The Calculating Stars is the first novel in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series1.
President Dewey’s Take That! to Communist Russia took the form of not one but three successful space launches. Dewey scarcely has time to revel in America’s success before a space rock obliterates Dewey, Washington DC, and everyone else within hundreds of miles of the impact point.
Five hundred miles away, Elma York and her husband Nathaniel survive the impact and the immediate aftermath. Once the implications of the impact become clear, they realize that their survival — and the survival of the biosphere— may be strictly temporary.
The immediate consequence of the impact is dramatic cooling on a global scale. More bad news for the Soviets, who collapse in the face of Biblical-level crop failures. Counter-intuitively, the long term effect of the impact won’t be a new ice age, but rather searing heat. The asteroid turned Chesapeake Bay into a vast boiling crater. Water is a potent greenhouse gas. Not only were millions of tons of sea water boiled away, every day more water is added to the atmospheric burden. In fifty years, North America will be too warm for snow, even in mid-winter. Sometime after that, the oceans will boil.
While other politicians are reluctant to accept what science is telling them, President Charles F. Bannon is canny enough to accept that humanity might need an exit strategy from Earth some time in the 21st century. The problem is, human space flight is in its infancy. While doomsday might be decades away, there is no time to lose. The tools needed to establish a sustainable human presence on Mars need to be developed now and the effort to create them needs to be a global one.
Elma York will play a central role in this grand project. Not only is she an experienced pilot, she is a talented physicist and calculator, all skills desperately needed by the world space program. Elma has a major strike against her, one for which neither experience nor mere genius can compensate. She is a woman and in the world of the 1950s, women were relegated to support roles.
This is the story of how she broke the glass ceiling.
Not every reviewer is suited to every book. I deliberately declined to ask for a copy of this book because I suspected that it belongs to a genre for which I do not care. Of course Tor sent me a review copy because that’s how life works (they also send me books about lunar H3). Nothing for it but to embrace the opportunity, which is why I’ve reviewed the thematically related Record of a Spaceborn Few, One in Three Hundred, Before Mars, Godzilla: Planet of Monsters and now The Calculating Stars.
Let’s start with reasons why I was the last reviewer to whom this should have been offered.
For various reasons I am not a fan of alternate history, particularly alternate history of the sort where a few changes led to a much more vigorous space program2.
I intensely dislike novels in which humans are provoked into developing spaceflight by a sufficiently slow-moving disaster3 that forces a lucky few off the planet while dooming everyone else. In part this is because the evidence suggests that Earth in the midst of a mass extinction event is still likely to be a lot friendlier than anywhere else in reach. In part it’s because a lot of these lifeboat novels appear to revel in the idea of a new world that is unburdened by those displeasingly unlike the author.
Kowal firmly rejects the exclusionist theme found in many cozy catastrophes by making her lead the sort of person who would in other such novels be relegated to silently producing the next generation of stalwart, easily-sunburned pioneers. Elma is a woman, a major strike against her in the 1950s, and the fact she’s Jewish (in an era when the Jewish Quota was still in force) does not help her social standing. Never mind that she was a WASP (a female pilot) in the European Theatre in WWII, an exemplary physicist, and an exceptional mathematician. Girls don’t get to fly rockets.
Kowal doesn’t just go to bat for women and Jews. Her protagonist also gets woke by her post-disaster African-American hosts. She is forced to pay attention to the plight of America’s black population in the immediate aftermath of the impact. America being America, only white Americans were given government assistance in escaping the devastated zone. African-Americans had to engineer their own salvation. Elma realizes that the Mars program will also be white-only unless she and her allies insist that the non-white populations of the world should not be left behind to die.
It’s also cool that Elma isn’t another instance of “what these people need is a honky.” The people she wants to save are highly motivated to save themselves; the book focuses on what Elma is doing because she’s the protagonist (and what she does matters because she happens to be a position of influence). But African Americans (or the Chinese or any other group Citizens Councils would have left off the lifeboats) aren’t sitting on their hands waiting for Elma to save them4.
I am fairly skeptical that the US, a power in a post-disaster world with no serious ideological rivals who would make propaganda use of US racism, would be as open to moral suasion as Kowal supposes. Jim Crow-era America5 facing an existential threat seems an unlikely place to look for political developments that would give American liberals warm feels. Just look at the way the Manhattan Project found time and energy to enforce spiteful racism during a world war.
Kowal is more optimistic. Or perhaps she didn’t want to write an unrelentingly bleak book … or a dishonest one, one in which obvious gender and racial issues were ignored. In her alt-history world, the survivors of the impact and its aftermath are (for the most part) prepared to cooperate on a project of this scale. Those who insist on protecting their own status whatever the cost to the general population eventually fail.
It’s a pleasant fantasy that should please many readers.
1: The Hugo-winning novelette The Lady Astronaut of Mars was published before The Calculating Stars but is set later. And it’s not a novel. I have no idea how to number it so I am going to pretend I don’t know it exists and perhaps nobody will call me on my inconsistency.
2: The obvious exception being the Avro Arrow, which was apparently cancelled thanks to an unlikely confluence of causes possibly involving Satanism. Obviously greenlighting this project would have led to inexpensive household fusion plants, a general solution for the traveling salesman problem, and dirigible Dyson spheres.
Kowal’s novel requires not one but two changes to steer it in the direction she wants; Dewey has to defeat Truman and then the space rock has to doom humanity. A bit untidy, unless the two are causally linked somehow.
3: Said disasters have to be very finely tuned so that whatever is that forces us into space doesn’t keep us from developing and using the necessary tools. In this novel, for example, the meteor put enough water in the air to set in motion climate change that will make the Earth uninhabitable or at least extremely challenging by some point in the 21st century. That gives humans more than fifty years to get their act together. What the 1952 Chesapeake Bay impact didn’t do was kick enough large fragments into the air that their re-entry turned the sky around the planet into a technological civilization-crashing, no-Martian-colony-for-you oven. Immediately.
4: That said, I’d love to read a POC’s review of this book.
5: Canada, the land of “None is Too Many” and the Final Solution to the “Indian Problem,” would be no better and might be much worse. Or at least it might be if the prompt climate effect of the meteor had not almost certainly done for Canada what it did to the Soviet Union.