Do you remember the first time you saw the stars again?
We follow up Brian’s entertaining 1950s SF Movie podcast with a review of a current Hugo nomination, set in an alternate version of the mid-twentieth century.
A large meteor strikes earth, initiating what may be an extinction event. The space program hits the fast-track, as do certain elements of social progress. Neither movement goes smoothly.
Title: The Calculating Stars
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
First published July 3, 2018
A former WASP pilot, now a NASA computer, and her husband, one of the country’s top aerospace engineers, survive the meteor strike that may doom the planet or, at least, lead to untenable circumstances and mass extinction. Both play important roles in an accelerated space programs. Survival will become more likely if some of humanity can move off-world—but cultural baggage, social prejudices, personal conflicts, and even medical issues– impede with those efforts.
This novel initially does very well with its premise. Kowal, a Hugo and Campbell Award-winner, has used her considerable gifts, and consulted astronauts, experts, academic research (the novel contains a bibliography), and her father-in-law (a 1960s test and fighter pilot) to ground her fiction in science. She plays on a nostalgia for the early Space Age without being blinded by it, and she spins a story that’s equal parts human drama, science, and wish-fulfillment. Of the current Hugo-nominated novels I have read thus far, however, this one would be most likely to get my vote.
I really enjoyed this novel, and the story issue I mention below may be resolved in the second book, so instead, I will note a few nits:
-Actually, this first one is more than a nit. Given the number of people who have died and the prospect of more serious things to come, the characters (granted, most of whom live on a base trying to save the future) and society appear remarkably unaffected. Granted, it’s not the story Kowal is telling, but the trauma nevertheless passes very quickly.
-Kowal has a highly readable style, but she can be a little overt at times, stating interpretations and motivations that should be left for the reader to discern. We know, for example, why Stetson Parker casually mentions a certain medical situation. It isn’t necessary to remind us.
-Über-nit: Hey, it’s great that the Yorks have a generally happy, nurturing marriage and a healthy sex life. I don’t mind that, during the very few sex scenes, Kowal makes predictable techie/rocket science jokes about sex. She makes a few too many of these, as in, stop me if you’ve heard this one. Because if you have ever been around techies, engineers, and/or rocket fans, you have.
Originality: 3/6 Quite a bit that SF readers, in particular, like about the original Space Age and postwar SF get a clever reworking, at once celebratory and problematic.
Story: 4/6 The story begins well, and Kowal has a snappy style. It bogs down in places, and gets limited by the decision to publish her original story as two novels (The follow-up, The Fated Sky, has been published. She had previously written three shorter works set in this universe, and she has two more sequels in the works).
Characterization: 5/6 Elma functions as inspirational role-model, yet self-doubts plague her. She knows she excels in certain areas; society keeps telling her men are better at these things. I also liked that, despite the sexism and racism pervading 1950s society, some people who have never questioned these things, particularly those plucky spacefaring types, can, with effort, come around.
Emotional Response: 5/6 I found it very strong at the start—a little weakened in the middle. I look forward to reading The Fated Sky.
Overall score: 5/6
In total, The Calculating Stars receives 32/42
The second novel should be taken into account, however, since the two books tell a more complete tale.
Kowal ties this novel into three earlier short stories, set at various times in her alternate history. She realized those stories created problems with a real-world timeline, so her alternate history (as she acknowledges in an appendix) deviates a few years before the meteor strike. In the novel’s reality, Dewey actually defeated Truman in 1948 and von Braun started working sooner with the U.S. space program.