Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

A female astronaut heads into outer space on the first moon mission. That’s it; that’s the premise. But what does it take to get her there? The Calculating Stars is an alternate history that explores how women might have made it as early astronauts if circumstances were different. While the upcoming sequel promises to tell of their adventures in space, this first book is focused on the who, what, where, when, and why.

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It’s a disastrous meteorite collision with Earth that sets into motion an accelerated space race, but it’s the ambition of Dr. Elma York that enters women into the program. Far from being a flight of fancy, the story takes more from nonfiction books like Hidden Figures and Code Girls than from other science fiction. York is a former WASP and a computer, an expert in the fields that make spaceflight possible.

The story takes on not only sexism, but also racism, religious discrimination, and mental health stigma. Our protagonist, a Jewish woman who struggles with anxiety, works hand in hand with men and women of different ethnicities to achieve her goal. It’s a refreshing reminder that all sorts of people have existed in the USA throughout its history, and that despite barriers, many marginalized people have accomplished great things, even when they weren’t recognized for it.

And while I love that, it’s also attached to my biggest quibble with the book: the lens through which we see the story is too modern. The dialogues and attitudes of the more progressive characters align with extremely current perspectives and analyses of race, gender, and religion. I’m not saying that there weren’t forward-thinking people in the 1950s. There absolutely were. I’m saying that the specifics of their forward-thinking thoughts seem streamlined and overly consistent with the politics of 2018. While this makes it a digestible read in the moment, I doubt that this aspect will hold up well over time.

My other quibble is relatively minor, but it has to be said. Elma and her husband engage in lots of science-related flirting and innuendo. It’s unnecessary, and to me, kind of cringey. Yes, it’s great that Nathaniel is a loving and supportive husband… but do we really need those kinds of details?! I don’t think we do.

That being said, Elma is a sympathetic protagonist, and her nemesis is equally as hate-able, being the embodiment of petty sexism. The pacing is dynamic and full of action. Overall, it’s a well-written book that does what it came here to do: no frills, just an exciting, empowering read.

I recommend The Calculating Stars to fans of Hidden Figures, or to anyone who wants to see a more diverse range of faces in science fiction.

Rating: 4/5 (calculating) stars.

You can buy it here!

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