Book Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

This novel reminded me why I love good science fiction. I haven’t felt that tingling thrill lately, and by lately I mean in the last several years, when a novel of science fiction or fantasy moves me so much that I find it hard to put it down. I used to get that feeling often in my youth when I discovered the field and I began to explore its great works. That was back in the late sixties and early seventies during the so-called New Wave of speculative fiction when writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Harland Ellison, Roger Zelazny, Samuel Delaney, and others were successfully bringing literary values into the field.

This novel, though, The Calculating Stars, has it; and by it I mean that indefinable power that propels readers through pages. I suppose I have become jaded; I didn’t expect it to be quite that good.

It’s an alternate history novel. It starts out in the early 1950s in America. A meteorite hits the east coast of the United States, decimating much of the eastern seaboard. It soon becomes evident that it is an extinction-level event; in a short span of years the Earth’s temperature will rise so much that the planet will become uninhabitable to humans. The only solution to save humanity is a global effort to start up a space program.

All of this might sound like standard science fiction fare, except Kowal tells it with a profound twist. It is written in first person by a woman who has a doctorate in physics, a genius who can do complex equations in her head. Her husband is the chief engineer in the space program, and she is one of its human calculators. These are exclusively women mathematicians who in lieu of sufficiently reliable computing machines do the calculations to put astronauts into space on paper using slide rules.

But Dr. Elma York, the protagonist, is a pilot as well as a computer, and she wants to become an astronaut. In misogynistic fifties-thought, it is inconceivable to submit women to the dangers of space, despite even the obvious argument that self-sustained colonies are impossible without procreation.

Thus much of the novel details how York and other determined women fight the biased male mindset to prove that women, and also African Americans, have the talents to become assets in space exploration. The amazing thing is that although this story is set in the 1950s, it is relevant today. We are still struggling with equality for women and for minorities. We may have made some progress since the fifties, but we still have a long, long way to go.

One thing that I appreciated and that works extremely well in this book is the voice of the main character. She is intelligent, determined, courageous, and sexy, but she is also flawed and vulnerable, aware of her weaknesses and constantly fighting to overcome them.

So yes, this is a good book, a real page-turner. It’s one of those novels that doesn’t come along often, but when it does, it should be read as widely as possible.

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