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The Calculating Stars: A Lady Astronaut…

The Calculating Stars: A Lady Astronaut Novel (edition 2018)

by Mary Robinette Kowal (Author)

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3492446,496 (4.07)54
Title:The Calculating Stars: A Lady Astronaut Novel
Authors:Mary Robinette Kowal (Author)
Info:Tor Books (2018), 432 pages
Collections:Next Up, To read, To Listen, Your library, Sci Fi
Tags:ebook, Kindle, sci fi, audio, Audible

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The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal



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Showing 1-5 of 22 (next | show all)
Although I read fairly eclectically, I don't often read much in the science fiction or fantasy genres. When I do though, I tend to enjoy the books a lot. You'd think this would translate in me picking up more of them, but no. It means that people know I am reluctant with regards to the genre and only recommend I read the very best, the most thoughtful, the ones that will engage me the most even as they push my regular reading boundaries. Mary Robinette Kowal's novel The Calculating Stars, the first in the Lady Astronaut series, is one of these. Alternate history set in the 50s? Not my usual choice but it came so highly recommended that I knew I should give it a chance. Let's just say that 2 of my 3 year-round book clubs have read it now and this is very likely to be one of the three books for my summer book club as well. I have the second novel on my shelves to read and was pleased to see that books 3 and 4 have been acquired (novelette 4.5 already exists and was, in fact, written first and won a Hugo to boot).

It's 1952 and physicist, mathematician Elma York and her engineer husband Nathaniel are on vacation in the Poconos when something catastrophic happens. Initially they think a nuclear bomb has detonated. Unable to return home to Washington DC, Elma, a former WWII pilot, flies them west to Wright-Patt Air Force base in Dayton, OH where they discover that an enormous meteorite has wiped out the entire East Coast, including the vast majority of the government as well as Elma's family. As if that's not terrible enough, the meteorite has put Earth on a collision course with an ecological disaster so vast that the need to get off this planet and find a viable way to colonize another planet before humanity's time runs out has become of utmost importance. There's no longer a race against other countries to get into space but a cooperative race for space and survival. Elma, who is incredibly brilliant and already worked for NASA before the meteorite, wants to be in the running to be an astronaut. But it's the 1950s and a woman's place is not in space, at least not according to the men around Elma, aside from her husband. As technologies are fast tracked and developed, Elma is right there in the fray. But she faces constant sexism and condescension, being metaphorically patted on the head and discounted until she is proven capable again and again.

Kowal has created a fascinating alternate history that doesn't dismiss the social issues of the 1950s but in fact highlights them in this subtly different world. Elma is a trailblazing character, one who is both impressive and strong but also fully human with weaknesses and doubts. Her push to be included, to realize her dream of being an astronaut, not only raises the question of discrimination because of gender but also finds her allied with women of color who have been doubly marginalized. Because of Elma's profession and ultimate goal to be a Lady Astronaut, there is definitely a good amount of math and science in the story but it isn't necessary to have a full understanding of either in order to enjoy the novel. The social issues and hurdles that Elma faces are really the main thrust here and they are big, complex issues indeed: sexism, racism, mental health, environmentalism. Kowal does a fantastic job raising these issues in the context of the 50s and 60s, using the attitudes of that time to showcase where we today have improved and where we haven't really come all that far. The narrative tension is not really about the outcome of Elma's quest as much as it is about the smaller, more personal pieces of her life (after all, the novelette was published first and its title gives away what has to occur in the preceding books) and it is this focus on the social and personal that makes this such a successful crossover novel. It's a well-researched and thought provoking novel and I'm looking forward to the sequel.

To see the book club questions I created for the novel, visit https://booknaround.blogspot.com/2019/03/review-and-book-club-questions.html ( )
  whitreidtan | Mar 13, 2019 |
In a slightly alternate 1950s (Dewey beats Truman), Elma York is a computer for the young satellite program when the meteorite hits, destroying a huge chunk of the Eastern US and plunging the earth first into a long, starving winter and then probably into extinction-level warming. The space program is the only way out, but the sexists (and racists) running the program don’t want female astronauts, even though Elma is a genius mathematician as well as a great pilot from her time in the WASPs. Bureaucratic wrangling and struggles with Elma’s anxiety (and her sexist nemesis, the handsome hero pilot running a lot of the program) ensue. She's also Jewish, though anti-Semitism provides relatively few of the problems she faces. I absolutely understand why people like this, but I had a very similar reaction as I did to Mad Men: it seemed like a retreat into a kind of nostalgia, where the bad guys were overt about their prejudices because they could be. We’re not so far away from that, and yet the bad guys are far more likely to disclaim their true biases—and people believe them. So I don’t take much comfort from celebrations of the grit required to prove the overt bigots wrong. But if you like badass women overcoming internal and external obstacles in an overtly sexist environment that they themselves are just learning to contest, this does definitely deliver. ( )
1 vote rivkat | Mar 8, 2019 |
Though I'm giving this novel four stars three-and-three-quarters might be my rating if that was an option. For one, the critical comments on the science of Kowal's global-warming catastrophe did have some impact (heh, heh) on me and I would have liked to seen a little more about what the international politics of the emergency might be; this is not to mention that some dramatic tension is lost since we already know that lead character Elma York does win through in her drive to achieve. Still, Kowal does achieve her main aim which is to take the stories of women such as the WASPs and support staff in the early days of NASA and put them right forward in precedence. While Kowal describes this series as "punch-card punk" you could also argue that what she has basically done is create a Campbellian golden-age space adventure without ol' John W.'s cranky hang-ups being normalized; small caveats aside I anticipate continuing with this series. ( )
  Shrike58 | Feb 23, 2019 |
In this alternate history sci-fi novel, brilliant and pilot-experienced Elma wants to be an astronaut, but is up against the 1950s patriarchy. Black female pilots are up against more than that. And we need to get off the planet, which has been hit by a meteorite. I had a great time with this one (thank you Mamie and other Librarythingers for recommending it), and plan to read its sequel, The Fated Sky, soon. ( )
  jnwelch | Jan 26, 2019 |
This is alternative history story of space exploration, with real focus on the struggle for equal rights for women and non-whites.
The USA starts its space program in the early 50s and not as a result of the Soviet success in space but just because there is another president. Just in time, because in 1952 a meteorite falls in the ocean near Washington. The consequence is the rapidly accelerated greenhouse effect, which will soon (?) make Earth uninhabitable. Therefore, the colonization of Mars is in order.
The protagonist is a (super-)woman, a professional pilot, with 2 PhDs and calculus savant. It may seem like an overkill until you see the patriarchal wall she has to break to be considered equal even by assumedly educated and progressive men. And there are women even with greater disadvantages for example due to their skin color. The author managed to create an interesting and compelling story with believable main character. Alas, while the protagonists was very well written, some minor character are lacking depth.
The story is not an attempt to envision how it could have been. Just like the classical alt-history [b:The Man in the High Castle|216363|The Man in the High Castle|Philip K. Dick|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1448756803s/216363.jpg|2398287] in is about people, their relations and their answers to challenges that actually do exist in the real world.
( )
  Oleksandr_Zholud | Jan 9, 2019 |
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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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