Book Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

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.

(Via Goodreads)

Award-winning author Mary Robinette Kowal

My Thoughts

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

Plot

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.

Characters

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.

Theme

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.

Ending

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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The Hopeful Wanderer 42 – Dreams of Home

While ducking under the bone-bare branches of a snowy wood, I came face to face with a pale barn owl. It perched on an aspen branch at the exact height to be eye level with me when I stepped around the tree’s trunk. I found myself close enough to count the small feathers on its face and to become quite familiar with the wicked curve of its beak. I took a swift step backward out of striking range.

“Excuse me,” the owl hooted. The muffling effect of the snow grabbed at the low sound. “I have no dreams of my own and I cannot sleep without them. Would you lend me one of yours?”

I glanced around at the dim afternoon light filtering through the gray clouds above. Nothing else moved out there in the cold. Regarding the owl once more, I thought this nocturnal creature must have been awake a very long time now. “You may keep the dream,” I said. “I will have little need for it back.”

“Very good,” said the owl. “Might I request a dream of home?”

So often was the case that those I met already knew I wandered, I felt a faint surprise. “I am a Wanderer,” I explained. “I have no dreams of home.”

“I know what you are.” The owl blinked canny black eyes. “Not everyone has a home,” it continued, “but all feel a yearning for someplace.”

I stilled, thinking. The owl shuffled its feathery wings, patient. Waiting.

At last, I said, “When I dream of that place, I dream of the night sky.” I wondered if I should give such a thing away after all.

The insomniac owl cocked its head. “That will do nicely,” it said. “But once I’ve slept, I believe I will return it to you.”

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The Hopeful Wanderer 41 – Wreckage Recollected

Every wrecked window of the fallen airplane contained a different story. The story that interested me existed at the front of the plane. Or it would have, if the crash hadn’t shorn the cockpit windows clean off when it plowed the plane’s nose into the ground.

I stood on the spine of a once-white, narrow-body airliner. Fire had gutted the insides black sometime before the crash and the elements had scoured the company logo from the outside sometime after. If I squinted, the hulk appeared as some great beached marine creature with too many eyes or mouths, crouched here on the shore. The tide could not budge it and the locals had no use for this particular spit of black sand, so here it remained.

Damp from a chill, clinging fog soaked my shirtfront as I stretched lengthwise on the forward end, head and arms hanging over the ragged edge of ripped metal, leaving the cockpit open to the skies. Dangling upside down like this shifted my perspective — the roar of breakers became the death rattle of compromised engines; wind whistling through exposed wiring grew into the screams of doomed passengers.

I squeezed my eyes shut. I knew the real story ended in passengers, attendants, and pilots parachuting to safely. What I heard in my mind was what might have been. Because somehow the pilots had angled the plane to land successfully on this beach, everyone would have lived anyway.

The empty cavity of the cockpit looked meaningfully back at me.
Well… Everyone except the pilots, apparently.

I rolled over onto my back to ease the blood rushing to my head and patted the plane’s metallic hide with a hollow clank. This plane had no voice to speak to me, but I heard its story all the same.

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The Hopeful Wanderer 40 – Macabre Collaboration

From a nearby pond, I heard a very small argument. More of a berating, actually. A tiny voice pierced the peace of the meadow where I lay napping.

“You must fly!” it shrilled. “How else can we be together?”

With a groan, I sat upright, immediately spotting the speaker. A handsome blue and black butterfly perched upon the snout of one vibrant green frog, who had mostly submerged herself beneath the still pond surface. She gazed at the butterfly with sadness in her large golden eyes.

“Well?” the butterfly demanded.

The frog remained silent.

“She is not shaped for flying,” I called out. “Anyone can see her talents lie elsewhere.”

“Don’t be preposterous!” the butterfly said. “We’re so alike already, of course my love shall fly.”

I rested my arms on my knees. “Why does it matter?”

“The flowers here have wilted with the summer suns,” he said. His long antennae wriggled in agitation. “I must migrate or die.”

Of the frog, I asked, “What do you think?”

The frog sank lower into the water. “I cannot fly,” she croaked. “Or leave this pond. But I have a solution.” With that, she dove underwater, leaving the butterfly flapping and sputtering.

Soon she resurfaced with a struggling minnow in her mouth. This she spat onto the pebbly shore. We all watched as the small fish flopped around until it suffocated to death.

“Butterflies can consume flesh,” the frog explained, pleased with herself.

