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The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette…

The Calculating Stars

by Mary Robinette Kowal

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1305131,642 (4.09)7



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THE CALCULATING STARS was amazing. Fans of science fiction and alternate history won't want to miss it. Even if you hate science fiction, this book is filled with such interesting characters and fine writing that you won't want to miss it.

Elma York and her husband Nathaniel are weekending in the Poconos when the world ends. A large meteorite impacts near Chesapeake Bay and destroys Washington, DC, and most of the eastern seaboard. The formal government is gone except for the Secretary of Agriculture who was touring a farm in the Midwest.

Elma is a mathematician with a double doctorate. She was also a WASP ferrying planes during World War II. She and her husband who is an engineer in the budding space program find their way to Wright-Patterson airfield though she really has to do some fancy flying to get there.

She is surprised that her old nemesis Stetson Parker is in charge of the base and acts like he is the highest ranking military member remaining. He's also convinced that the disaster was probably caused by Russia. While waiting for more senior military personnel, notably General Eisenhower, to make his way to the base from Europe, Elma and Nathaniel begin to do some calculations. If their numbers are right, the meteor strike might be an extinction event on the same level as the one that caused the dinosaurs to die out. All of a sudden plans to explore space have become necessary and not just a whim of scientists and the military.

This story talks about the process of getting man into space to save humanity. Of course, it also talks about those who don't believe that the Earth will heat up enough for the seas to boil because "it's snowing in LA." Newspaper articles begin each chapter and it is easy to see the wide-reachng effects of the meteor on the world. More near to home, Elma has to deal with the chauvinism of the military which can't believe that a woman could ever qualify to be an astronaut. Also close to home is the reality of the United States's segregated society which makes it almost impossible for any Black American to become part of the space program.

Personally, Elma has other issues. She suffers with anxiety which makes her ill whenever she is forced to be the center of attention. Bringing this to the attention of the brass is an almost sure way for her to wash out of the space program. But hiding it gets harder and harder as more attention is focused on her as it is when she's invited on Mr. Wizard and becomes the face of the Lady Astronauts and a role model to young girls who also want to explore space.

This was a story that was hard to put down. I was so engaged in the characters and the situation. I can't wait to read the conclusion of the story in THE FATED SKY. ( )
  kmartin802 | Sep 1, 2018 |
Mary Robinette Kowal's new novel, The Calculating Stars, is quite frankly a remarkable book. Playing out over an alternate early 1950s background, the book tackles so much that it's a wonder that MRK could pull it all together, but she does and does so with aplomb. Spinning this story out of her Hugo Award-winning novelette, "The Lady Astronaut of Mars," The Calculating Stars acts as the background to that story. If you have not yet read "The Lady Astronaut of Mars" you should fix that posthaste and pop over to Tor.com to read it for free! It's a beautiful, emotional story that still stick with you.

In 1952, a meteorite strikes off the East coast of the United States, wiping out much of Eastern Seaboard, including Washington DC. The impact is soon discovered to be an extinction level event, having created a changing weather pattern that will make the Earth uninhabitable in a reasonably short amount of time. However, not everyone believes this and it fall to Elma York and her husband, Nathaniel, to convince the US government to fast track the space program so that we can colonize the moon, and perhaps further. Elma, a computer, works closely with her fellow female computers in creating the mathematical equations that will eventually put man into space. Unfortunately for Elma, who suffers from anxiety, she becomes the unintended face of the space program, known as The Lady Astronaut, as she spearheads the inclusion of women, both white and black, to be included in the astronaut program. Even with the events spiraling out of the meteorite impact, this is still 1950s America, and a woman's place is in the kitchen, not in space.

MRK deftly handles so many elements that are still very pertinent in today's society: feminism, sexism, racial tension, female rights, mental health, religious concerns, weather change. She deals with each of these problems in an engaging yet careful way, never overplaying the problems, but making it clear that these are problems that are just as relevant today as they were then, and that in every case, the problem truly falls on society's negative ideas about these issues. The science in the book is approachable and understandable while still feeling very grounded in actual fact; it's my understanding that MRK had several IRL astronauts critique the story to make sure that it was as accurate as it could be.

Elma's courage and wonder in the face of space and the unknown is inspiring. MRK writes some genuinely beautiful scenes building on that sense of wonder, one in particular that really reminded me of how powerful a writer she is. I can't go into it as it would be a little spoiler-y, but it involves someone getting to watch a rocket launch for the first time. I may have actually cried a little during this scene, and that doesn't always happen when I'm reading.

If you're an audiobook fan, MRK also narrates the book and her performance is spot on! Having met MRK on several occasions, I actually picture Mary as Elma in my head now.

