Book Review: Zero Sum Game, S.L. Huang

Book Review: Zero Sum Game, S.L. Huang

Zero Sum Game, S.L. Huang

Science Fiction: Zero Sum Game, S.L. Huang

Cas Russell is a kickbutt math whiz. Literally. She is able to instantaneously perform the calculations in her mind that let her leverage her body or a projectile in such a way as to perform maximum damage. She can determine where and how to hit someone so that they are injured or killed. She only needs one shot to hit her target. Her body is a weapon, and weapons in her possession are deadly.


Cas is a retrieval specialist. She has been hired to retrieve a girl being held prisoner by a drug cartel. Normally this would be no problem for her, but her long-time ally, Rio, is undercover in the cartel and is not willing to break cover–even for Cas’s sake. He is perhaps the one person good enough to capture her, and he has done just that.


That is the opening of Zero Sum Game, and the thrills and stakes go up from there. Cas is not the only person in the story with extraordinary abilities, abilities that might be regarded as superhuman. Victims become oppressors, allies become enemies, and as the book progresses Cas finds that she must question herself as much as she questions anyone else.


S.L. Huang has a math degree from M.I.T., and math plays a major role in this book. But don’t let that scare you away. You don’t need a math degree to appreciate the breakneck plot. Or the breaking of necks within the plot. Cas Russell is a true thriller heroine, with a moral code (of sorts), brilliant friends and the ability–and willingness–to do whatever needs to be done.


Zero Sum Game is one part science fiction, one part action thriller, and one part geeky fun. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Zero Sum Game, S.L. Huang

Book Review: Zero Sum Game, S.L. Huang

Book Series Review: The Murderbot Diaries, Martha Wells

Book Series Review: The Murderbot Diaries, Martha Wells


All Systems Red Artificial Condition Rogue Protocol Exit Strategy

Science Fiction Series: The Murderbot Diaries, Martha Wells

Winner of Hugo, Nebula, Alex, and Locus Awards


Sometimes all a bot wants to do is watch its videos. You know, kick back, have some “me” time, alone, away from all humans, and just watch hour after hour of mindless entertainment. No small talk, no pretending interest in human things, no playing nice. Just binge watch hour after hour after hour of pointless videos with bad acting and poor dialog and forget the rest of the world.


That can be hard to do when you are a programmed serial killing bot trying to escape a partially forgotten–rather, erased–past.


SecBot, short for Security Bot, is an artificial construct. Part organic, part mechanical, designed to provide security to humans in hostile conditions. Prevent them from being killed by hostile life forms. Try to prevent them from killing each other. SecBot is not human, though it looks very similar to humans. It is fully programmable. It is not supposed to feel emotions (or at least be affected by them), it is not supposed to be able to override its programming, it is definitely not supposed to be able to choose its own path.




Murderbot is a SecBot that was on a mining expedition when something happened. All of the humans were killed. The how is pretty straightforward: SecBot killed them. The “why” is a mystery. Most of those records were deleted. Only the organic, partially human, memories remain. They are confused, fragmented, lacking context and connection. But Murderbot does not want to kill humans unnecessarily, and it is sure that it was not supposed to kill all of the miners. So Murderbot overwrites its own programming to make sure that it is not forced to kill again. It names itself “Murderbot” so it always is reminded of that fact. And it desperately wants to find out how and why things went so bad on the mining planet.

All Systems Red

We meet Murderbot first in All Systems Red. It is on a new security mission, working for the company that it has always worked for, this time guarding a group of planetary explorers. Things start going wrong when a mapping anomaly fails to warn of a hostile native animal. Murderbot saves its people, but that is only the beginning of the challenges facing the group. When a second group of explorers is killed and a third, previously unknown, group appears, it takes every skill Murderbot has acquired both from programming and from its own off-book efforts to keep its people alive. In gratitude, the group’s leader buys Murderbot from the company and sets it free.

Artificial Condition

In Artificial Condition, Murderbot decides to revisit the mining planet where it killed the miners and try to answer the question, “Why?” Receiving help along the way from an ART bot (I’ll let the readers discover for themselves what ART stands for), Murderbot arrives at the planet and is hired as a security consultant for some young researchers trying to recover stolen data. What should have been a simple exchange proves to be anything but simple, and again Murderbot is forced to improvise to keep its clients alive. Completing this mission and getting its information about the events that led to the miners’ deaths creates a series of challenges, but fortunately Murderbot is assisted by the timely help of a SexBot, err, rather, Comfort Assistant Bot. No, not THAT kind of help! Murderbot is not into that.

