Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series continues to offer an almost Campbellian approach to science fiction with her alternative history series. Set in an alternate 1960s where a cataclysmic meteorite crash has plunged the Earth into a climate crisis and spurned on space exploration, the first two novels followed the back story of Elma York, the heroine of her much earlier short story The Lady Astronaut of Mars.
I say Campbellian, because this is an epic series about bold people with top piloting skills, sharp mathematical brains and a dedication to treating the perils of space as engineering problems to be solved. They are also books that would probably make John W Campbell apoplectic, as Kowal puts second-wave feminism front and centre with York having to fight institutional and personal prejudices to become an astronaut and also brings in the racial politics of 1950s/60s America. And while her major characters have all the supposed ‘right stuff’ to venture into space, their apparent hyper-competence masks complex emotional and mental health issues.
Although very different in style and genre to the many re-workings/re-appropriations of H.P.Lovecraft-style fiction we have seen in recent years, there is a similar transform being applied. Take an older style and re-examine it under a critical lens for the underlying prejudices and societal expectation — tease those out and then turn them and apply what we know about society. It is by no means a trivial task and Kowal has accomplished it with skill.
The books enter the Hugo lists again this year in two forms. Firstly book 3 (The Relentless Moon) is a finalist for Best Novel and secondly the whole series is up for Best Series.
I listened to the audio books of two books in the series, having read the first in 2019. An advantage and disadvantage of the audio is that is performed by Mary Robinette Kowal who is a thoroughly entertaining voice actor but…who really, really needs some help with some of the foreign accents she is attempting.
The Fated Sky, follows Elma York through humanity’s first attempt to fly to Mars. It is a well driven story that pulls in political tensions on Earth and then tracks the events of an interplanetary voyage using early 1960s technology. If you want claustrophobic space adventure it certainly delivers. However, it also is very much a season 2 of drama that felt very fresh in season 1 but which offers the same thing in the next set of episodes but with different events. Characters do develop (in particular Elma’s long-term rival/opponent Stetson Parker) and the collision between the alternate-history’s politics and the actual changes in 60s America around civil rights add a deeper dimension to the story. I genuinely enjoyed it but finished it unsure if I wanted to read a third story just like it but just moved on a few more years. Also, the focus on the long Mars mission meant that the complexities on Earth had to take a back seat once the key characters were trapped in the long void between planets.
Well, there is a reason why Kowal is a professional writer. Book 3 cleverly defied my expectations. With Elma York stuck in a tin-can, The Relentless Moon changes the protagonist and tweaks the genre expectations. Set in roughly the same time period as The Fated Sky, we follow Nicole Wargin a side character from the first book.
Wargin, like York, is an experienced pilot whose World War 2 experience helped her become one of the first set of women to go into space during the events of book 1 The Calculating Stars. Unlike York, Wargin is a wealthy, socially connected woman who is also the wife of the Governor of Kansas — the state that post meteor, now also houses the US capitol and is the centre of the space program. However, in other ways Wargin is a hero very much in the same mould as York: she is a very capable woman with socially progressive (for the 1960s) views but with a privileged background. While York has to deal with chronic anxiety, Wargin’s cool, calm, collected demeanour covers up her long-standing eating disorder. She is also a woman with a secret, which I shan’t reveal here but which I found to be nicely revealed and which was cleverly introduced in fragments and retrospectively explains a great deal about the character.
The broad template of The Relentless Moon follows a similar model as the earlier books. The initial chapters are set on Earth and we learn a lot about the politics and social dimensions of the desperate space program and post-meteor society. Wargin must overcome sexism to get herself back into space and also in the process has to come to understand the other prejudices that riddle the world she lives in. Those chapters lead Wargin back into space and follow her onto a role on Earth’s growing moon colony.
However, where the earlier books narrative arc were determined by the episodes and events of the central mission, The Relentless Moon has a different story dynamic. The space mission faces opposition by a reactionary/populist movement and Wargin finds herself investigating possible sabotage and infiltration of the Moonbase. The focus on solving the practical difficulties of living in space with only 1960s technology remains, it is just that many of those practical problems (including a polio outbreak) are complicated by more active human malice.
The detective story element doesn’t feel tacked on. It integrates nicely with the existing style of the books and if you enjoyed either of the earlier books, The Relentless Moon delivers the same strong elements but with an added perspective that I welcomed.
It isn’t quite a stand-alone book and the eventual resolution of events not only ties it back to the events in book 2 but also marks another shift in the radical social change going on in Kowal’s post-meteor society. However, you can quite reasonably read The Relentless Moon and The Fated Sky in either order and I can see an argument for reading them in reverse order (some events will be spoiled but not drastically).
Hugo wise? The Relentless Moon is a reasonable finalist and deserves its place but simply isn’t as groundbreaking as The Calculating Stars. It isn’t likely to be my number 1 pick but not because of any particular flaws. It is a strong entry in the series though, which takes us to the other question of Best Series. I’ve struggled with this category but this year I’ve actually read a hefty chunk of the finalists and Kowal’s books are a very strong entry. Consistency isn’t a relevant virtue for Best Novel but is an important aspect of Best Series and this series has three very strong books (and one piece of shorter fiction that kicked the whole thing off). Too early to say if the series will be my number 1 pick but it is a strong contender.