Pacing, and the parts of the story not told, shape The Fated Sky the second book in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronauts series. The Calculating Stars ended with Elma York, the series’ first-person narrator, on her way to the moon. By the beginning of The Fated Sky, there is a colony on the moon with enough resources that they are starting to figure out what to ferment for alcohol, and enough of an economy to produce art objects for sale back on earth; apparently they are exotic enough to command a significant premium. York is an experienced pilot on the earth-to-moon route, and routinely shuttles groups of twenty or so to and from the colony.
In a very short time, amidst a planetary catastrophe, travel to the moon has become normal — but that is just the beginning. The Fated Sky is mainly about humanity’s first mission to Mars, a mission designed to land people on the red planet and return them to earth, and more importantly to set the stage for rapid colonization.
The best aspect of the novel is that Kowal never loses sight of spaceflight as a human endeavor. Throughout the book, she has command of the details of living and working in space, what’s heavy, how things smell, what common mistakes nearly everyone new to space makes. But these details are never shown off for their own sake, they’re present in how the people going to space relate to each other and what kinds of problems they have to solve. They also show the mundane things that people tend to overlook, and how quickly that can head toward catastrophe in an environment as unforgiving as space. For example, thinking that it’s ok to let a clothes dryer run unattended leads to a fire, whose potential consequences on a spacecraft hardly need to be spelled out. Sometimes people having foibles leads to the problem, as when condoms disposed in the onboard toilet clog the plumbing. That one’s more gross than catastrophic, but it shows another axis along which things can go wrong.
And quite a bit goes wrong on the first mission to Mars. Smooth sailing wouldn’t make for a very interesting novel, so Kowal dials things up a bit, not implausibly individually but taken together they do make for an unusually eventful voyage. An outbreak of illness, in a way that is both unique to the enclosed environment and all too plausible, tests the crews’ resilience and shows how hard it can be to solve a problem with a limited number of people.
Nor are larger issues left behind on earth. Structural racism is a theme in both novels. Elma is both the beneficiary and someone working to reduce it from a position of privilege, and she finds out how little she can do sometimes, or how little her good intentions matter. Parker, one of the antagonists of the first book, shows new sides to his character in The Fated Sky, becoming more understandable and sympathetic. I wonder if DeBeer, the racist character from South Africa, will also change over the course of the series; that seems unlikely.
I read The Fated Sky when I was in the hospital back in early May, so I remember fewer details than I would like. It’s fast and snappy. Kowal knows when to skip forward to the next interesting events, and when to slow down and focus on a moment of rising tension. She knows how to use small interactions among the characters to show a small society growing in the crews of the Mars mission, so that readers are worried when things go wrong, and gutted when a few things go really wrong. As indeed they do.