The Calculating Stars
by Mary Robinette Kowal
On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.
Elma York’s experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too.
Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.
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Given that this book was promoted as a sci-fi Hidden Figures, I was expecting it to become a new favourite. Instead, unfortunately I really struggled to get into it and, for complete transparency, I DNF’d this book around 62% of the way through and skim read the rest.
I don’t usually write full reviews for books that I DNF, but I feel like I have to make an exception with this book. It’s been shortlisted for Best Novel at this year’s Hugo Awards and is doing very well, and while I don’t want to suggest that this book doesn’t deserve its success – a lot of people do love it, after all, and they’re not wrong just because their tastes differ from mine – I feel like I need to put my thoughts out there for anyone else who might be struggling with this novel.
First and foremost, I love the idea behind this novel.
Historical fiction featuring women trying to make a name for themselves in STEM is like candy to me. Mary Anning has always been one of my heroes, a woman I would argue inspired Marie Brennan’s The Memoirs of Lady Trent series, so I adore books that show women fighting to be taken seriously in fields that are considered to be traditionally masculine. Even science fiction as a genre is a genre that women have often been pushed out of, despite Mary Shelley essentially creating what we now consider to be the genre of science fiction when she wrote Frankenstein at the age of 18.
So the idea of a story set in an alternate 1950s in which the new “space race” is about colonising Mars when it becomes clear Earth is going to be uninhabitable, and the women who want to be included in that race, sounded like it would tick all my boxes.
Unfortunately, it’s ticking boxes that let this book down for me.
Somewhere along the way, Mary Robinette Kowal stopped telling me a story and started writing what I call an “issues book”.
The Calculating Stars is full of important themes. It looks at sexism, racism, antisemitism, climate change and mental health, amongst other things, but it made me feel like I was being lectured, like I was being beaten around the head with this book while someone yelled “SEXISM IS BAD” as though that’s not something I already know.
I’m all for books tackling these issues, but this one wasn’t telling me anything new or telling me something I already knew in a refreshing way that might make me think about it a little differently. I just felt very frustrated throughout because the novel was packed with so many “this is bad” moments that I couldn’t get invested in the story or care about it all that much.
What I wanted out of this book was a science girl gang – that’s what I’d expected from the cover and the blurb – and yet Elma, our protagonist, seemed to spend the majority of this book either alone or with her husband, Nathaniel. Nathaniel isn’t a bad character by any means, and I liked having a married couple at the centre of this story because marriage, much like motherhood, is so often the end of a heroine’s story, but I was promised feminism and science interwoven into a story about astronauts, and instead I got a story that popped up from time to time when I wasn’t being told how bad every kind of “ism” is.
(Also, the “rocket” puns every time these two had sex were really getting on my nerves.)
It could be that this is a book I need to return to one day, but sadly I have a feeling it’s one of those novels that just isn’t going to work for me despite looking perfect on paper. I want to be swept away into a story when I crack open a book, and unfortunately this book didn’t sweep so much as drag until it couldn’t bear my weight anymore.