“So they can,” the butterfly said. “Well done, my love!” He swooped in to plant a kiss on the frog’s nose before landing on the fish, where he fell to eating.

The frog placidly snapped another butterfly from the air with her long tongue. It went down with a faint scream while I re-positioned and went back to sleep.


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The Hopeful Wanderer 39 – The Hardest of Hearts

A thump sounded beside me as an object landed in the springy moss along the dirt path where I walked. Following its trajectory, I figured it had come from a house crowding this side of the walkway; a lacy curtain stirred in a high open window, but no light filtered from within. There was no one in sight.

In the moss at my feet, a pale, stone heart reflected the moonlight. Someone had thrown it from the window above, cast it aside as worthless. Studying the heart, I disagreed. Though dings and dents marred its smooth surface, this heart had never broken, not even with this most recent fall. A brass key and padlock hung from the top by a strip of white ribbon, the key elegantly wrought, the padlock plain.

I crouched down, my outstretched fingers hovering just over the heart. I pitied its fate, thrown away like this.

The moment dragged out. But then I curled my empty hand closed and straightened. Stepping around the heart, I continued on my way, footsteps whispering in the moss. The heart had never broken, I realized, because the owner had never unlocked it for anyone.

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The Hopeful Wanderer 38 – Howler Alarms

Clusters of bells hung in every archway of an old stone city. At the center of each was the original bell and along both sides of its dark, weathered chain, smaller bells clung like uneven bunches of brass fruit.

I stood below one such cluster, listening to their small clappers shivering in the breeze. Bright purple ribbons festooned the cross chain, pops of color on this gray afternoon.

“What are you for?” I asked. People passing by in the narrow cobbled street looked at me oddly, but did not interrupt my conversation.

Atop the largest bell, the etched face of a god gazed down at me, but gave no reply.

I tried again. “Directive?”

The main bell pivoted on its shackle, sending up a cacophony of ringing from its neighbors. The street emptied of exactly everyone.

Beneath the continued shrill noise, a low moan rose. Hands snagged my upper arm, dragging me into a doorway as a hideous rush of wind tore up the street, blasting the skin from the back of my outflung hand. I gasped, snatching it against the safety of my chest. Hot, sticky blood ran down my wrist.

My rescuer bundled me inside and someone else slammed the door behind us. We all gasped for breath as two women with identical brown faces looked me over, one tutting about my bleeding hand, the other critical.

“The bells warn of the howlers,” said my rescuer. “Didn’t you read the notice at the gate?”

My mouth worked. I, in fact, had not. I inclined my head to her. “Thank you for saving me.”

They sent me on my way with a bandage around my skinned hand. Outside, I threw a glare toward the unforthcoming bells; it seemed I should have asked a person after all.

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The Hopeful Wanderer 37 – Resting Gods

One of the rare times that I tripped, I happened to do so over the heads of a pair of gods, which I had mistaken for a pile of stones. Though they were sunk to their shoulders into the ground, they smiled contentedly at me. One had moss growing on its round cheeks and the other an orange lily blossom resting upon its rocky curls.

This I had knocked askew on my trip to the ground. I reached up to straighten it. “How did you two get stuck like this?”

“We sat down here and we just didn’t feel like getting back up,” said the mossy one. “I mean, look at this place.”

Trying not to think about how stone eyes could see, I took in the glade around us. Moss grew everywhere in a thick verdant carpet, clinging to the roots of stumps and the trunks of trees. A clear stream meandered by, babbling over stones in showers of spray, enticing heavy white blossoms up out of the rich, black earth. Blue and orange butterflies flitted lazily from shade to sun and back, wings flashing in the light. Vines grew up and around and over everything.

Taking a seat next to the gods, I worked off my shoes. Moss tickled my toes and cooled my aching heels; a large fern frond draped around my shoulders in welcome. This was a place for resting.

Knowing I could not stay, I released a wistful sigh.

“Do you see?” the blossom god asked.

My lungs filled with fresh air, but my bones felt weightier. I understood how one might become stone from tarrying here too long.

“Yes,” I said, “I believe I do.”

With that, I closed my eyes and fell asleep with a couple of stone gods for company.

I’m always tired, so please consider buying me a coffee to keep me awake while I write the next story. To read more free original short fiction, hit that follow button, subscribe through email, or throw a like on the Word Nerd Scribbles Facebook page.