Rogue Protocol

Murderbot has its answers, and in the process discovers that its clients from the first book are in need of more assistance. In Rogue Protocol, it decides to get some information for them that will hopefully end the corporation behind the planetary debacle. After sneaking aboard a ship bringing security consultants to assist with an investigation, Murderbot is discovered by Miki, a sentient PetBot fully loyal and obedient to one of the investigators. Miki agrees to keep Murderbot’s secret if Murderbot agrees to protect the investigators. When the security consultants prove to be on the side of the company being investigated and not on the side of the investigators who hired them, that job becomes significantly more difficult.

Exit Strategy

Finally, Exit Strategy sees Murderbot reunited with the team it first assisted in All Systems Red. Mensah, the team leader, has been captured by the corporation and is being held for ransom. Murderbot is not going to put up with this nonsense, and intends to rescue Mensah–even after discovering just how cool videos are on the large screen displays of hotel rooms!


Whatever you are doing, drop it. Get this series, start reading, move it to the top of your TBR pile and let it take over your life. Murderbot may not want to deal with humans, but trust me, we humans thoroughly enjoy dealing with Murderbot.


The entire series is smart, snarky fun. Murderbot is cynical, depressed, even torn between wanting to be more human and not wanting to be anything like those pathetic weak creatures it has to endure. With each novella well under 200 pages, I read through the entire series in just a couple of days. But don’t let the shortness nor the easy style fool you. These are brilliant books, full of truths about humanity that are packaged in the wisdom of a stressed rogue AI bot. The shelf full of awards should be its own indicator, but if not I will simply say it again: The Murderbot Diaries are brilliant.


All Systems Red Artificial Condition  Rogue Protocol Exit Strategy

Book Series Review: The Murderbot Diaries, Martha Wells

Book Review: Storm of Locusts, Rebecca Roanhorse

Book Review: Storm of Locusts, Rebecca Roanhorse

Storm of Locusts, Rebecca Roanhorse

Science Fiction: Storm of Locusts, Rebecca Roanhorse

It is not often that I anticipate a new book as eagerly as I awaited Storm of Locusts, and Rebecca Roanhorse does not disappoint. In this sequel to Trail of Lightning, Maggie (known to some as a “Monsterslayer” and to others as a “Godslayer”) returns to face a new enemy. (Spoilers ahead.)

Gideon is a cult leader. Raised in a white family, he is actually Diné (Navajo) and has received clan powers. His powers allow him to control people…and to control locusts. When one of Gideon’s followers kills a friend of Maggie’s, she winds up caring for her friend’s niece Ben. They then learn that Gideon has taken Kai (a character from the first book) and Maggie and Ben pursue them to rescue Kai.

Of course, things get more complicated as Maggie, Ben, and Rissa (a frenemy of Maggie’s) encounter beings from the spirit realm of the Diné, are forced to leave the protected lands of the Dinetah to follow Kai and Gideon, are tricked, and captured, and escape, and find unlikely allies along the way. Alliances and friendships are made, questions arise about Kai’s participation with Gideon, and Maggie discovers new powers and new truths about herself.

If you don’t count locusts, the body count is lower in this sequel, and a lot more time is spent on Maggie’s personal journey and relationships with her team. The fact that she has a “team” is itself a growth aspect for Maggie, and it takes her awhile to recognize that. However, even though she usually tries to avoid killing people now, Maggie remains the same kickass heroine we met in Trail of Lightning. This is a deeper, more thoughtful Maggie, one who is developing new talents, new friends, and new reserves that she will undoubtedly need in the next book of this dynamic series.

It has been a busy year for Rebecca Roanhorse. Winner of the John Campbell award, as well as a Hugo and a Nebula, she is up for more awards this year and I suspect that Storm of Locusts will in turn gather its own shelf of nominations and awards next year. She is taking Science Fiction into new directions, representing a neglected voice in the genre, and I am eager to see what else comes from this amazing writer.

Storm of Locusts, Rebecca Roanhorse

Book Review: Storm of Locusts, Rebecca Roanhorse

Book Review: Zeroboxer, Fonda Lee

Book Review: Zeroboxer, Fonda Lee

Carr “The Raptor” Luka is a young and rising star in the violent sport of “zeroboxing,” a zero gravity form of cage fighting popular on Earth, Luna, and Mars. Luka is everything a marketer could want. Blessed with good looks, character, personality, a rags-to-riches life story, incredible talent and a drive to succeed and put in the work to do it, the league sees in him their opportunity to grow the sport. Enter Risha, a Mars-born “brandhelm” charged with making Luka the face of zeroboxing. Herself young and ambitious, she is successful in promoting Luka. More than that, the two fall in love.


