The Calculating Stars Synopsis
On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.
Elma York’s experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too.
Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.
I came across The Calculating Stars by award-winning author Mary Robinette Kowal while perusing the Goodreads Choice Awards 2018 Science Fiction list. Lady astronauts? Hidden Figures vibes? Alternate universe featuring one of my favorite historical subjects? Sign me right up.
What I Liked
The Calculating Stars closely examines the entire process by which an era known for its traditional gender roles might be rocked on its foundation when the impact of a meteorite accelerates the progress of gender equality. At no point is this easy. The multitude of fierce, intelligent, and brave women battle gender stereotyping on every page as the narrative spotlights the intense riptide of sexism prevalent in their everyday lives. Though so many women work as calculators capable of more perfect accuracy than IBM computers, the relevancy of their work has to take a backseat to changing the public’s social view of a woman’s assumed fragility. Who less qualified to step into the public’s eye to accomplish just that than a socially anxious math nerd like Elma York? She believes women and minorities should have equal opportunity in scientific fields, but the audience gets to watch as she grows into this steadfast mentality.
Permeated throughout this examination is the atmosphere of working at what would have been NASA if it had existed a little earlier in history — calculating the first trip into space, overcoming the challenges of implementing a space station, dreaming of reaching the moon and beyond in the race to save humanity from a planet Earth preparing to fry itself to death.
The characters of The Calculating Stars felt like real colleagues, the kind of people I could see myself working with as coworkers and getting to know over the course of a few years. Elma and her husband Nathaniel complement each other both as lovers and as partners. I appreciate how Nathaniel never needs Elma to play the traditional feminine role, and often expresses himself with natural emotions, communication with her, and thoughtfulness, all while juggling a difficult job. Elma’s rival, who perpetuates the very stifling gender stereotypes she battles throughout, gets to show both his awful sides and his good sides in such a human fashion that both regularly blindside Elma. Other characters bring values that matter to the story, but all of them present like just one aspect of many that these people might have.
Women getting what they want. Though the women characters of The Calculating Stars struggle and fight with various different tactics against persistent stereotyping, sexism, mockery, and belittling, the narrative also sprinkles in satisfaction for these women throughout. When they successfully pass a test, during sexual intercourse, in motherhood, in life threatening dangers, as homemakers, as career women. I could probably count the number of books that present this much satisfaction for women on one hand. The number of such science fiction books fits on just two fingers.
The Calculating Stars ends on a high note, but with the promise of more difficulty ahead. The next arc seems to indicate a requirement to convince the public of the dangers of remaining on earth much longer, as well as an examination of racism in choosing who will first get to colonize space.
What I Disliked
The complication of cattiness among women put me off at first, but the narrative of The Calculating Starsresolves this particular unhelpful stereotype in a realistic and wholesome fashion, as if it meant to unpack the connotation that goes with it all along.
My rating: 5 stars
Goodreads rating: 4.21 stars
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