Maybe you’re one of those people who doesn’t read science fiction, for whatever reasons (too much science? Too geeky? Too much baggage? Too unrealistic?), and maybe you’re a person who doesn’t read alternate history, for whatever reasons (don’t know enough about the real history to appreciate it, or know too much about the real history to appreciate it). No matter your previous experiences, you really should read Mary Robinette Kowal’s new novel, The Calculating Stars, because it might just change your mind about those genres and your preferences. If you saw and enjoyed the movie or the book Hidden Figures, that’s even more reason to pick up this fast moving alternate history science fiction novel.
It starts with a bang, literally: a meteorite hits the earth off the Chesapeake Bay in 1952, wiping out Washington, D.C., surrounding areas, and destroying great portions of the eastern United States. Our protagonist, Elma York, happens to be on vacation with her husband in the Poconos at the time of the impact, and, due to her background as a WASP pilot in World War II, she’s able to fly herself and her husband to safety. She is not only a former pilot, she’s also a brilliant mathematician, a “computer”, as women doing calculations for the space program were called at the time. Her husband is an engineer for NACA, the predecessor of NASA. Elma realizes fairly quickly that what the earth is facing is an extinction level event (remember what happened to the dinosaurs? Similar issues), and she and her husband have to persuade the world that humanity’s only hope is to get off the planet while it’s still habitable.
If you thought the push to put a man on the moon in the 1960’s was intense, imagine what it would have been like if there were a life-ending time limit on its success. In this alternate reality, space flight is prioritized to a much higher degree, and everyone is needed.
Except that this is also set in a 1950’s world that’s not too different from ours (other than that little extinction level event), so when Elma decides she wants to do more than just calculate how to get a man off the earth, that she wants to be an astronaut herself, she’s set herself up for a real uphill battle. Not only is she a woman (already disqualifying), but she has an anxiety disorder which requires that she take medications (and attitudes toward mental health, especially mental health treated with drugs, were worse in the 1950’s than they are now); all her brilliance and all her piloting experience may not be enough to outweigh those disadvantages. She discovers, in the course of her fight to be recognized and to do what she longs to do, that she’s not the only one in this position: her relations with African American “computers” (and again we’re in Hidden Figures territory) show her that other people are even more disadvantaged and treated worse than she.
With the future of humanity at stake, and an almost literal ticking time bomb (the world will likely be uninhabitable within a decade or two), sexism, racism and ableism are luxuries the world can’t afford, and Elma battles to save her world and live her dream at the same time.
I will warn you, this is the first book in a duology, but I might just relax my rule on multiple book series for this one, especially since the second book is coming out next month (and we WILL be getting it here at The Field Library).
If this sounds exciting to you (and it should!), do yourself a favor and hurry to read The Calculating Stars. It will open your eyes and give you a great read in the bargain.