to her before she realises that black people aren’t being rescued from devastated areas, that there are qualified black pilots not even getting a chance. She also has to deal with crippling anxiety and self-worth issues which I could identify with (struggling with audiences, difficultly believing she deserved opportunities).
I also appreciated the way they handled the relationships in the book. Elma and Nathaniel have a good marriage and didn’t always agree but they talked to each other when things went wrong – it’s too easy to have married characters either be perfect or always arguing. This was a more realistic take. The other relationship I liked was Elma and Stetson Parker – hotshot pilot, misogynist, and occasional asshole. The characters had real personal issues founded on an incident when younger (Elma reported him for harassment and was listened to as she had the privilege of being a General’s daughter, other women apparently didn’t have that…) but it was never black & white – he wasn’t the bad guy.
The book ends on an upbeat note as Elma makes it to space and then we headed straight into the sequel
Elma is now a shuttle pilot on a lunar base (Artemis) that is becoming a little colony as humankind plans it’s next steps to Mars. She’s turned down the opportunity of being on the first Mars trip because it’s three years away from her husband and the radiation exposure means she’ll be unlikely to have children. But funding is tight and some people want to scrap the trip – publicity will be better if the Lady Astronaut is on board – so Elma is asked to join the crew.
Most of this book is about the training for Mars and the journey there. And here racial prejudice becomes an even bigger topic as conflicts on Earth and with the crew lead to escalating tension. Two manned craft are heading to Mars and one has an entirely white crew as onboard is an Afrikaans pilot who is a complete racist and has tried to get the black astronauts on the other ship thrown off (through attempts to indicate they’re subversives working with an anti-space group “Earth First”). Incidents onboard illustrate the high cost of prejudice where he’d almost rather die than be treated by an Asian Muslim doctor.
This book also dives deeper in Elma’s unthinking prejudices – she’s so focused on getting the mission she’s ignored the fact that she got another East Asian woman kicked off the crew, she doesn’t notice the black crew members are mostly on cleaning duty, she barely realises two crew members are gay and in a relationship. And it also deals more with Stetson Parker and does a fantastic job of humanising him. I gradually realised that we were seeing him through Elma’s eyes and if you look from another perspective it felt very different – he’s a talented, multilingual, people leader who cared about his team and didn’t tolerate prejudice (probably better at dealing with racial issues than Elma). His and Elma’s issues are personal and he was a product of his era – which doesn’t excuse his behaviour but did allow him to grow past it. By the end of the book there are some incredibly touching scenes and definite growth from both of them.
I started the first book last year and for some reason struggled to get past 10%. This year I flew through it in a few days and immediately did the same to the sequel. The books are not perfect and you can be forgiven for struggling with the character of Elma. I think that’s what I did until I realised that she is supposed to be flawed and whilst the books are from her perspective it’s possible to look from the outside in and then it gets more interesting to see how a character’s own prejudices and perceptions can affect a story.
Also just generally this is a must read for anyone who is interested in how women have been, and should always have been, at the heart of the space race and their impact on technology