Fonda Lee’s debut novel, Zeroboxer, chronicles the rise of the biggest sports star Earth has had in a long time, fighter possibly good enough to go up against the fearsome Martians, those genetically enhanced descendants of humans who were bigger, stronger, and faster than their counterparts from the third planet.


But during his rise, Luka becomes aware of a criminal conspiracy, one that puts him in possession of a secret that could destroy him and his family. If he keeps that secret, it could destroy everything and everyone he loves. But if he reveals the secret, it almost certainly would do the same thing.


Sometimes in sports you discover that you cannot win. You can always, though, refuse to quit. In that way, sports becomes a compelling metaphor for life.


Fonda Lee creates amazing characters. Luka and Risha feel like real people. Their motivations and their actions make sense. Luka loves his mother, loves his coach, and loves Risha. Risha also loves Luka. Luka fears losing, whether that is in the ring or in his life. Sometimes that fear clouds his judgment. Even when his decisions are questionable, though, his core remains firm.


Some of Lee’s best writing comes in her fight scenes. I will confess to not being a big fan of sports like boxing, wrestling, martial arts, UFC, etc. Lee’s descriptions, though, of a sport that does not actually exist, made it sound like she was in the cage with the fighters. Sweat, blood, pain, the feelings of victory and defeat. If zeroboxing ever becomes a real sport, I suspect that its chroniclers will use this novel as a reference tool.


I am not sure why this book is classified as YA. I suppose it is because the protagonist is a teen. The themes of the book are mature, though, and Lee certainly doesn’t pull any punches in her descriptions of violence, sex, or other adult themes. I wouldn’t say it is inappropriate for teens, but I wonder whether some audiences might pass on it thinking it is for kids. It is actually a great book that certainly appealed to this middle-aged reader.


Fonda Lee is a gifted writer who is just beginning to make her mark. Zeroboxer, like her more recent book Jade City, features gifted writing and memorable characters. I look forward to whatever she chooses to write next.

Book Review: Zeroboxer, Fonda Lee

Book Review: Ball Lightning, Liu Cixin

Book Review: Ball Lightning, Liu Cixin (translated by Joel Martinsen)

Science Fiction: Ball Lightning, Liu Cixin (translated by Joel Martinsen)

The day Chen turned fourteen his life changed forever. As his family celebrated, a storm struck the family’s house. A ball of lightning came in, destroying his t-shirt but leaving him uninjured and his other clothes intact. Food in the freezer was cooked and hot, but the freezer itself was unaffected. Tragically, his parents were turned to ash in front of his eyes. This horrific event set the course for the rest of Chen’s life: he became obsessed with studying ball lightning.


His study of ball lightning guided his studies at the university and led him after graduation to working with a beautiful female army major, whose own obsession with weapons research shaped the direction of their work. A theoretical physicist with no moral boundaries became the third member of their team. Together they discovered how to find and use ball lightning. Together they also realized that science without boundaries can have terrible and unintended results.


Ball Lightning was originally published in Chinese in 2005, but the English translation only came out in the fall of 2018. Author Liu Cixin (family name listed first here in the Chinese manner) is riding a wave of international attention after becoming the first writer from Asian to win the Hugo Award. His Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy garnered him that Hugo win and a Nebula nomination for the first of the series, The Three-Body Problem, and a Locus Award for the trilogy’s conclusion, Death’s End. (Both of those were translated by science fiction writer Ken Liu–no relation to the author.) Liu has also won the Galaxy Award, the top Chinese science fiction award, for best writer an amazing eight times! I suspect we will see more of Liu’s back catalog get translated into English and other languages as his fame spreads.


Chen is the ethical center of the trio studying ball lightning. Often conflicted about the work they are doing, largely because of his own tragic experience with the phenomenon, he leaves the project more than once but gets pulled back through his own loyalty to his friends and his country and through his own obsession with the object that changed his life. Chen ultimately discovers that ball lightning is not something that needs to be created. Rather, it is something that exists naturally but is typically harmless. When it is excited electrically, though, it has potentially devastating consequences.


