The Calculating Stars

by Mary Robinette Kowal

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Series: Lady Astronaut #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: July 2018
ISBN: 1-4668-6124-X
Format: Kindle
Pages: 429

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Elma York is a (human) computer, working for the early space program in the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1952. She and her husband Nathaniel, one of the lead engineers, are on vacation in the Poconos when a massive meteorite hits the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Maryland, wiping out Washington D.C. and much of the eastern seaboard.

Elma and Nathaniel make it out of the mountains via their private plane (Elma served as a Women Airforce Service Pilot in World War II) to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, where the government is regrouping. The next few weeks are a chaos of refugees, arguments, and meetings, as Nathaniel attempts to convince the military that there's no way the meteorite could have been a Russian attack. It's in doing calculations to support his argument that Elma and her older brother, a meteorologist, realize that far more could be at stake. The meteorite may have kicked enough water vapor into the air to start runaway global warming, potentially leaving Earth with the climate of Venus. If this is true, humans need to get off the planet and somehow find a way to colonize Mars.

I was not a sympathetic audience for this plot. I'm all in favor of space exploration but highly dubious of colonization justifications. It's hard to imagine an event that would leave Earth less habitable than Mars already is, and Mars appears to be the best case in the solar system. We also know who would make it into such a colony (rich white people) and who would be left behind on Earth to die (everyone else), which gives these lifeboat scenarios a distinctly unappealing odor. To give her credit, Kowal postulates one of the few scenarios that might make living on Mars an attractive alternative, but I'm fairly sure the result would be the end of humanity. On this topic, I'm a pessimistic grinch.

I loved this book.

Some of that is because this book is not about the colonization. It's about the race to reach the Moon in an alternate history in which catastrophe has given that effort an international mandate and an urgency grounded in something other than great-power competition. It's also less about the engineering and the male pilots and more about the computers: Elma's world of brilliant women, many of them experienced WW2 transport pilots, stuffed into the restrictive constraints of 1950s gender roles. It's a fictionalization of Hidden Figures and Rise of the Rocket Girls, told from the perspective of a well-meaning Jewish woman who is both a victim of sexist and religious discrimination and is dealing (unevenly) with her own racism.

But that's not the main reason why I loved this book. The surface plot is about gender roles, the space program, racism, and Elma's determination to be an astronaut. The secondary plot is about anxiety, about what it does to one's life and one's thought processes, and how to manage it and overcome it, and it's taut, suspenseful, tightly observed, and vividly empathetic. This is one of the best treatments of living with a mental illness that I've read.

Elma has clinical anxiety, although she isn't willing to admit it until well into the book. But once I knew to look for it, I saw it everywhere. The institutional sexism she faces makes the reader want to fight and rage, but Elma turns defensively inward and tries to avoid creating conflict. Her main anxiety trigger is being the center of the attention of strangers, fearing their judgment and their reactions. She masks it with southern politeness and deflection and the skill of smoothing over tense situations, until someone makes her angry. And until she finds something that she wants more than she wants to avoid her panic attacks: to be an astronaut, to see space, and to tell others that they can as well.

One of the strengths of this book is Kowal's ability to write a marriage, to hint at what Elma sees in Nathaniel around the extended work hours and quietness. They play silly bedroom games, they rely on each other without a second thought, and Nathaniel knows how anxious she is and is afraid for her and doesn't know what to do. He can't do much, since Elma has to find her own treatment and her own coping mechanisms and her own way of reframing her goals, but he's quietly and carefully supportive in ways that I thought were beautifully portrayed. His side of this story is told in glimmers and moments, and the reader has to do a lot of work to piece together what he's thinking, but he quietly became one of my favorite characters in this book.

I should warn that I read a lot into this book. I hit on the centrality of anxiety to Elma's experience about halfway through and read it backwards and forwards through the book, and I admit I may be doing a lot of heavy lifting for the author. The anxiety thread is subtle, which means there's a risk that I'm manufacturing some pieces of it. Other friends who have read the book didn't notice it the way that I did, so your mileage may vary. But as someone who has some tendencies towards anxiety myself, this spoke to me in ways that made it hard to read at times but glorious in the ending. Everywhere in the book Elma got angry enough to push through her natural tendency to not make a fuss is wonderfully satisfying.

This book is set very much in its time, which means that it is full of casual, assumed institutional sexism. Elma fights it in places, but she more frequently endures it and works around it, which may not be the book that one is in the mood to read. This is a book about feminism, but it's a conditional and careful feminism that tactically cedes a lot of the cultural and conversational space.

There is also quite a lot of racism, to which Elma reacts like a well-intentioned (and somewhat anachronistic) white woman. There's a very fine line between the protagonist using some of their privilege to help others and a white savior narrative, and I'm not sure Kowal walks it successfully throughout the book. Like the sexism, the racism of the setting is deep and structural, Elma is not immune even when she thinks she's adjusting for it, and this book only pushes back against it around the edges. I appreciated the intent to show some of the complexity of intersectional oppression, but I think it lands a bit awkwardly.

But, those warnings aside, this is both a satisfying story of the early space program shifted even earlier to force less reliance on mechanical computers, and a tense and compelling story of navigating anxiety. It tackles the complex and difficult problems of conserving and carefully using one's own energy and fortitude, and of deciding what is worth getting angry about and fighting for. The first-person narrative voice was very effective for me, particularly once I started treating Elma as an unreliable narrator in denial about how much anxiety has shaped her life and started reading between the lines and looking for her coping strategies. I have nowhere near the anxiety issues that Elma has, but I felt seen by this book despite a protagonist who is apparently totally unlike me.

Although I would have ranked Record of a Spaceborn Few higher, The Calculating Stars fully deserves its Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Award wins. Highly recommended, and I will definitely read the sequel.

Followed by The Fated Sky.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2019-08-24

Last modified and spun 2019-08-25