Jul 20 2019

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars starts with a bang. Elma York, Kowal’s protagonist and first-person narrator says that she and her husband had flown up to the mountain cabin that he inherited for stargazing, “By which I mean: sex. Oh, don’t pretend that you’re shocked. Nathaniel and I were a healthy young married couple, so most of the stars I saw were painted across the inside of my eyelids.” (12) At times, Elma has a very 2010s voice for a 1950s character. Marital bliss is soon interrupted by a catastrophic event.

Although the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics has, in the book’s world, put three satellites into orbit by March 1952, they do not yet have the technology to search for asteroids whose orbit could intersect with Earth’s orbit. (In my timeline, systematic cataloging objects greater than 150 meters in size whose orbits implied a possible collision with Earth began just after the turn of the 21st century.) Geologically speaking, that’s less the blink of an eye. Unfortunately for most of life on Earth, the cosmos blinks and drops a large meteorite into the Chesapeake. Washington and Baltimore are obliterated. Congress was in session. In early chapters of the book, it’s not known whether the entire US government is wiped out, or whether a cabinet secretary of some sort might yet be found to assume the reins of power.

Elma and Nathaniel both work for NACA; he is an engineer, and she is a computer. That is, she is a person who sets up the equations for many of the tasks of space flight, and then does the calculations with pencil paper and slide rule. Electronic computers are starting to come on line later in the book, but they are not entirely reliable and prone to overheating. They had both been at Los Alamos for Trinity, so when they see the light of the meteor’s entry they immediately think that it is an atomic bomb. The radio’s continued operation tells them that there had been no electromagnetic pulse, so it’s not an atomic attack by the Russians. Nathaniel comes up with the idea of a meteorite just before the earthquake’s shock wave hits their cabin. And levels it, just after they have gotten to the relative safety of a doorframe.

As physicists, they know what is coming next. “’The airblast will be what … half an hour late? Give or take?’ For all the calm in his words, Nathaniel’s hands shook as he opened the [car] passenger door for me. ‘Which means we have another … fifteen minutes before it hits’ … All I knew for certain was that, as long as the radio was playing, it wasn’t an A-bomb. But whatever had exploded was huge.” (p. 16) They drive a bit down the mountain — they are already on the lee side — and take shelter under an overhang. Still, the airblast blows out most of their car’s windows and knocks the car itself halfway across the road. Trees are laid out like the Tunguska event.

Many authors would have taken this set-up and turned it into a tale of sheer survival, or of the gradual, painful and incomplete restoration of order. The Calculating Stars is neither a cozy catastrophe, nor a meditation on the effects of an incomplete apocalypse. Attentive readers will know that the book is a prequel to Kowal’s story “The Lady Astronauts of Mars,” so the eventual outcome of this book is not in doubt — though it ends well short of a mission to Mars. The interest and suspense are all in getting there, and in the human interactions that shape the story of getting people into space and headed toward the moon.

There’s a lot to like about The Calculating Stars, starting with the title. Over the course of the book, the women doing NACA’s computing, its calculating, become the stars of the story. But they are not just calculating the numbers for trajectories and orbital insertions, they are calculating how they can get ahead, sometimes together, sometimes at each other’s expense. They are also stars at calculating, Elma York most of all. Finally, when the astronaut program eventually opens to women they become stars in the media circus that even a meteor-ravaged America conjures around the sensational ladies.

(Post-meteor launch facilities and mission control are in Kansas. It’s a good touch to have astronauts talking to “Kansas” the way the ones in my timeline talk to “Houston.” Kowal doesn’t have anyone make the obvious joke about not being there anymore, but I expect most readers at least thought it.)

Kowal shepherds a large cast and manages to keep them both vivid and individual. Even minor characters have their own histories, and can turn out not to be quite what the main characters think they are. I cared about what happened to all of these people, even the jerks, who I wanted to see get their comeuppance. The characters are competing for high historical stakes, so it’s not surprising that people are ambitious and do not see eye to eye. Kowal’s narrator is not immune to some of these flaws. A character she sees as handsy and sexist sees her as unscrupulous and willing to trade on her personal connections as a general’s daughter and wife of NACA’s chief engineer (post-meteor).

Kowal offers just enough description to bring the settings to life — from the exquisitely organized refrigerator belonging to the black family who first give Elma and Nathaniel refuge in Ohio to the metallic taste of oxygen in a space helmet or the kinds of cake that turn up on birthdays when the meteor’s ash brings a multi-year winter to Earth — but the descriptions are never ends in themselves. She moves her story quickly, and it’s a story of achievement rather than mere survival. I found myself wondering how America preserved its industrial base after much of the eastern seaboard was wiped out, and how it managed to kick rocket production into a much faster and routine process by the mid-1950s, something that was never achieved in this timeline at any period.

That’s background, though, to the stories that Kowal wants to tell about who gets to be an astronaut, and how and why. These stories are both fun and touching, and mostly come out well. I think that 1950s racism and sexism would have been harder to overcome, and I think that Kowal is choosing not to show how petty people can be, but The Calculating Stars is a romance of the space age, not a dystopia. It’s a treat to read, and it tugged at my heartstrings most effectively. All systems are go!

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/07/20/the-calculating-stars-by-mary-robinette-kowal/

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