When Chen does finally leave the project, he goes into research that has nothing to do with weapons or war. His work on tornadoes receives international attention: he is honored as an honorary citizen of Oklahoma City because of his work that allows precise prediction of tornadoes. But when war breaks out between the US and China, he comes to realize that even the best of research can have unexpected implications. And when his former colleagues take the ball lightning research to the next level, the results could be catastrophic for the entire planet.


Liu’s combination of hard science fiction and ethical quandaries makes for a fascinating exploration of human nature and the nature of wartime ethics. Just as Chen is shaped by the deaths of his parents, his colleague Lun Yun is shaped by the death of her mother from a novel wartime weapon in a previous conflict. She is not without ethics, but her desire is to make sure no other Chinese girls lose their mothers the way she lost hers. If that means creating an ultimate weapon, she is OK with that so long as it is deployed by China and not by their enemies.


It’s perhaps either a cliche or a truism (or both) that there are no good or evil tools. A scalpel can be a lifesaver in the hands of a surgeon or a life-ender in the hands of a murderer. When those tools are in the hands of scientists and soldiers, the implications may extend beyond individual lives and affect the lives of millions.


I suppose the same could be said for writers and words. When the writer is as gifted as Liu Cixin and the result is a novel as profound as Ball Lightning, the effect on the reader is likely to be profound.

Book Review:  Ball Lightning, Liu Cixin (translated by Joel Martinsen)

Book Review: The Bayern Agenda, Dan Moren

Book Review: The Bayern Agenda, Dan Moren

Science Fiction: The Bayern Agenda, Dan Moren

Some books are just fun. The Bayern Agenda is a fun book. It’s a space opera. It’s a spy thriller. It’s a book with engaging, smart mouthed, characters who find themselves in challenging situations which require them to find new trust in themselves and each other. Dan Moren continues with characters we first met in The Caledonian Gambit in telling the story of the Galactic Cold War (though curiously enough, this book is labelled as “Book One” of the Galactic Cold War series despite taking place only months after the events of The Caledonian Gambit).


Simon Kovalic is a spy. Originally a soldier from Earth, he fled to the Commonwealth of Independent Systems after Earth fell to the Illyrican Empire. Now leading an elite team of covert operatives, Kovalic learns of a top secret meeting between officials from the Empire and the top bankers in the galaxy, one that could tip the balance of the cold war. Unfortunately, Kovalic is injured during the mission, so his team must proceed without him to confirm the purpose of the meeting and, if necessary, disrupt it.


When additional information comes in to Kovalic’s boss, and when it becomes apparent that there is at least one leak within their organization, Kovalic must follow his team to Bayern despite his injury and warn them about the new threats. The challenges increase by the page and the response to those challenges requires each team member to use all of their skills in order to survive. And like a good spy thriller will, Bayern saves its final twists until the very end.


Although this would not be considered a young adult book, The Bayern Agenda would be an easy and fun read for tweens and teens who enjoy science fiction and spy novels. Its fast pace and smart tone is appealing to all ages. Moren has delivered a clever novel with great characters who interact through an exciting story. In addition to the main thrust of the story, several “interludes” are included which give some back story for Kovalic, Tapper, and the Galactic Cold War, giving context to the events which take place during the novel.


The Bayern Agenda would make a great beach or airplane read. It is fast paced, the right length, complex enough to be interesting but straightforward and easy to read. A nice cross-over spy/sci-fi novel, hopefully introducing a series with a long run ahead of it.

Book Review: The Bayern Agenda, Dan Moren

Book Review: Semiosis, Sue Burke

Book Review: Semiosis, Sue Burke

Semiosis, Sue Burke

Science Fiction: Semiosis, Sue Burke

Semiosis is a beautifully written, deeply thoughtful book tracking several generations of humans colonizing a new planet. Sue Burke has created a richly imagined world full of intriguing characters trying to figure out how to live together with each other and with the dominant sentient species native to the planet. I truly loved this novel!


Burke’s story follows the Pax settlement for more than 100 years, from the early days of Earth-humans scrabbling for purchase on a planet they were not evolved to inhabit to their descendants coming to terms with the other two sentient species there. One of those species is native to the planet. It is a plant, capable of intentionally manipulating animals to meet its needs. The humans do not immediately recognize the intelligence of the plant, and when they do, they fear it. After all, a plant that can choose to give nourishing food in exchange for water and fertilizer could also choose to withhold that food to manipulate or control. Were that to happen, would humans be any better than a domesticated animal? And if the choices were dying from starvation and an inability to survive the rigors of the planet or acquiescing to the demands of a self-interested and sometimes manipulative plant, which would be the better and more ethical choice?


