The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal

A Lady Astronaut Novel, Tor, 2018, 382 p.

This is the second novel in Kowal’s Lady Astronaut sequence where a 1952 meteorite impact off the Atlantic coast of the US caused not only the inevitable initial devastation (including the deaths of almost all the US government) but, due to the vast quantities of water vapour propelled into Earth’s atmosphere, also a runaway greenhouse effect and an ensuing space programme to colonise Mars as an escape – see The Calculating Stars.

At the start of this book, Elma York, our narrator and said Lady Astronaut, has for some while been part of the lunar base built in preparation for the first Mars trip but is returning to Earth. The craft undergoes a malfunction and crash-lands. The first to reach it are not the expected rescuers but a group of Earth-Firsters (who wish the resources for the space programme to be spent on Earth instead.) This will lead to suspicion that there was sabotage and there are moles within the Mars project. One of the few black astronauts on the craft becomes a focus for this due to the prejudices of a South African, DeBeer, on board.

This is 1961 after all. Racism and sexism are rife in wider society, as they were in our history. Even in this radically altered world, women’s proficiency in technical professions has been accepted only grudgingly, if at all.

Once again Elma is used as a poster girl for the programme (replacing one of the original women chosen for the Mars trip) since she is the publicly acceptable female face of the space effort (as well as an excellent mathematician.) This is a strain as Elma has issues with dealing with groups of people. Her coping strategy, internal recitations of prime numbers, the digits of π or the Fibonacci sequence, is slightly less to the fore here than in the earlier book, though.

Along the way we have an illustration of how difficult and messy the job of unblocking a toilet in weightless conditions would be and also how inherently dangerous an environment space is – not to mention the potential disaster an outbreak of disease on one of the three ships represents.

The situation gives Kowal the opportunity to explore the internal dynamics of a prolonged space flight, complicated in her case by the fact that Mission Commander, Stetson Parker, with whom Elma has a long-standing antipathy, is on her ship. The enforced proximity does, however, allow Parker’s character to be illuminated more closely.

I found there to be a remarkable focus on domestic chores – especially baking. Then again, the women have been allocated such tasks by Mission Control as being eminently more suited to them, a source of ongoing resentment. But the supplies required for baking to be a possible culinary objective on such a flight would be prodigious. Then again, the technology available (teletype machines, for example) is of 1960s vintage. Once more the relationship between Elma and her husband Nathaniel, part of the ground control team, is described in coy terms.

The Fated Sky isn’t great literature, but it isn’t meant to be. It reads easily, does what it presumably set out to do, entertain, and slips in some observations about the nature of humanity forbye.

Pedant’s corner:- “the rachet handle” (x 2, elsewhere ‘ratchet’,) bandanna (bandana,) “A Black man across the aisle with a crooked nose” (why is Black capitalised – and why would an aisle have a crooked nose?)acclimation (acclimatisation.) “Behind this skepticism are a combination of factors” (Behind this scepticism is a combination,) crafts (the plural is craft.) Both these last two were in one of the cod news reports with which Kowal precedes each chapter, O2 (x 3, O2,) ambiance (ambience,) CO2 (CO2.)

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