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.