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…