Needless to say, I can't recommend The Calculating Stars enough and I'm anxiously awaiting the sequel, The Fated Sky. ( )
  tapestry100 | Aug 30, 2018 |
“There is nothing to see but that vast blackness. Intellectually, I know that we’ve passed into the dark side of the Earth. We slide into her shadow and then magic fills the sky. The stars come out. Millions of them in crisp, vivid splendor. These are not the stars that I remember from before the Meteor. These are clear and steady, without an atmosphere to make them twinkle. Do you remember the first time you saw the stars again? I am sitting in a capsule, on way my to the moon.”

In “The Calculating Stars” by Mary Robinette Kowal

I remember the one called "Duck and Cover". If I remember correctly, the instructions included:

1. Fill the bath with water
2. Take a door off it's hinges and prop it length-ways against an internal wall
3. Cover the door with a mattress
5. Get the family under the door.
6. Crouch down on the floor
7. Put your head between your legs
8. Kiss your arse goodbye

Even at 10 I thought that wouldn't help much...and it was bloody nonsense. How is an entire family going to take a bath before the four minute warning is up?

We're statistically overdue a large near earth object colliding with earth. Overdue in this context is wildly variable - range from 1 day to several hundred thousands of years depending on how you choose to measure. The main point is that if this does occur in the near future there is no technology available that would give a reasonable chance to even detect the damn thing. To paraphrase Doug Adams - space is big, really fucking big. We have about the same chance of seeing a significantly sized object inbound to us as a man sitting in his living room in London has of seeing a fly alighting from a randomly chosen dog turd in Moscow. Next step - assume that we manage to see this in advance and have reasonable notice. We haven't been beyond near earth orbit for 40 years. How would we get to this object and what would be brought to bear to deflect it?

I guess that educating people and getting them not to stand by a window may be advisable. In the same spirit I'm going to start training pedestrians to avoid damage from cars by hurling handfuls of peas at them from 100 yards. Knowing with certainty that a NEO will impact 30 years ahead of time, and knowing exactly how to nudge it to avoid that are unlikely in most cases -- even assuming a purely Newtonian world with perfect measurement of an object's current mass and trajectory. Except for contrived cases, the n-body motion problem in that world for n > 2 has no closed solutions. The numerical methods applied to it have some inherent and unavoidable error. Relativistic effects, although negligible, probably cannot be neglected if such precision so far ahead of time is to be achieved, further complicating the computation. And of course in the real world, measurements aren't exact. This is why this NEO work deals with probabilities, not certainties, and why (along with political difficulties) I suspect that the lead time will be shorter than 30 years and/or big bombs will be needed as opposed to little gravity tug methods. The first thing that needs sorting out, however, are the words: meteor, meteorite, meteoroid and asteroid. Meteoroids and asteroids are objects in space. Meteoroids can be bits of asteroids or bits of comets. When they are burning through Earth’s atmosphere they are, for a few seconds, called meteors. If anything survives that fiery descent, the rocks found on the ground are called meteorites. 2012DA14 was not going “too slow” for a related fragment to arrive at 17km/second: its radiant, relative velocity to the Earth before being accelerated was 5.6 km/sec. If you add to that the free-fall velocity of 11.2 km/sec (the corollary of escape velocity) you get 16.8 km/sec. Add to that the eastward rotation of the earth at 55degrees north at an Azimuth of 9 degrees south of east (0.2 km/sec) you arrive at precisely 17km/sec. This is the same calculation that Zuluaga and Ferrin (and now, NASA) must have done in reverse for their version of the reconstruction of the trajectory: I calculated the radial speed of their hypothesised orbits at the Earth’s position (r value/ radius from sun=1AU) on the day of impact (but without the Earth’s gravitational influence added) and ended up with 34.8 and 35.2 km/sec for the 2 posited orbits. That amounts to 5 and 5.4 km/sec relative to the Earth, respectively. Adding the free-fall velocity and the eastward rotation you get 16.4 and 16.8km/sec. The difference between these posited orbits and the posited 2012DA14 fragment is that they invoke the head-on trajectory solution with little or no curvature as they are pulled into the gravity well. If it’s a bulls-eye hit the curvature is zero. The Zuluaga and Ferrin video shows the meteor coming in from about 3 degrees above the solar plane. The NASA video now shows the same.

Saying something is a coincidence is essentially saying that they do not understand how it is connected. To accept such an answer is a fool's folly. And as for retracing its orbit, that is based on an assumption that this meteorite's orbit was stable and just happened to connect with the Earth when it did. The reason they make these claims is that they are still working on 100 year old models of our solar system that ignore its electric/ magnetic nature.

