Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

Book Title: The Calculating Stars
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Number of pages: 431
Publisher/Year: Tom Doherty Associates/2018
Where I got it: BarnesandNoble.com
Why I read it: I have a strong interest in books depicting women as strong and achieving their dreams, while not ignoring the struggles faced along the way
Rating: 5/5
Reviewed by: Spencer Fantastic
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Life is great for Dr. Elma York and her husband, Dr. Nathanial York. That is, until the early hours of a morning in 1952 when a meteorite hits Washington, D.C., wiping out the entire east coast. Barely escaping with their lives, Elma and Nathanial fly west and get jobs at the newly founded International Aerospace Coalition. Humanity is now in a desperate race against time to start colonizing the moon before environmental affects from the meteorite cause the Earth to become uninhabitable. Elma is determined to save the world, even if that means she must colonize the moon herself.

A beautiful blend of historical fiction and science fiction, The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal is the first book in a currently growing series that explores the concept of women becoming astronauts and colonizing the moon in the 50s. It is glaringly obvious that Kowal did a mass amount of research, not just from the reference page in the back of her book, but by the ease with which she writes about the finer points of space launches and training tactics in the 50s.

If the promise of Lady Astronauts (or Astronettes, if you like) is not enough to get you to pick up this book, perhaps the wide array of diversity in this novel will. The Calculating Stars focuses on the effort of women as computers at this time, and how the space program would have failed without these incredible ladies. When throwing up barriers for Elma to face on her road toward becoming an astronaut, Kowal did not gloss over the intersectionality of this issue. Not only did Kowal draw attention to the fact that POC women were having a much more difficult time being considered qualified to become an astronaut, despite being overqualified, she spoke of several other racial barriers her characters faced.

Kowal incorporates such issues as how the meteorite affected the Jewish community, who was already struggling in the aftermath of the Holocaust; how the meteorite was disparagingly affecting Black communities, from being evacuated to getting healthcare, to how mental health may be a struggle for some but should not disqualify one from being able to do their job, as well as other issues. As a queer reader, seeing all this representation kept me on my toes, expecting to see a queer character somewhere. I did not spot one in this book, but due to the amount of diversity, I have high hopes that a queer character will be introduced (or come out) later in the series. Either way, Kowal proves that it is possible to write a historical fiction and a science fiction while simultaneously incorporating an extremely diverse cast of characters (something I see authors use as an excuse to not diversify their work).

As someone who has now fallen in love with this book, I would be enthralled to see this series turned into a television show. The plot is extremely fast-paced, and every time I thought I knew what was going to happen next, the story flipped me on my head. Characters were very well fleshed out and had their own objectives, and Kowal has a way of writing unlikeable characters in a way that makes you subtly root for them. While all these components would make a spectacular show, I feel the intense flight scenes would be even more astounding to witness. Reading about Elma frantically dodging ejecta falling from the sky is exciting, but I feel it would be even more mind-blowing to see.

Of course, there is no perfect book. The only issue that I personally had with The Calculating Stars was the scenes where Elma and Nathanial would get romantic. At first, reading about Elma and Nathanial hitting on each other with rocket-themed pick up lines was cute and cheesy, but when every other chapter ended up concluding that way, it got a little old. I realize these characters were extremely passionate about their jobs, but this felt like an overkill.

(You can also check out other reviews here and here.)

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Author’s Bio: Spencer Fantastic, 26, lives in Rhode Island with their dog and is a full-time freelance writer and editor. They are currently working on their first novel and has several other smaller works in progress, If you would like to learn more about them, check out their website here: https://spencerfantastic.home.blog/ 

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