Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Microreview [Book]: The Fated Sky, by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Fated Sky stands well on its own but, when coupled with The Calculating Stars, is a masterpiece.

"Do you remember where you were when the stars came out? I was with my husband, on Mars."
After reading The Calculating Stars (my review) earlier this year, I wrote about how Mary Robinette Kowal did more than achieve a sense of wonder, she brought the dream of spaceflight beyond the page and directly into readers hearts. The Calculating Stars was a masterful novel that will surely find a place on many Year's Best lists and a number of awards ballots. It's a lot to live up to, but the near perfection of The Calculating Stars only serves to whet the appetite for The Fated Sky.

The Fated Sky picks up a few years after the end of The Calculating Stars. There is a fledgling base and colony on the moon, regular round trip missions from the earth to the moon, and the IAC (International Aerospace Coalition) is planning for its first Mars mission. Each of the two books are tagged as "Lady Astronaut" novels and Mary Robinette Kowal won a Hugo Award for her story "The Lady Astronaut of Mars". We know how the progression of Elma's story, where she ends up. It isn't about spoiling the ending, the beauty of The Fated Sky is in the journey. In this case, a journey to Mars.

I watched Hidden Figures (again) earlier in the day that I wrote this review and while the stronger comparison is to the first Lady Astronaut novel, The Calculating Stars, the story of the three black women overcoming institutional, societal, and personal prejudice and racism resonates with the story being told by Mary Robinette Kowal. It's not the same thing, let's be clear of that. The story of Elma York is the story of a white woman overcoming sexism to reach the stars, but as Kowal acknowledges throughout the two novels with the experiences of the men and women of color, there is still privilege in that prejudice. There is back story in the Lady Astronaut novels touching on the racism and oppression faced by black men and women in the United States as seen through the lens of the astronauts of color who have to work harder and receive fewer opportunities than their white counterparts. This is seen even in the character of Elma York who, despite her own struggles with systemic prejudice, is still advanced over those peers who do not share her skin color. To Kowal's credit, this is something continually acknowledged and addressed.

Knowing that Elma York eventually does arrive on the red planet and early enough to receive the moniker of "The Lady Astronaut of Mars", the opening of the novel serves to move characters and story around to get Elma onto that Mars mission. One of those characters moved is Helen Carmouche, Elma's friend and, incidentally, a woman of Asian descent. It is a case of a minority once again being bumped for a white astronaut, and that for a white astronaut who hasn't done the same amount of work and has to catch up to the training of the rest of the crew. It's not that Elma York is not a qualified or skilled astronaut, it's that Elma is also a bit of a celebrity astronaut and her presence will help maintain the funding required for the mission. Taken in isolation, this is perhaps not a big deal. But, these things are never in isolation and are always an accumulation of slights and indignities. A notable and important part of The Fated Sky is Elma's growing understanding of her privilege and of the discrimination faced by some of her peers, as well as Elma's working through and working out how to support those peers in a way they would like to be supported.

The beating heart of The Fated Sky is the training for and journey to Mars, as seen through the eyes and perspective of Elma York. It is so good. The sense of wonder from The Calculating Stars is still there, but it's different now. Elma has already been to space. There's still joy in the voyage, but it's not new. It's not shiny. It is wonderful. Training for Mars offers its own set of challenges, but Elma does not have to prove that she belongs in the program the same way she did in the previous novel.

Space travel, however, is something else. Kowal gets across both the monotony of the daily routine tasks of space travel as well as the hair's breadth precariousness of the whole enterprise, where a clogged toilet is a serious health concern and not cleaning the lint traps in a dryer can be a life threatening emergency.

Kowal shines in the intersection of the interpersonal relationships with the science and drama of space travel. Elma is as beautifully written as she was in The Calculating Stars, but there is a greater internal depth to her characterization. She continues to strive to overcome her imperfections, to do better as an astronaut, a colleague, and a human being. The most remarkable achievement in The Fated Sky was how Kowal handled the character of Stetson Parker, the misogynist (and all around asshole) senior astronaut who spent much of The Calculating Stars working against Elma's achievement. Here he is the mission commander making the on-the-spot decisions and judgments. Parker issues with Elma remain. They don't like each other, seldom give the other benefit of the doubt, and we well remember his background. He was Elma's antagonist in The Calculating Stars, but Kowal shows his humanity in The Fated Sky. He's not exactly likeable, though even Elma notes that he can be remarkably charming and that he knows how to manage people on an individual level during a mission or training scenario. A detente is reached, if not actual peace, when Elma and Stetson can begin to understand each other as people rather than opponents. At no point does Kowal diminish or sweep aside the very real issues with Stetson Parker as a person, but how his character is developed and explored is fascinating to follow.

The Fated Sky may not have the same newness and sense of wonder that only a first book in a series can have, but it delivers in all the ways that matter. The raw joy of being in space is there. The amazement of landing on a new planet is palpable, where it doesn't matter if you are the first man or woman to place your foot on that soil. The simple fact of being there is wondrous and Mary Robinette Kowal manages to convey that emotion so perfectly the reader experiences it.  The Fated Sky stands well on its own, but when coupled with The Calculating Stars it is a masterpiece.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 because Kowal overcomes the difficulty of losing that initial sense of discovery of the first novel and still delivers a novel just as powerful and wondrous as The Calculating Stars.

Penalties: -1 because even when she makes mistakes, Elma sometimes seems to be leading an overly charmed life of everything going her way.

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

Reference: Kowal, Mary Robinette. The Fated Sky [Tor, 2018]

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