Book Review: The Fated Sky, A Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal

Book Review: The Fated SkyA Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal

The Fated Sky

Science Fiction: The Fated SkyA Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal

In this sequel to The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal continues the story of Elma York, the “Lady Astronaut.” The Fated Sky tells how York came to be assigned to the first mission to Mars. As she did in the first book, Kowal gives us a moving and beautiful story that is full of humanity, grace, and rock solid science. It’s a geekfest with a heart. Anyone who reads these stories and is not blown away by the scientific detail or is not moved by the heart and soul of the characters really needs to check their pulse to make sure it’s still there.

 

Elma York has become the face of the space program. Perhaps the time is right, though, for her and Nathaniel to start a family. It is the 1960s, though, Having a baby would mean the loss of her job, would mean she would be confined to Earth and no longer able to live on the moon for several months every year. She would have to give up space.

 

When her flight home from the moon misses its landing site and instead lands several states away, the passengers are held hostage by a group of “Earth Firsters,” people who deny that the climate is changing and want the money spent on colonizing space to instead be used to help those still affected by the meteorite impact. Elma uses her fame and name recognition to help save her fellow passengers. This in turn prompts the space agency to name her to the first Mars mission.

 

The Mars mission will take three years. That timetable likely means she will never be a mother. Also, the Mars team has already been preparing for over a year. Putting her on the team means bumping someone else off the team, in this case, her friend Helen. Helen was one of the few non-white members of the team, and the only Asian member. The political realities of the early 1960s, though, meant that for funding to continue the program needed its most famous participant as the face of the team–and Asians were specifically NOT needed to be the face of the team. In fact, another one of the team members was specifically selected in part for reasons of funding–a South African supporter of the apartheid regime. This becomes problematic several times during the mission, as his distaste for the other non-white members of the team creates tension among the crew.

 

Apart from the racial tensions that challenge the crew, other interpersonal tensions arise. Kowal nicely weaves those tensions into the story, showing how they would be an expected and even natural part of a multi-year mission when the only other people you encountered were those on board your ship. Multiple external challenges also confront the mission. Two of the fourteen crew members died during the trip. Illness sweeps through one of the ships. One of the two ships was damaged, forcing the entire team to spend two weeks crammed onto the same ship while the other was repaired. Nathaniel York is hospitalized on earth, and another crewman’s wife dies while they are in transit. A terrorist attack hits far too close to home. These conflicts and perils, both in space and on Earth, make the journey feel real.

 

Space travel is the stuff of adventures and romance. It is also deadly serious and is done by people who love and fight and screw up and somehow keep on going in the face of every danger and crisis. We are fools to think putting flesh into tin cans strapped to the top of bombs is going to magically work without a cost in lives and loves. Kowal brings these human costs front and center, showing us both how hard and how important the journey will be.

 

Again, Kowal treats all of her characters with love and sensitivity. Elma York is not perfect. But she is good. In these days of fallen heroes, finding a heroine who is good in the midst of an excellent story is a treasure.

The Fated Sky

Book Review: The Fated SkyA Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal

Book Review: The Calculating Stars, A Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal

Book Review: The Calculating StarsA Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars

Science Fiction: The Calculating StarsA Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal

Shortly after reading this novel, I tweeted, “I am in love with the main character and the author. Luckily my wife is the understanding type.” The Calculating Stars is an achingly beautiful story, one that sometimes moved me to tears, sometimes made me laugh out loud, and one that constantly reminded me why I fell in love with science fiction so many years ago. Mary Robinette Kowal has created a character, Elma York, who is smart, courageous, human, flawed, noble, and relatable. The only reason I was willing to put The Calculating Stars down when it ended is that I already had the sequel in my hands.

 

Elma and Nathaniel York are enjoying a few days in the Poconos in 1952, enjoying the beauty of nature and the fresh air and…OK, let’s be grownups here. They are a young married couple, and they are having lots of sex. And that is more or less the tone that Kowal sets throughout the novel. It is told in the first person. This is Elma’s story. And she is as enjoyable a character as you will find in any novel. She is fresh, funny, sexy (but never crude or vulgar), sometimes foolish but never intentionally cruel, and brilliant. While they are there, the unthinkable happens. A meteorite hits, wiping out much of the US east coast–including their home in Washington, D.C. Elma’s parents also lived in Washington. They are forced to flee the effects of the meteorite in a frantic journey that sends them to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, OH, where what is left of the US government and military tries to come back together.

 

Elma is a physics and math genius, but it is 1952 and she is also a woman. Nathaniel had worked for the nascent space program, but the men who led the government were not looking for advice from a female. Fortunately, Nathaniel had no such qualms. Giving Elma the raw data available from the meteor, she calculates the planetary effects of the strike. For a few years, the Earth would cool down. Ash and dust ejected into the atmosphere would block sunlight and lower global temperatures significantly.

 

That was the good news.

 

The bad news was that the meteorite landed in water. After the ash and dust settled, the water vapor would trap heat and raise the surface temperature of the planet. Catastrophically. After enduring less than a decade of frigid temperatures the planet would return to normal. Then it would keep heating up. Within a century it would become essentially uninhabitable.

 

Using Elma’s numbers, the decision is made to jumpstart the space program with a goal of colonizing the moon and Mars. Astronauts are selected, training begins, and the goal of colonizing the solar system moves forward. Except…none of the astronauts are women. Or people of color. Women are involved behind the scenes. “Computers,” in the sense of calculating machines that crunch numbers, guide ships, and perform all the duties we take for granted today, did not exist in the 1950s. However, mathematically gifted women did exist, and just as they played a role in the real space program that developed during the 1960s, Kowal has them acting as the “computers” for her fictionalized space program of the alternate history 1950s. Elma takes a job as a computer, and from there launches an ambitious program of her own: becoming a lady astronaut.

 

I simply cannot emphasize enough how good The Calculating Stars is. With a deft touch, Kowal lays bare the racism and sexism that was the norm for the era. Although Elma quite naturally reacts to her accomplishments and abilities being dismissed because she is a woman, she can sometimes be completely oblivious to those same biases affecting her African American friends. When she becomes aware of the racist barriers to them, she occasionally shifts into “white savior” mode, failing to appreciate that her own interventions can be almost as belittling in their own way. She always means well, and her motives do matter, but her actions sometimes undermine her own ideals.

 

Elma also struggles with anxiety and is prescribed medication for it. Even today, mental illness is stigmatized and dismissed. Having some experience myself with anxiety and the absolute terror I felt before being officially diagnosed and taking medicine for it, I read those passages with a powerful sense of identification. Having a protagonist who shares some of the challenges I have faced is an amazing feeling. Seeing her wrestle with it in the highly judgmental 1950s made me appreciate both how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.

 

The Jewishness of Elma York is also wonderfully handled. Some time after they arrive in Dayton, Elma recognizes her need to deal with the loss of her family. She visits a synagogue to speak with a rabbi. When Nathaniel comes home, she is sitting shiva. Elma has torn a ribbon and is wearing it as an outward sign of the broken heart within.

 

That was the first scene in The Calculating Stars where I cried. It was not the last.

 

The Calculating Stars is a triumphant book. It is moving and heartfelt and wonderful. I cannot recommend it enough. It is a terrific scifi/alternate history novel. More than that, Kowal gives us a powerful story of an extraordinary woman. Books just don’t get much better than this.

The Calculating Stars

Book Review: The Calculating StarsA Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal