THE CALCULATING STARS, by Mary Robinette Kowal


Some time ago I read and reviewed Mary Robinette Kowal’s short story “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”, one of the most poignant tales I remember encountering and which focused on the hard choice facing one of the pioneers of Mars colonization, who had to decide between accepting an exploratory mission or staying home with her dying husband in his last few days of life.  When this prequel novel was announced I was happy and eager to learn the story of mankind’s colonization of the Red Planet, and the background of this striking character – and having enjoyed Ms. Kowal’s Glamourists fantasy series, I was curious to read her work in a different genre.

The premise for The Calculating Stars is a dramatic one: in 1952 a meteorite hits the eastern American seaboard, obliterating cities, killing millions and creating a vast number of refugees – but the worst damage is yet to come, because the long-range consequence will be a rise in temperatures that will render the Earth uninhabitable.  Humanity must seek a new home, and the budding space program must be speeded up to provide the means to relocate the peoples of Earth on Mars, the closest alternative to a dying Earth.

Elma York and her husband Nathaniel are already part of the space program, she as a proficient mathematician, he as an engineer, and now they pour their combined efforts in this endeavor, but Elma also dreams of being an astronaut: during World War II she flew support missions together with a team or other women, which means she already possesses the right skills to train for spaceships.  Unfortunately, the times’ overall mindset is male-oriented, so that Elma and the others must fight fiercely against prejudice to be accepted as astronauts, a battle that moves on a parallel track to that for civil rights.

I did rather enjoy reading The Calculating Stars, and yet it somehow fell short of my expectations for a number of reasons, the main one being that while I appreciate Kowal’s focus on gender and racial issues, whose “vibes” brought back fond memories of that wonderful movie that was Hidden Figures,  I think that focus was too intense and geared toward “preaching mode” rather than a show of the situation from which the readers would have to draw their own conclusions, so that this choice ultimately worked to the detriment of story and character development.  Moreover, these concerns seem to completely overshadow the tragedy of the meteorite strike, including its short- and long-term consequences: we are being told of the fearsome devastation wrought by the impact, of the countless dead, of the food shortages and the riots that at times erupt because of them, but it all sounds so… remote, such incidents looking more like stage props than real life events.  Yes, we see plane-fuls of refugees being carted away from the disaster areas – and we get a mention of discrimination at work once we are made to understand that evacuees are prioritized by race – but after a while no further mention is made of those displaced people, or what their destiny was. Or again, we learn about food shortages on one hand and of the ability of the privileged to obtain such luxury items as gourmet food and alcohol on the other, but the issue is glossed over, with no further comments on the basic injustice of it.

Worse still, there is no sense of the urgency that should be there if time were indeed running out for mother Earth, nor there seems to be any planning about the sheer mechanics of survival once colonies on the Moon first and then Mars are established, or even about how to get huge numbers of people over there. I’ve read enough post-apocalyptic stories to know that the basic questions in this specific case would focus on who will be relocated to the new colonies and how the hard choice of who to save and who to leave behind will be made, while here the emphasis is all on the way to build reliable rockets and on the crews that will man them, with hardly a thought spared for the practicalities of building a new home on another planet. There might be more about it in the next book for this series, but here it does look, at best, like faulty organization by the powers that be.

As for Elma, at first she seems very relatable – she’s a woman gifted with bright intelligence and courage, who actively participated in the war and is passionate about launching mankind toward the stars, but she’s held back by a fatal flaw: she’s unable to speak in public, and every time she’s forced to do so, she’s paralyzed by fear and violent physical reactions, to the point that the readers are treated to several instances of projectile vomiting that soon lost their dramatic impact for me because of the repetition. This dichotomy in character representation is carried out throughout the story, and where I was puzzled at first – a woman who was strong enough to fly planes into enemy territory, now cowers behind her husband when doing a presentation? – I became annoyed soon enough when this trait seemed to be the only defining one for Elma, especially because it looked quite at odds with the women’s battle to deny the times’ misconception that their emotions would make them unfit for any role traditionally held by males. Not to mention being at odds with the person described in the original novelette, one whose depiction immediately endeared her to me…  Maybe she will change in the next novel, and I hope so, but for now this younger Elma proved to be something of a letdown.

