Book Review: The Calculating Stars

In our timeline – you know, real-life history – NASA owes a great debt to brilliant women who toiled unrecognized for decades. These women were called computers. They developed and checked the calculations necessary to launch human beings strapped to giant bombs out of Earth’s atmosphere. National Geographic explains that NASA came excruciatingly close to allowing these women into space, but balked in the face of their own prejudice: 

“During the early 1960s, while NASA was training and flying the seven astronaut men of Project Mercury, 13 American women, the First Lady Astronaut Trainees or the Mercury 13, were also going through rigorous astronaut training. However, because Congress decided that it was more appropriate for NASA to stick to their men’s-only program, the women were not officially part of NASA and they would never be afforded the opportunity to fly in space.” 

National Geographic Society, Women of Nasa

The men of NASA did not allow women to reach the stars for another twenty years. 

The Calculating Stars – the first of the Lady Astronaut series – is a science-fiction alternate history about a cohort of women who break that glass ceiling decades earlier. The author, Mary Robinette Kowal, also wrote the alt-history horror-mystery-romance Ghost Talkers, reviewed in this space last summer. Let’s dive into the details on this 2019 Hugo, Nebula, and Locus award-winner: 

The Basics: 

Title: The Calculating Stars
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Genre: Science Fiction, Romance, Alternate History
Published: Tor, 2018

Spoiler-Free Summary: 

Elma York, mathematician, and her husband, an engineer, are vacationing in the mountains outside Washington DC when a meteor strikes the east coast in 1952. The impact rocks the world and kicks off a climate disaster that is somewhere between an outright eruption and the slow-burn of modern global warming: humanity’s time, is measured in decades, not centuries. We must look beyond our atmosphere to survive as a species.

Macie Roberts’ computing group circa 1955 (far right). Barbara Paulson is on the telephone (standing, back left). Helen Ling is at the second desk in the left row. (Credit: JPL), history.com

Soon, both Yorks are integral to the international effort to reach the moon. Despite her brilliance, Elma runs into resistance to her and other women’s essential contributions to the program. In her own words, “Every time I stood out, it made someone angry.” Scientists, politicians, and military leaders must all learn to set aside their egos, prejudices, and foibles in order to work together to save humanity. 

Why This Book Is For You: 

The Calculating Stars is the quintessential power-anthem against mansplaining. Anyone who has ever felt condescended to at work because of their gender will immediately empathize with Elma’s plight. 

True to Kowal’s brand, this is a romance with a happily committed couple. The conflict does not arise from threatening the relationship itself. Rather, Elma and her husband draw strength from one another as they face logistical, political, and social challenges together.

Women working as “computers” at NACA in 1949 gather air pressure readings. Credit: NASA, via The Smithsonian

The Calculating Stars uses a strong, unique voice to adroitly to tell a story. First, the historicity is solid. Elma’s narration feels like the voice of a woman from the 1950’s. Second, she’s funny. Elma is an entertaining person to spend 300+ pages with as you walk through her quirky, challenging, infuriating, deeply moving journey to the stars. 

Where Can You Find More?

MacMillan has an excellent write-up on this novel if you are still not sold. You can find more of Kowal’s work on her author website

Happy reading, reader. 🙂 

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