The Fated Sky is a sequel to The Calculating Stars, and they are both part of Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series. The Calculating Stars is a superb novel; it blew me away when I read it a year and a half or so ago. The Fated Sky is interesting and entertaining, but it suffers a bit from sequel syndrome. In the first novel, Kowal introduces the background of her alternate history: in the 1950s, a massive meteor strikes the east coast of the United States. It turns out to be an extinction-level event, propelling the nations of the world into an accelerated push towards a space program so that the solar system can be colonized. Kowal presents her story in the context of the fifties bias against women and minorities in favor of strong-seeming white men. The story is narrated by the Lady Astronaut, pilot Elma York, who is strong, determined, and brilliant.
This second novel carries on the story in the first-person narrative voice of Elma York. The moon has already been colonized, and an expedition for Mars is setting out. York is added as a crewmember almost at the last minute, mainly for the publicity when funding for the journey is at risk. Two ships with seven passengers each, as well as a supply ship, set out on the three-year return voyage. Most of the book takes place on York’s vessel, the Nina, as all sorts of things minor and major arise to challenge the wits and capabilities of the crews. For instance, at one point the toilet becomes clogged with a used condom, and York is tasked with attempting to clean up globs of urine floating in zero gravity. At another point, the crew of the other ship eats some bad food and everyone gets acute diarrhea; the cleanup this time is even more difficult. There are EVAs to be performed to repair a damaged cooling system and a broken radio antenna. Besides these physical problems, there is tension among the crew concerning the jobs that women and African Americans are given on the duty roster.
All of this sounds somewhat mundane, but in fact these details are what make this book fascinating. Kowal has obviously done her research, and these are the problems that astronauts would likely encounter on long journeys to far planets. This scenario is much more realistic than attacks from alien bug-eyed monsters.
For me this novel started sort of slow but I became more and more absorbed as I went along. One problem in the early stages is that Kowal assumes that you probably read The Calculating Stars first, and so you must be intimately familiar with the recurring characters and situation. For me, though, this was an errant assumption. After all, I had read the first book about eighteen months previously, and the only characters I could remember were Elma York and her husband. I vaguely remembered the alternative history background, but what the novel could have greatly benefited from would be a synopsis of the first book. (Sort of like what is done in volumes two and three of The Lord of the Rings.) A brush-up on the main characters and the situation would have enabled me to plunge right in at the beginning.
Still, despite my confusion at the beginning and the fact that it didn’t quite rise to the level of the previous book, I enjoyed this novel and recommend it. Just be sure to read the first one first.