In conclusion, while I appreciate Ms. Kowal’s effort in dealing with the issues of empowerment and inclusion, I believe they took over the narrative and ultimately unbalanced it, turning what was a potentially intriguing story into a slightly disappointing one. Hopefully, the next book in the series will fare better…


My Rating:

30 thoughts on “THE CALCULATING STARS, by Mary Robinette Kowal

  1. I’m fascinated by this review because so many readers loved this (I haven’t read it yet myself). I enjoy seeing another perspective that deals with some of its flaws. Did you know there is a new Lady Astronauts novel coming out next year?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m aware of the second book in the series – The Fated Sky – and I would like to see if there is some improvement from the problems I perceived in this one. It was sort of distressing for me not to be able to fully appreciate a MR Kowal work….

      Liked by 1 person

      1. So what I was going to comment below- is that if you felt that this book is preachy, The Fated Sky is probably not going to make you any happier. That one felt very preachy to me while this one didn’t. I see where you are coming from though.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. You’ll know right from the first scene if you can stand it. I remember reading the first scene and A) being totally baffled because I didn’t feel like the first book was preachy or forced, and B) it set the tone for the rest of the book that I just wasn’t going to enjoy it. I still gave it 3 Stars and plan to continue.. but yeah. Hoping The Relentless Moon will be better.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a book that’s on my TBR and I thoroughly enjoyed your detailed, thoughtful review. I’m looking forward to reading it, as I love the premise, but I will also bear in mind your issues…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve checked some of the reviews and saw that they are mostly positive, but the not-so-glowing ones seem to share my own misgivings – although I guess it’s more a matter of point of view than anything else, so I look forward to your take on this story!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is one I’d like to read at some point, but so far the majority of reviews I’ve seen have been tepid with middling ratings. Your conclusion though, highlights the problem I have with so many SFF books today. I love a good message, but so many authors get carried away with it and let it take over their story, and “preaching mode” is definitely a turn off.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve discovered, after posting the review, that Kowal was inspired by “Hidden Figures” which saddens me – considering how I enjoyed her other works I read – because that movie did know how to be both subtle and thought-provoking. But sometimes, when an issue is too close to our heart, we feel the need to *drive* the point home….


  4. I actually really loved this one and felt like it was one where she finally got the issues she wanted to highlight integrated into the story more seamlessly than some of her previous works (I remember at least one or two of the Glamourist books where she did some stuff that didn’t work well for me because it just stuck out way too much). I know what you mean though and sorry this one didn’t work for you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am sorry too that it did not work for me as I expected and hoped. The contradictions – or rather what I perceived as such – in character portrayal and story-telling did get to me in a way that the Glarourists novels never did. Thinking about it, I could overlook some of that series’ “imperfections” because of the times the story was placed in, but with a more modern time-frame I expected something more. Still, I will give Book 2 a chance, because I like Kowal’s work and… who knows?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m sorry to hear this one fell short for you. You’re right of course – it’s not subtle in the points it makes (I just didn’t mind :D) and your points about what happened to the displaced people and the gap in planning for ‘what happens when we get there’ are very well-founded. Sure, Elma and Nathaniel inhabit a laser focused bubble and there could be some other team working just as single-mindedly on colonisation, but it would have been easy (and helpful, in retrospect) to acknowledge these things. Perhaps The Fated Sky will make this clearer – or perhaps the gap is intentional and it will make that clearer I guess 😉

    I was more forgiving of Elma’s flaw, as it’s one I share – if not to the same extent, thankfully! So I never questioned that speaking to people (especially ones predisposed to disagree/disbelieve) is a different psychological challenge to flying an aircraft. The former might not kill you, but that’s almost worse – you’ll have to live with the consequences if you mess it up…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m not keen on speaking in front of people either, and I can empathize with the fear and paralyzing dread that overtake people when they have to move to center stage, but what really got to me was Elma’s constantly deferring to her husband (as nice and understanding as he was) in those instances: it looked to me as a negation of the drive to paint women in a different light. But that’s just me…🙄
    Still I hope that by the second book some of these problems will be straightened out…


  7. I commented above but also wanted to add with the presentation/speaking thing- this is definitely a real thing that happens. I’m also terrified of public speaking. I have no problem working under stress, in high pressure situations, but when it comes to public speaking I’m just at a loss. There’s nothing in the world less I’d rather do. Great review anyway- I hope you enjoy your next read a little more!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This is a series that was originally on my radar, and I really liked the sound of it, but then it got bumped down the list and kind of dropped off all together – simply because of too many other commitments. I don’t imagine I’ll add it back to the TBR but the glamourist series is on there and it’s a series that I’m still keen to read.
    Lynn 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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