Monday, August 20, 2018

Microreview [book]: The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal

More than just achieving a sense of wonder, the science of The Calculating Stars is magic. Kowal brings the dream of spaceflight beyond the page and into readers' hearts.

Several years ago I had the honor of attending a military event where Elizabeth Strohfus was the keynote speaker. Strohfus was a WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilot), a group of female pilots who augmented the Army Air Corps in World War II to free up male pilots to fly overseas in combat capacity. Strohfus told her story and the story of the other WASPs, of how hard they trained, of how they later trained male and female pilots, tested new aircraft, flew aircraft into actual combat theatres overseas, and also towed targets behind their aircraft so that male pilots could practice with live ammunition. Think about that last bit for a moment.

Everything about Strohfus’s story was remarkable. These women wanted so badly to fly and they put up with so much. Cast off uniforms from the men, disrespect and open antagonism from male pilots and administration, not being considered military (any WASP who died during service was not accorded military benefits and her family would be responsible for paying for the transport of her body), and worst of all, open sabotage from the male pilots. That’s a thing that happened. It pissed me off when I first heard Strohfus’s story and it pisses me off now.

The Calculating Stars from Mary Robinette Kowal is the story of Elma York, a former WASP pilot turned computer for NACA (a forerunner of NASA). If you’ve read Kowal’s Hugo Award winning story “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”, you know how Elma’s story ends. The Calculating Stars is how it begins, assuming of course Kowal doesn’t later tell stories of Elma’s days as a WASP (since that is Elma’s true beginning). Elma just wants to fly. She’s a better pilot, smarter, and a quicker thinker than most of the men. But since she’s not a man, her role was as mathematician who never stopped dreaming of the sky and the stars.

In the aftermath of a meteorite strike that obliterates Washington D.C. and puts humanity on a course towards extinction, the future of human life is in space and NACA is kickstarting the space program. Kowal brings readers in on the ground floor towards manned space flight and the discrimination Elma York faces as she tries to get women to be seriously considered for the astronaut program. If humanity’s future is on another world, women will need to be included at some point. The Calculating Stars tells the story of how that happens. That's not so much a spoiler as an acknowledgement that the front cover and spine of this books has the tag "A Lady Astronaut Novel". There is a certain expectation for where this is going to go, for where this has to go regardless of your familiarity with "The Lady Astronaut of Mars".

Friends, I loved this book. Let's just get that out of the way right now. I absolutely loved it.

There are certain story beats that are familiar if you've read (or seen) Hidden Figures. The Calculating Stars is the story of a woman (and women) rising up and overcoming obstacles and more than earning a spot at the table, a spot that by skill, scholarship, and accomplishment that a man would have been granted for doing less. It's the age old story, but it's exceptionally well told. Elma York has to fight to overcome both institutional sexism as well as the personal sexism and disdain of the most famous astronaut in the corps. That aspect of the novel can be exhausting. It's more than that, too, because Kowal notes the racism of the time - of the further opportunities denied because of the color of a woman's skin. It doesn't all become too much, but there is a significant weight to the novel because of all of it.

This is part of what makes Elma's story so thrilling - that she has so much bullshit to overcome that she shouldn't. It would be a thrilling story just to become an astronaut, just to get to go to space - with or without the stakes of the Earth potentially becoming uninhabitable. Elma and the other women overcoming the sexism and racism, that just makes the accomplishment all the sweeter (if still frustrating to read).

It's not just Elma overcoming everything stacked against her that makes The Calculating Stars such a fantastic read, it's the completely thrilling mundanity of a countdown towards a launch. It's the checklists and the waiting. It's tremendous and exhilarating. We've been on this journey with Elma for some four hundred pages and The Calculating Stars is beyond a sense of wonder. I'd say that it's magic, but it's science. It's near perfection.

It's everything encompassed in this quote that I'll close with.
Weeping would be an unfortunate choice. I am an astronaut. I am inside a space-suit. And I am going into space today.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 because The Calculating Stars captures as accurately as possible what it would have taken to get women into the space program under impossible circumstances and make it feel both authentic and modern.

Penalties: -1 for the sometimes exhaustion of Elma needing to fight overt and subtle sexism over and over and over again.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10, "very high quality/standout in its category" See more about our scoring system here.

Reference: Kowal, Mary Robinette. The Calculating Stars [Tor, 2018]

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 & 2018 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.