Dr. Elma York works as a computer and mathematician for the International Aerospace Coalition. However, she wants more: to be an astronaut, and to ensure that other women can get to space too. The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, who is known for her sequel short story “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”, is a science-fiction novel that focuses on both the space race and the fight for gender equality.
After a meteorite falls on Washington, D.C. in 1952, obliterating most of the east coast of the U.S., the global consequences and projected rising temperature of the planet necessitate that the space program gets off the ground faster than it did historically. Due to the loss of life, the new U.S. president is the former secretary of agriculture. The meteor’s effects are felt throughout the planet, so a global space effort is created: the International Aerospace Coalition. Elma’s husband Nathanial is the lead engineer at the IAC, so both of them effectively eat, sleep, and breathe space, science, and mathematics. As the space program runs test after test and begins to launch astronauts into orbit, Elma starts to think about getting women up into space as astronauts as well.
The fight for gender equality is truly the heart of this book. As a woman mathematics prodigy in the 1950s (she went to Stanford at age 14), Elma is used to condescending, conservative attitudes from men who think women won’t be able to withstand the pressures of space. She uses her experiences to combat them: first putting together a women-only air show with others from her women pilots group, then appearing on a children’s science program as a scientist, using her proper title of doctor, which isn’t being used in her work as a computer. Slowly, as the space program grows, so does Elma’s reputation as the Lady Astronaut.
Elma works as a computer at IAC, and as is true historically, all her co-workers are women. Kowal uses this opportunity, as well as others, to discuss racism; it serves as a secondary theme for the novel. Since the space program is an international effort, one of Elma’s fellow computers is Taiwanese. It is explicitly stated that she isn’t chosen for a job she is qualified for because of her accent when speaking English. Elma also convinces a Negro women pilots club to participate in the air show, but first is chewed out by a member for acting somewhat demeaning to the pilots in that she’s only able to think of servile roles for them. In the aftermath of the meteor, it is noted that the black refugees are the last to be flown to the new capitol of Kansas City. Elma herself is Jewish, and her faith is engrained in this story as well. Kowal describes racism much the way it happened historically, yet also blends it with the zeitgeist of the novel’s alternate timeline.
The effects of the meteor are well thought out. Toward the beginning of the novel, Elma and Nathaniel calculate the weather effects of the aftermath, and the acting-president’s subsequent pronouncement kicks off the main plot: they need to colonize space because the rising heat will eventually make the planet uninhabitable. A newspaper article precedes the beginning of every chapter, setting us straight in the timeline and giving us a glimpse of the rest of the world. For example, one headline discusses food riots in Kansas City, while another mentions offers of aid to the U.S. from India after the meteor. Thousands of people are killed in the meteor disaster, and it haunts the characters throughout the novel.
When the meteor hits, Elma and Nathanial are on vacation in the Pocono mountains. Elma flies them to Kansas City, but they have nothing but the clothes on their backs. The aftermath, as Elma and Nathanial are taken in by a major and his wife, has a strong emotional impact. Elma grieves for her parents in a stranger’s house, doing her best to sit shiva in an unfamiliar space. As the years pass, both she and Nathanial are very aware that staying on Earth should be a temporary solution. However, being so close to the space program entails that they know and understand more than most people about what will begin to happen to the planet. Much is made of the fact that people don’t really believe the planet will rapidly heat, considering the years after the meteor consist of a strong winter.
Elma is a strong character, even when it isn’t her intention to be. She just wants to go to space, by whatever means necessary. Her fellow computers and pilots also have the same dream, and it is unfortunate that none of their characters are particularly fleshed out. Her husband Nathanial is a somewhat stereotypical Nice Guy, but he is also overwhelmingly supportive of Elma and her dreams, even when they cause problems for his own work. The director of the IAC, Clemons, and Colonel Stetson Parker, the first man into space in this alternate timeline, serve as obstacles to the lady astronauts. Clemons knows that allowing women into the space program from the beginning would be a public relations nightmare, and makes it clear throughout the story that the press matters, because good coverage in the press makes sure that funding is still allocated to the IAC. Parker, on the other hand, is a more complicated character. He has a negative history with Elma from her days as a WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilot) in World War 2; ultimately, he doesn’t believe women should be astronauts at all, and little changes his mind, even as the story progresses.
Kowal also delves into the fraught subject of mental illness, as Elma and her friend Nicole both take Miltown, a tranquilizer, for anxiety. At first, Elma considers herself weak for needing to rely on drugs to speak during an interview. Her Southern mother raised her with the fear of what other people will think. There is the additional fear that if Elma’s anxiety became common knowledge, she could lose her spot to become an astronaut. Elma’s anxiety is well-depicted. The fact that she recites prime numbers, the digits of pi, and the Fibonacci sequence in her head to stave off anxiety-induced vomiting serves as a realistic layer for her character. The fear that she will be seen as hysterical and lose her job over her illness is a fraught tension that is relatable and still seen today.
Kowal’s writing flows well. She’s clearly put lots of research into this project, and the realism of the premise is obvious. Her characters in particular jump off the page. In the historical note, Kowal mentions having boxed herself in with dates with the sequel short story written prior to the novel: “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”; all the same, the re-working of history works. Kowal is a strong writer with the storytelling skills to back it up. Her style is light, though it can get technical when the IAC jargon starts flying. This novel is, overall, a realistic science-fiction novel with a fascinating alternate timeline for the United States.
The Calculating Stars showcases one woman’s fight to get into space, as well as one planet’s fight for survival after tragedy. As the Lady Astronaut, Elma’s journey is sure to inspire other women to reach for their dreams, even if they are shot down at first.