The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

A Lady Astronaut Novel, Solaris, 2019, 506 p, including 3 p Acknowledgements and 6 p Historical Note.

The Calculating Stars cover

Each chapter of the book is prefaced by a cod news clipping. Kowal uses these to provide background (and commentary on the times) but takes care to make clear that this is an altered history in her first two words, President Dewey. In case you were in any doubt about the timeline, the chapter proper then starts with “Do you remember where you were when the Meteor hit?” Said meteor (actually, as Kowal points out, a meteorite) hits the sea just off Maryland on March, 3rd, 1952, and wipes out most of the surrounding area, US government and all. Narrator Elma (Wexler) and her husband Nathaniel York were luckily up in their mountain cabin and so survived. Elma is a woman of many talents, a mathematician, a pilot and a war veteran. Due to her hothousing in maths (and proficiency relative to her male counterparts, which in turn led to her being held up as an example to them; never a good place to be) she has developed a visceral fear of speaking in public, manifesting in a vomiting reflex. She is also the first to calculate the likely results of the impact. After the initial cooling phase due to reduced sunlight hitting the ground the volume of water raised into the atmosphere will induce runaway global warming since H2O is a potent greenhouse gas. Her husband realises that humans will have to get off Earth. After persuading the new powers that be an accelerated space programme is the result.

The scenario allows Kowal to address the inherent sexism of the times – but women are eventually allowed onto the space programme (it would be silly after all to engage in a colonisation programme without them.) The Yorks’ initial billeting on the black Major Lindholm after their survival of the impact also leads her to an awareness of racism, her own heretofore more or less unconscious attitudes, but also that of wider society. The figure of Colonel Stetson Parker (here the first man into space) provides an embodiment of sexism and sense of sexual entitlement, from which Elma was only saved during the war by being a General’s daughter.

This isn’t great literature but it is story and all passes easily. The reader can have some fun looking out for resemblances and differences to the space programme in our timeline – the Moon rocket here is an Artemis 9 instead of a Saturn V, for example. Despite an attempt to be forthright in the opening paragraph, there is a rather awkward treatment of the Yorks’ sex life.

I do have a couple of quibbles with the scenario. Given much of the US eastern seaboard has been wiped out would there have been sufficient resources left to mount a space programme? Okay it’s an international effort, but still. And in this perennially cloud bedecked post-disaster world (“Do you remember when you last saw the stars?”) would enough crops have been able to grow to sustain life as we more or less know it?

However, Elma is an engaging enough narrator to encourage me to read the next two novels in the sequence.

Pedant’s corner:- “Neither of us were squeamish” (neither of us was,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2.) “‘What.’” (it was a question, therefore ‘What?’) “export of corn and oats were blocked” *export … was blocked,) “I was looking for ejecta that wasn’t going to be there” (ejecta is plural; ‘ejecta that weren’t going to be there’,) “some involvement over was chosen” (over who was chosen,) “a small women” (woman,) O2 (O2,) “lays over the Earth like a blanket ” (lies over,) “smoothes out” (smooths out,) Williams’ (Williams’s.)

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