In fact we barely survived the asteroid or comet strike at the end of the younger Dryas 11500 years ago. We all watched Shoemaker Levy 9 crash into Jupiter with huge force, if that had struck the earth instead it would have been the end of humanity and yet funding for this area of science if virtually non existent. Asteroid strikes have shaped the world we live in and will do so again.. The danger is very real and unfortunately it will probably take a strike on a city to wake us up to the dangers...Its also a rare chance for us to come together as a species rather than trying to kill each other.....On the 'imagine if' subject of a 9-km wide asteroid impacting on the ocean, one wonders what the height of the tsunami wave would actually have been....Given that the deepest ocean is 11 Km (Mt. Everest is 8.8 Km by comparison), I see no reason why a tsunami wave might not exceed the height of Everest. Now that would be a surfer's paradise....The asteroid would probably vaporize a volume of water that would be hundreds of times its own mass also. By my calculation, a volume of water the size of Mt. Everest hitting the coast of California would be 250 billion cubic meters of water, enough to cover 2500 billion square meters to a depth of 10cm, which would only reach about 1600 Km in land. So dinosaurs east of Colorado would not even have got their feet wet, and given the natural barrier of the Rocky Mountains, I'm probably being conservative.

NASA didn't even send a woman into space until 1983, twenty years after the Soviets sent Valentina Tereshkova! They had female astronauts in training for the Apollo missions but they never got to fly because the men said it wouldn't be fair for men to miss out. Seriously. Meeting the requirements for astronaut selection were also very difficult for women. Men could get the test pilot training and flight hours through the military. Women couldn't. There's a huge gap in space science. It's a very tough field to be a woman in. From the attitudes of some of the men, to the constant assumptions about a woman's inability to do a job, it can be a nightmare. If you make a tiny mistake, it's because you were having a bad day and doesn't affect your ability to do your job, it'll be forgotten in a few hours. If I make a mistake, it's because I'm female and proof that women can't do the job, it will be brought up repeatedly. That's just one tiny example of the problems women face in the industry. How women cope in the "tech bro" culture of Silicon Valley, I don't know.

We will all need to rush to the closest college or university to find a safe space to read "The Calculating Stars" and also twitter about our feelings on reading it until the comet is adequately shamed.

PS. My favorite dinosaur is the ornithomimus. I always goes for the underdog, me. If you had the ornithomimus card during dinosaur Top Trumps you were going home early. I bet T Rexes were all like, 'You won't be getting in the films, mate,' back then, and the ornithomimus would try and make a w with it's fingers but the arms were too short, it was just to v's. Imagine if they'd tried to film “Clueless” back in them days; that would mess that scene right up. Just goes to show, technology and culture basically proceeds at the speed it should. Always wondered why dinosaurs never developed technological intelligence seeing as they were around for so long. Perhaps they did and set off for the stars leaving the unintelligent lot behind? Because they laid eggs? Crocs have been around a very, very long time too, but laying eggs limits how much offspring can develop. Or because their claws got in the way of typing? Nah, opposable thumbs; it all comes down to those.

PPS. https://cneos.jpl.nasa.gov/sentry. Those clever people over at NASA put this together ready for their briefing session with Bruce Willis. ( )
1 vote antao | Aug 1, 2018 |
I absolutely adored the The Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal, featuring the same lead character as this book. I kept waiting for this Elma to grow into that one-- and undoubtedly she will, though it will be in the period between the end of this book and the beginning of the novella. Either way, there still was a lot to enjoy about this story, and the premise has given me lots to think about-- a meteorite strikes the east coast of the US in 1952, wiping out cities and lives, setting the world up for drastic climate change. It also causes drastic changes in the timeline for the US Space program.

Things I liked about this book: the relationship the two Drs York have, both the playfulness, and the support they give each other, how Elma's eyes are slowly opened to the inequality to those Americans not fortunate enough to be born white or male, the friendships that existed and the strength many of the characters showed. Yes, this is an alternative history, and the science behind that "what if" is fascinating, but like Kowal's other books, it is the relationships between the characters that drives the story.

I did listen to the audio version, read by the author, and I admit to willing suspension of disbelief when she tried to do what she thought would be a Charleston accent speaking Yiddish or Hebrew. ( )
  bookczuk | Jul 21, 2018 |
Kowal is a great storyteller, but what brings me back again and again is the way in which she writes relationships. Elma and Nathaniel are the heart and soul of this novel and their relationship is so perfectly rendered on the page. It's not a perfect relationship—they argue and keep things from each other—but it's perfect in the ways in which they work through their problems and support each other. This is an alternate history novel about women in the space program, but it's the relationships—not just that between Elma and Nathaniel, but Elma's friendships and familial relationships and work relationships—that breathe life into the pages and elevate this novel to something more than just a "what if?" about women in space in the '50s. ( )
  BillieBook | Apr 1, 2018 |
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On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process. Elma York's experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition's attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn't take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can't go into space, too. Elma's drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.… (more)

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