Hugo Novels: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

History takes a slight turn. President Dewey (instead of Truman) is the post WW2 US President but early 1950s America is much the same. Women, having become a vital part of the workforce during the war are being pressured to return to a more traditional role. Overt segregation is still the norm in much of America but a civil rights movement is working against it. It’s a world that imagines itself unburdened but which is actually in free-fall through social and technological change.

Then a meteorite hits.

Elma Wexler York is a former child prodigy. The ambitious daughter of a general and a doctor, her life up to moment of the astronomical impact has been one of privilege and good fortune, all be it privilege frequently limited by her gender. Combining a love of mathematics and of aircraft, she was an accomplished W.A.S.P. pilot during the war, ferrying fighter aircraft for the US Air Force. Post war she works as a ‘computer’ in America’s satellite program where her equally smart husband Nathaniel York is chief engineer.

The meteorite impacts changes America permanently. With Washington DC destroyed and much of the eastern seaboard devestated by tsunamis, the Yorks have to survive not only the immediate impact but also adjust to the new reality of America post-impact. Worse, Elma’s own calculations show that immediate damage from the impact will be small compared to the climatic changes yet to come caused by the meteorite.

This is Elma’s second outing as a character. She first appeared in the novelette ‘The Lady Astronaut of Mars’ (https://www.tor.com/2013/09/11/the-lady-astronaut-of-mars/ ) which has its own complex Hugo nomination history, as well as a 2014 Hugo for Best Novelette. In the novelette, we meet Elma much later in life, living on Mars and faced with a personal dilemma.

The Calculating Stars has a more grounded aesthetic than it’s predecessor, and aims to present a plausible alternative history where the space program is accelerated and is also a more international collaboration. In the centre of this effort is Dr Elma York who desperately wants to go into space but who must also navigate through the complexities of 1950s America.

It’s an engaging fictional autobiography of a remarkable person — the kind of multi-talented character that you find in accounts of America’s space program. Drive, talent, brains and luck conspire to put Elma in a spotlight but the attention that comes with it reveals Elma’s greatest weakness: social anxiety in crowds when she is the focus of attention. Ironically the press characterising her preemptively as ‘The Lady Astronaut’ complicates her attempts to actually become an astronaut.

I did really enjoy this. I found Elma an engaging and emotionally honest character. Her naivety about the society she lives in, tests her understanding of the world far more than the orbital mechanics problems at which she excels. She only begins to start grasping the deep racism in her society in the wake of the meteorite impact and despite having encountered her fair share of sexism, the obstacles she encounters even once women are accepted for astronaut training drive the conflicts in the story.

As a setting, there’s a brilliance to using this time period of space flight. It is a period of heroic pilots and mathematics at a human scale. Solving orbital mechanics problems in your head is a believable skill and allows the story to have its fair share of heroic people who are just really good at what they do. Even the nearest thing to an antagonist (the misogynistic Stetson Parker) is a genuinely talented pilot and effective teacher.

I hadn’t expected how strong the post-apocalyptic themes were in the very early parts of the book and I was disappointed that the return to normality (aside from the space program and one food riot) happens so quickly in the book. Not that it is implausible (especially given that there is a bit of time jump) but I just enjoyed that aspect earlier in the book and I think it added to the whole.

I think is going to be a strong contender.

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11 thoughts on “Hugo Novels: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

  1. This is my number 2 after Spinning Silver. Mainly because fantasy is more my thing rather than anything specific to this one. I still need to read Becky Chambers’ book.

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  2. This is going to be first on my ballot. It’s not a perfect novel — as you say, the return to relative normalcy is a little too smooth — but it’s very, very good. The amount of astronaut-y research the author has done, and the non-infodumpy way she has worked that into the story, really brings the realities of that profession to life for the reader.

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    1. I found it quite moving also. It’s a shame the Sad Pups would dismiss this out of hand, because it’s also got a very high classic clever-engineers get people into space quotient.

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  3. I really can’t think about how I’m going to rank the novels yet, but this is going to be a strong contender. The idea of the space program running slightly earlier and much more urgently creates such great story possibilities.
    A minor thing I really liked was the portrayal of Elma’s marriage – we don’t get enough long-term relationships depicted well IMO.

    A bit of the alt-history I thought was slightly off was how the space program was portrayed as nominally international but for practical purposes was US-led. While that’s realistic for actual history, that was influenced by the power of the US causing other countries to want to closely ally themselves with them against the USSR.
    In this alt-history, MRK rather casually disposes of the USSR as a relevant power due to the effects of the meteor, and of course the US has been badly weakened by said meteor….
    So with two main motivations to accept US leadership removed or weakened, I didn’t see why history should automatically follow that course again.

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    1. Definite plus on depiction of a happy & supportive marriage (with added poignancy given the outcome in the Lady Astronaut Novella). The sexy-times conversations? Um, well I’m sure they are plausible but I’d rather not…

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  4. I have one problem with the series but it’s kind of a big one: I don’t care for finely tuned disasters designed to force humanity into space. K/T 2: This Time It’s the Mammals’ Turn should have trashed the planet’s industrial base right off, and the nice long delay between strike and boilification is convenient but implausible.

    (But climate modeling was in its infancy in the 1950s so it’s possible the models being used are, well, wrong about the impact causing a runaway greenhouse effect)

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      1. Nuclear winter and the aftereffects are a staple of 1950s and 1960s science fiction, so their climate modelling accuracy isn’t that not unbelievable.

        I still don’t like the book, though.

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