Science Fiction Book Reviews

Review: The Calculating Stars, A Lady Astronaut Novel

Spanning the gamut of physics, mathematics and space travel, The Calculating Stars is an alternate history of the space race, as humanity attempts to ensure their survival following a catastrophic global event. With a brilliantly rendered protagonist and a group of dedicated women pilots and mathematicians, this ode to female empowerment is a wonderful read that will leave you feeling inspired.

THE CALCULATING STARS: A LADY ASTRONAUT NOVEL

Mary Robinette Kowal
Tor, July 2018

QUICK SUMMARY

After surviving a catastrophic meteorite explosion, a woman and her husband must return to their work with the space program to find a solution to mankind’s survival. The space race begins along an alternate history, as we try to set out to colonize space one slow step at a time. Fighting to be a part of the future, a group of women work tirelessly to become a part of a space program bent on keeping them out. Their collective goal: to become astronauts.

WHY I LOVED IT

DR. YORK (AKA THE LADY ASTRONAUT)

Dr. York is, hands-down, one of my top five favorite sci-fi characters. Kowal has created a layered protagonist so complex and realistic that you’ll feel like you’re reading a history book instead of fiction. She’s brilliant in every sense of the word – a genius mathematician with staggering abilities in the line of Hidden Figures, constantly being forced to prove herself even though she is undoubtedly the smartest person in the room.

She is forced to face sexism on a daily basis by male colleagues and the general public, and has to put on a happy face for the crowds, even though the expectations can be overwhelming for her. She suffers from anxiety, as so many do, and the book normalizes it as something that happens to so many, something that isn’t a dealbreaker as you try to pursue and conquer your dreams. She’s continues to grow throughout the book, becoming stronger and more sure of herself, refusing to let anyone keep her down until she finally wins. I applaud the author on the level of detail and the passion she shows on every page.

A CATCH-ALL

It would be a disservice to simply categorize this as science fiction. It starts as an environmental catastrophe, giving way to heavy mathematics and physics, followed by feminist and racial activism, followed by mental illness, and concluding with space travel. She covers each topic flawlessly, melding them together into a complete narrative that gives a full picture of a 1950s world tinged by tragedy, trying to survive amidst startling scientific predictions.

While it’s an alternate history, the prejudices against women and people of color are central to the American mindset, forcing the main characters to fight an uphill battle. The math and physics discussions are done expertly and remain fascinating to a person who doesn’t know much about hard science (aka this reviewer). The excitement of space travel is alive and well throughout, and by the final page, you can’t help but smile full-faced at her journey. It’s rare that a book can make me laugh and tear up, and I found myself doing both throughout.

DISCUSSION ON MENTAL ILLNESS

This surprised me the most, and was a welcome discussion, especially set in such a trying time. Anxiety issues almost got the best of her in her youth. She’s ashamed of them but the book doesn’t allow her to wallow in that shame. She gets the help she needs and improves, overcoming her debilitating anxiety to succeed in her life’s goals. Anxiety is a part of life for so many and a reality that we, as a society, need to face and accept. This book is a great step in that direction.

THE WOMEN

There were so many amazing women in The Calculating Stars, fighting to be heard and to be taken seriously by the sexist forces working against them. There are infuriating moments of condescension from male coworkers, reporters and random people, and these women are forced to move beyond those moments every day. It’s tragic to see such nonsense being thrown at a group of such brilliant scientists, pilots and mathematicians. Seeing their refusal to give up, no matter the odds, is satisfying enough to cause goosebumps multiple times throughout the book. They are dedicated to being a part of the future and never was there a more deserving group for the job.

THE INCITING INCIDENT

The book begins with a meteorite striking the Earth and wiping out hundreds of thousands of people and a good chunk of the United States. Our protagonist and her husband are on the outskirts but have to travel through the devastation to get to safety. This was the most coherent description I’ve read of the experience a person would have during a meteorite impact event. We see the physics of the crash, the different levels of light, sound, force and air in relation to the collision, and its effect on the immediate surroundings. It’s vivid, terrifying, and heartbreaking as they travel to safety, watching the world they’ve known fall apart.

CONCEPTS

Extinction Level Event, Meteorite, Space Travel, Astronauts, Feminism, Colonization, Space Station, Physics, Mathematics, Computers

WHERE TO BUY

Barnes & Noble
Amazon

CITATION

Kowal, Mary Robinette. The Calculating Stars: A Lady Astronaut Novel. Tor, 2018.

Interested in more books like The Calculating Stars? Check out our book reviews here.

Photo by James Hammond on Unsplash

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