The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I decided to participate with the Sword and Laser book club for the February 2018 pick. Before I get to the review proper this was a very interesting time to be reading this particular book. At Farpoint 2019 I attended a panel about SFF books in alternate timelines. Simultaneously I read The Just City which makes the point that our moon missions should have been called Artemis, not Apollo for Apollo is the god of the sun and Artemis of the moon. I wonder if it was just in America’s 1960s we couldn’t name something as militarily important as the moon missions after a goddess? Also, in the book they think about launching from Brazil and I just saw a headline a few weeks ago about one of the US private space companies considering launching from Brazil. And I recently learned that female astronauts were a real thing that politicians killed because of ego.
This book made me mad so often at the way we treated people in the US in the 1950s. And it was made even worse by the past decade’s calls by the Boomers and Conservative’s calls to return America to the way it was back then. The 50s was this transition period where were were now allowing women to get engineering (and other traditionally male) degrees, but then not allowing them to do the most meaningful work with those degrees. Our main character is a polymath with a PhD and is more often referred to as Mrs something than Dr. Something. While reading this book, the most annoying thing was that her husband (her biggest ally) rarely understood what she was going through. I think that was MRK making the characters more realistic, but I’m used to my fictional male allies being all-knowning. And I kept feeling like her husband was screwing it up.
There were, of course, the upsetting ways that African Americans and Jews were treated, but those were more offshoots of Dr. York’s interactions with African Americans and a couple (relatively rare) anti-semitic things she had to deal with as a Jew herself.
Actually, going to the religion brings me back to the authenticity of this novel. I thought it was pretty realistic that in the face of losing everything she decides the rituals that define who she is and where she comes from are more important. She doesn’t become a fanatic, just decides to make sure to honor her heritage. Not only was her husband’s clueless behavior authentic, but I also found their sex life to be pretty authentic. And that’s something that’s often missing from non-romance novels. In my experience there’s the erotic sex scene or the one-night stand that appears in most SFF. Not so often just a regular husband/wife relationship, flirting, etc. Also, the constant need to keep Congress on track in the face of a long-term threat like greenhouse gasses was only too real.
I think this is an interesting story because MRK hasn’t changed much and yet it’s also a huge change. I like that it works well as a self-contained story. I’m already involved in too many series and I don’t think I’m doing to explore any of the rest of the Lady Astronaut series, but I will be on the lookout for more Mary Robinette Kowal books and stories.
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