The Fated Sky

by Mary Robinette Kowal

Cover image

Series: Lady Astronaut #2
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: August 2018
ISBN: 0-7653-9893-1
Format: Kindle
Pages: 380

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The Fated Sky is a sequel to The Calculating Stars, but you could start with this book if you wanted to. It would be obvious you'd missed a previous book in the series, and some of the relationships would begin in medias res, but the story is sufficiently self-contained that one could puzzle through.

Mild spoilers follow for The Calculating Stars, although only to the extent of confirming that book didn't take an unexpected turn, and nothing that wouldn't already be spoiled if you had read the short story "The Lady Astronaut of Mars" that kicked this series off. (The short story takes place well after all of the books.) Also some minor spoilers for the first section of the book, since I have to talk about its outcome in broad strokes in order to describe the primary shape of the novel.

In the aftermath of worsening weather conditions caused by the Meteor, humans have established a permanent base on the Moon and are preparing a mission to Mars. Elma is not involved in the latter at the start of the book; she's working as a shuttle pilot on the Moon, rotating periodically back to Earth. But the political situation on Earth is becoming more tense as the refugee crisis escalates and the weather worsens, and the Mars mission is in danger of having its funding pulled in favor of other priorities. Elma's success in public outreach for the space program as the Lady Astronaut, enhanced by her navigation of a hostage situation when an Earth re-entry goes off course and is met by armed terrorists, may be the political edge supporters of the mission need.

The first part of this book is the hostage situation and other ground-side politics, but the meat of this story is the tense drama of experimental, pre-computer space flight. For those who aren't familiar with the previous book, this series is an alternate history in which a huge meteorite hit the Atlantic seaboard in 1952, potentially setting off runaway global warming and accelerating the space program by more than a decade. The Calculating Stars was primarily about the politics surrounding the space program. In The Fated Sky, we see far more of the technical details: the triumphs, the planning, and the accidents and other emergencies that each could be fatal in an experimental spaceship headed towards Mars. If what you were missing from the first book was more technological challenge and realistic detail, The Fated Sky delivers. It's edge-of-your-seat suspenseful and almost impossible to put down.

I have more complicated feelings about the secondary plot. In The Calculating Stars, the heart of the book was an incredibly well-told story of Elma learning to deal with her social anxiety. That's still a theme here but a lesser one; Elma has better coping mechanisms now. What The Fated Sky tackles instead is pervasive sexism and racism, and how Elma navigates that (not always well) as a white Jewish woman.

The centrality of sexism is about the same in both books. Elma's public outreach is tied closely to her gender and starts as a sort of publicity stunt. The space program remains incredibly sexist in The Fated Stars, something that Elma has to cope with but can't truly fix. If you found the sexism in the first book irritating, you're likely to feel the same about this installment.

Racism is more central this time, though. In The Calculating Stars, Elma was able to help make things somewhat better for Black colleagues. She has a much different experience in The Fated Stars: she ends up in a privileged position that hurts her non-white colleagues, including one of her best friends. The merits of taking a stand on principle are ambiguous, and she chooses not to. When she later tries to help Black astronauts, she does so in a way that's focused on her perceptions rather than theirs and is therefore more irritating than helpful. The opportunities she gets, in large part because she's seen as white, unfairly hurt other people, and she has to sit with that. It's a thoughtful and uncomfortable look at how difficult it is for a white person to live with discomfort they can't fix and to not make it worse by trying to wave it away or point out their own problems.

That was the positive side of this plot, although I'm still a bit wary and would like to read a review by a Black reviewer to see how well this plot works from their perspective. There are some other choices that I thought landed oddly. One is that the most racist crew member, the one who sparks the most direct conflict with the Black members of the international crew, is a white man from South Africa, which I thought let the United States off the hook too much and externalized the racism a bit too neatly. Another is that the three ships of the expedition are the NiƱa, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, and no one in the book comments on this. Given the thoughtful racial themes of the book, I can't imagine this is an accident, and it is in character for United States of this novel to pick those names, but it was an odd intrusion of an unremarked colonial symbol. This may be part of Kowal's attempt to show that Elma is embedded in a racist and sexist world, has limited room to maneuver, and can't solve most of the problems, which is certainly a theme of the series. But it left me unsettled on whether this book was up to fully handling the fraught themes Kowal is invoking.

The other part of the book I found a bit frustrating is that it never seriously engaged with the political argument against Mars colonization, instead treating most of the opponents of space travel as either deluded conspiracy believers or cynical villains. Science fiction is still arguing with William Proxmire even though he's been dead for fifteen years and out of office for thirty. The strong argument against a Mars colony in Elma's world is not funding priorities; it's that even if it's successful, only a tiny fraction of well-connected elites will escape the planet to Mars. This argument is made in the book and Elma dismisses it as a risk she's trying to prevent, but it is correct. There is no conceivable technological future that leads to evacuating the Earth to Mars, but The Fated Sky declines to grapple with the implications of that fact.

There's more that I haven't remarked on, including an ongoing excellent portrayal of the complicated and loving relationship between Elma and her husband, and a surprising development in her antagonistic semi-friendship with the sexist test pilot who becomes the mission captain. I liked how Kowal balanced technical problems with social problems on the long Mars flight; both are serious concerns and they interact with each other in complicated ways.

The details of the perils and joys of manned space flight are excellent, at least so far as I can tell without having done the research that Kowal did. If you want a fictionalized Apollo 13 with higher stakes and less ground support, look no further; this is engrossing stuff. The interpersonal politics and sociology were also fascinating and gripping, but unsettling, in both good ways and bad. I like the challenge that Kowal presents to a white reader, although I'm not sure she was completely in control of it.

Cautiously recommended, although be aware that you'll need to grapple with a sexist and racist society while reading it. Also a content note for somewhat graphic gastrointestinal problems.

Followed by The Relentless Moon.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2021-02-20

Last modified and spun 2021-02-21