Lady Astronaut: The Calculating Stars

Book cover: The Calculating Stars - Mary Robinette Kowal (a group of women silhouetted against a starry sky)Nobody expected a meteorite to wipe out the Eastern Seaboard, but we had as little chance as the dinosaurs of surviving the ensuing climate catastrophe. There was only one way out: the space program.

Given how late I am to the game, what can I possibly say about Mary Robinette Kowal’s Hugo Award-winning alternate history of the Apollo program that you don’t already know? Nothing, but I’ll tell you the reasons I loved The Calculating Stars anyway.

I adored Hidden Figures: the true story of the women who did in fact get Apollo to the stars in the face of overwhelming sexism and racism. The women who were barely known outside of the narrow corridors of NASA, rarely lauded or recognised because they were just calculators. It’s a brilliant film, and the recognition for those amazing women is long overdue.

I also adored The Lady Astronaut of Mars, which broke me into tiny little pieces (although stars help me if I ever reread it in future now that I’ve spent more time with Elma and Nathaniel, because I may never stop crying) and which I won’t talk about in the context of The Calculating Stars because spoilers.

Mix the two together, and I was head over heels from the start. This is both an entirely fictional story and a beautifully researched account of the space program. It starts with an event that never happened, and then extrapolates the what if through a feminist lens – but it stands on the shoulders of the giants of history and is all the better for it.

Our main character is a mathematician and a Woman’s Airforce Service Pilot – a clever, resourceful woman who is expected to keep home for her husband once the war ends. Those expectations barely twitch even after the military and scientific establishment are decimated by the meteorite (and oh, my deep-seated joy at her endless correction of all and sundry that it was a meteorite), leaving the US in dire need of all the help they can get. Worse, one of the male officers she had a run-in with as a WASP is a surviving senior military officer, determined to see his old antagonist kept in her place.

If it was no more than the story of one woman’s perseverance in the face of grindingly dull patriarchal resistance, it would be a good story. But there’s so much more to The Calculating Stars. It was a constant assault on my heart for so many reasons, so here’s my top 5 for loving it so very much.

Elma and Nathaniel

There’s an old saw that says behind every great man there’s a great woman; in Nathaniel’s case this is absolutely true – but he is also the great man behind Elma. He is as frustrated by the status quo as she is; he knows how capable she is; and he supports her emotionally, intellectually and professionally in every way he can. Their relationship is golden (even if the sex scenes had me rolling my eyes).

It was just wonderful to see such a strong, rewarding marriage centre-stage. In fact, I was so grateful for it I found myself wondering when I last read about such a successful match, which made me a bit sad, because I realised there’s a trope in Strong Women Overcoming The Odds stories of an unhappy marriage being one of the things to be overcome. I was so happy for Elma that she had such an awesome husband to carry her through thick and thin.

Anxiety and imposter syndrome

One of Elma’s greatest hurdles to overcome is anxiety. She suffers acutely from imposter syndrome, for reasons that made my blood boil and are far too relatable. I loved Elma all the more for her awkwardness and her coping mechanisms; and loved Nathaniel all the more for his patience and support.

The diversity of the cast

The cast feels effortlessly diverse. Nathaniel and Elma are Jewish; the family who take them in soon after the meteorite strike are black; a good friend is Asian-American; another is a rich white woman – everyone has a part to play.

But this is still America in the 50s, not some idealised alternate reality. Mary Robinette Kowal meets the racial tensions of the era head on. It matters that Elma is Jewish; the meteorite has robbed her of much of the little family she had left after the war, and the situation will put her face to face with former Nazi scientists. It matters that her friends are black – because it lifts the lid on the racist policies that ignore black neighbourhoods in favour of airlifting white refugees. The diversity isn’t just at face value – it informs character and plot.

Owning your mistakes

…which leads neatly to my next point: Elma may have to deal with snark aimed at her as a Jew, but she still has a great deal of privilege. She’s white, and the daughter of a prominent military officer (as well as the wife of a prominent scientist). And it trips her up from time to time – but she is generally quick both to realise what she’s done and to acknowledge it, and to make up for it.

In your face, sexism

But let’s face it, much of my deep-seated love for this book is because it’s about refusing to lie down and accept the patriarchy. It is packed with situations I recognised – structural sexism, sexist micro-aggressions, intentional and accidental undermining – and regularly had me absolutely raging (my reading notes are not polite. I speak French, Parker, you fucker). The retaliatory blows landed along the way are often surprisingly satisfying given how small they are.

Whether this will work quite so well for a male reader, I can’t say. But for this reader? It was just a joy from start to finish. It encompasses all the reasons I love films like Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff and First Man and Hidden Figures, but finally allows women centre-stage (not weeping from the launchpad fence) – having earned their right to get there many times over because the patriarchy is shit. Any book that makes me cry this many times – in joy, in rage, in jubilation – will be on my shelf and in my heart forever.


I received a free copy from the publisher in my Hugo nominee packet.