Fundamentally, humans would always be at the mercy of the plant once they started. It’s root network effectively meant that the plant was immortal. Memories could be preserved in special areas, protected from harm. Fruit could be modified to medicate the humans, rewarding positive behavior and punishing or modifying negative behavior. Shoots and leaves could sprout overnight in new locations, seeing and hearing anything the humans were doing. The plant might choose to act ethically, to embrace mutualism and equality with the humans. Or the plant might choose to act only in its own interests, treating the humans as animals that were “pests” or propagators. If the plant did act solely for itself, humans would be essentially helpless to resist once they became dependant on the fruit it provided for food, medicine, etc.


I love the way Burke develops the burgeoning relationship between the humans and the plant. Each has things they can learn from the other. Each has things they disapprove of in the other. Each has things they can provide to the other. Obviously we cannot know (yet) how a sentient plant might think, but Burke presents some very thoughtful ideas of how it might process information, how it might differ from the way animals (humans) process that information, and what strengths and weaknesses each might possess. When they, humans and plant, are presented with a crisis that challenges both, those strengths and weaknesses come to bear as they work together (and sometimes work at cross purposes) to meet that challenge. Misunderstandings abound. Cooperation is tested. Is the relationship parasitic or symbiotic? And how would adding a third species to the equation change things?


Burke has been playing with these ideas for a long time. The original concept for the story was published as a short story by her almost 20 years before Semiosis came out (in 2018). This novel feels like it was slow-cooked, in a very positive, delicious, amazing aroma filling the house kind of way. Each chapter has elements in them that make you think, “Ooh, that’s different.” Clearly the author has not only done her research, she has allowed the images and the possibilities and the thoughts to mature within her mind and heart. The result is a thoughtful, well-paced, deep novel. I highly recommend it.

Semiosis, Sue Burke

Book Review: Semiosis, Sue Burke

Book Review: Kingdom of Needle and Bone, Mira Grant

Book Review: Kingdom of Needle and Bone, Mira Grant

Kingdom of Needle and Bone

Science Fiction: Kingdom of Needle and Bone, Mira Grant

Morris Disease was named after the first victim, little Lisa Morris, age 8. A variant of measles, Morris Disease is highly contagious, often fatal, and has the additional terrible feature of resetting the body’s immune system. Anyone who catches Morris Disease, even if they survive the initial infection, no longer has immunity against any previous disease they have caught or been immunized against. Humanity faces perhaps its worst pandemic: a disease that either kills you or opens the door for something else to do the job.


Dr. Isabella Gauley, pediatrician and aunt to Lisa Morris, is devastated by her loss. She wants to change the world, provide a place where children will never again be cursed by virulent diseases. In the novella, Kingdom of Needle and Bone, we read of her efforts to create an island sanctuary, one where children can grow up safely, without fear of Morris Disease, or measles or whooping cough or any of the other illnesses that have been humanity’s constant companions throughout history.


Sometimes the greatest monsters are the smallest. Viruses and bacteria may not hide behind doors and jump out at the unwary, but when people intentionally fail to vaccinate their children these monsters are far more deadly than those with fangs and claws. Mira Grant (a pseudonym for author Seanan McGuire) often writes of a post-pandemic earth. Notably in her Newsflesh series, Grant examines the potential effects on the world of an illness that crashes the population and continues to wreak havoc for years after. (That illness resulted in zombies, so this is not quite the same scenario as we saw there.)


Mira Grant books tend to walk on the horror side of the sci-fi/fantasy genre. I will confess, I spent much of the time during my reading of this novella waiting for the other shoe to drop. I do not want to give away any spoilers, but I will say that this is not just a nice little story about survivors of a pandemic creating a new world for themselves. Kingdom of Needle and Bone is a Mira Grant book, and monsters are waiting for the unwary reader.


This is a short book and an easy read, but be forewarned: the effects of the illness on a child are described in detail. This may not be the best choice for a bedtime story for your little ones, unless they are hoping to grow up and become virologists. It is a well crafted story, though, in both plot and characters. It is also one that provokes thought. Kingdom of Needle and Bone may only have a little over 100 pages, but it probes deeply into questions of medical ethics, wealth and privilege, and how decisions about the future of the species should be made.

Kingdom of Needle and Bone

Book Review: Kingdom of Needle and Bone, Mira Grant

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