Book Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars is a superbly written alternate history story, which mixes some very recent concepts and ideas with 1950s social norms.  It offers well developed characters, which the reader can get easily emotionally attached to, as well as sound science.  Some people I have spoken to don’t consider it science fiction, but I tend to disagree: the book is a wonderful throwback to old post-apocalyptic literature like Alas, Babylon, Earth Abides and even Lucifer’s Hammer.  Those comparisons are limited only to the feeling I’ve head the book, though: The Calculating Stars truly stands on its own.

The story takes us to the early 1950s, when a meteor hit decimates the eastern seaboard of the United States.  Among the survivors are Elma York and her husband Nathaniel, who make their way to a military base.  Once there, Elma, a brilliant mathematician, with the help of her meteorologist brother, determines that the meteor impact would have lasting impact on Earth climate, making the planes inhabitable.  Her and Nathaniel, a NASA engineer, convince the acting president to invest into a space program that would lead to the colonization of other planets and provide mankind an escape from Earth.

The remaining four fifths of the story chronicle the progression of the space program and Elma’s ambitions.  She works as a computer, doing manual calculations for the space program.  However, she had been a fighter pilot in the second world war, and aspires to become an astronaut.  She bands with likeminded women to pressure the male-dominated management to allow women into the training program.  Step by step, they succeed, and a number of them is admitted into training.

The book does not follow the traditional structure of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and conclusion.  Instead, the structure most resembles many older post-apocalyptic works, with the climax at the opening of the story, and the rest of the book following a steady, logical path that is none too rushed.  The reader knows the stakes from the beginning, but is comfortable with the pace.  There are very limited, if any, conflicts along the way.  The book often focuses on character development alongside the story, and the reader develops a strong emotional bond with the protagonists.  In this sense, The Calculating Stars most closely remembers Alas, Babylon.

Elma is an excellent protagonist.  She is vulnerable and has some severe flaws, especially her social anxiety.  However, she is also incredibly strong.  She has a goal, and she sacrifices a lot of herself to reach it.  She is also aware of her responsibility to the space program, and manages to balance her tasks with her ambitions.  She succeeds, despite strong pushback from the males in the program (with the exception of her always supportive husband), and despite meeting some of her personal enemies.  Along the way, she also learns how selfish and blind she was, not realizing earlier that while women are being discriminated against, African Americans are discriminated even worse.  There are multiple scenes where she must be made aware of the fact that a select group is all white: noticing the absence of something is more difficult than facing direct discrimination.

Elma’s way to success is slow, but very steady: she is never too aggressive in charging after her goals, and instead waits for opportune moments to leave a good impression.  This progress is shadowed by the space program.  From first early rockets, through setting up a space station, to calculating the lunar landing, all takes its time, and with the exception of one mishap, all works on a steady upward trajectory.  This lets the reader relax and focus on the characters instead.

I found myself liking Elma very much.  She was a protagonist I could look up to, thanks to her inner strength, determination, but also patience.  By the time I hit the halfway point of the book, I was only interested in her story, and I kept on reading to see how she’d do.  I shed tears of happiness here and there (tried to hide it while reading on public transport), as I shared Elma’s emotional states.  I must admit this is very rare for me, and I have to give full credit to the author for achieving this.

Unfortunately, in hindsight, I think my emotions regarding Elma clouded my vision and prevented me from seeing a few issues in the book I was less than happy with.  Now, thinking back, I can more clearly perceive what did not work.

First of all, there were some unnecessary parts of the story, which I could live without.  Most notably, I did not understand the entire infatuation with Judaism.  Elma and her husband are Jewish, from non-practicing families, who are trying to live a more traditional life.  Elements of that life are described in some detail in several parts of the book.  While on its own it may be interesting, this did not further the story any further.  It did not limit Elma in any way in reaching her goal, nor did it affect the space program.  The author, in her notes at the end of the book, mentions that she received help with the religious aspects, so she very deliberately included them, and made sure they were factual.  I just fail to see why.

Second, the prevailing theme of the book is gender and racial discrimination.  I grew up in a communist country, which was racially homogenous, and far more egalitarian for the two genders.  As such, all I know about said discrimination is from a handful of movies taking place in the 50s and tackling this theme.  So I may be very wrong, but I felt that the portrayal of these issues in The Calculating Stars was a little off.  Most notably, everyone was very direct and vocal about their position.  Elma, even though she only took advantage of various opportunities and seldom was pro-active, was still declaring her ambitions in front of the entire world.  I would think that people who were discriminated against would be more circumspect.  Conversely, some of the males who were trying to block her progress were very open about their intention to discriminate against women.  Again, I would expect a society where such a discrimination was the norm, to merely imply the intentions, and not be explicit about them.

The biggest sin the book committed, in my opinion, was the lack of focus on the original premise.  The main reason for the space program was climate change.  In the book, it was not straight-forward: the global temperatures would first drop, following by indefinite warming, until the oceans boil away.  These days, this is a very compelling scenario.  Not because we can expect boiling seas, but because the weather at first acts counter-intuitively, and it takes an expert to recognize the signs and predict future climate change.  Others may only witness the current local weather and believe or reject the experts’ advisory.  We are currently in a very similar situation, and the political discussions on this topic are endless.  We have progressive politicians, but also plenty of regressive ones, some of whom are insane enough to actively encourage climate change with their decisions.  The book, however, didn’t do much with this setup.  There is a single congressional hearing, and even there the climate change theory is not really challenged.  Some characters are talking about being worried that politicians wouldn’t believe them, but by the end of the day many world governments are pouring money into the space program.  This, at a time when the US should be rebuilding its destroyed east coast, and elsewhere in the world the process of decolonization is beginning, politically destabilizing the rest of the planet.  Such dedication to the space program is something I can believe much less than a meteor vaporizing Washington DC.

Would I want more political discourse on climate change?  Absolutely not.  It would change the book to something entirely different.  For such concepts I can always fall back on Kim Stanley Robinson; Kowal has her own, distinct voice and I appreciate it.  However, with barely a mention of the climate change and no dissent it seems that the space program and protagonists live in a bubble, surrounded by cheap plywood facades from a Hollywood stage.  The world of this story is not immersive or believable.

While I was reading the book, however, The Calculating Stars was a page turner.  I cared about the protagonist and was cheering her on throughout the story.  The premise was very compelling as well, and I appreciated the slow progression with minimal conflict.  In hindsight, there were a few elements I could do without or wanted more of, and in some cases I probably projected my own lack of knowledge on the subject matter.  Overall, The Calculating Stars is a very good book, more deserving of its Hugo award than many other nominees and even some past winners.

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