It seems a lot of alternate history science fiction novels revolve around a major turning point in history. The most popular one is of Germany winning World War II as in Phillip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle and SS-GB. Harry Turtledove has an entire series based on the South winning the Civil War unofficially called The Southern Victory Series. Mary Robinette Kowal’s alternate history in The Calculating Stars is not just one turning point, but several. The first is that Dewey would defeat Truman and become President of the United States, second that the US would be ahead of the Soviet Union in the space race.
Emma York is a former WASP, who flew with many perilous missions in WWII, and brilliant mathematician. She and her husband, Nathaniel, witness the meteorite impact and survive the subsequent shock wave. Since Nathaniel is literally a rocket scientist he is semi drafted into services to help at the local Air Force base.
This sets the timeline for the most drastic change in history. In 1952, a meteorite crashes into the Eastern coast of the United states and destroys much of the east coast, including Washington D.C. It sets up an environmental change that will eventually render the earth nearly uninhabitable. It is decided that the current space program be accelerated to colonize space, first the moon and eventually Mars.
In the hands of other writers, it may be natural to come up with grand ideas and scope of chronicling the race to space and tell a heroic struggle to not only survive the changing climate but to also do the impossible things such as reaching the moon. Mary Robinette Kowal chooses to make this a much more personal story. It is what makes this novel so unique and relatable.
This is all told through the point of view of Emma as she navigates through this invigorated space program and the issues of the era, mainly the sexism that stands in the way of not only her, but others women in participating in the space program beyond being number crunching computers.
After what was meant to be a PR appearance on the 50’s era show, Mister Wizard, Emma gets dubbed with the nickname of The Lady Astronaut. Thus would begin an unwanted focus on Emma and the role women will have in the fledgling space program. You would think it’s a no-brainer as do the women in the book. To colonize space, you are going to need women. But it is is still the mid-50s and not only is the idea of women’s lib not existent, but it is even predating the major civil rights movement. And Emma not only suffers from the upbringing of the time with the haunting refrain of her mother’s “What will people think?” to her own issues of anxiety.
Emma feels she and many other friends, most of whom are former WASP themselves are fully qualified. It of course should come as no surprise that women will eventually get the chance to join the program. In fact there are few real surprises in the book, but the joy is the road trip to the final destination.
The characters come across as genuine and, yes, at times you may feel frustrated on behalf of Emma and a reluctance to assert herself as you know she can. But then you realize we are reflecting back on an long ago era of thought. And also that she definitely has anxiety problems.
Yet as an exercise in alternate history it also is an exercise in real history, of the WASPs that flew with honor and in sometimes dangerous conditions during World War II and the almost greenlit real female astronaut program of the era.
Unfortunately the end of the book, though not really ending in a cliffhanger left me wanting more. Fortunately there is a second half of the story called The Fated Sky, additionally there are several short stories and novellas that tie into the story of the Lady Astronaut series. The Lady Astronaut of Mars, though it was published first, is a Emma’s reflection on her past as an 80 year old who helped colonize Mars.
Not only is the book an excellent read, but it’s an excellent listen. The author also serves the narrator for the Audible.com exclusive production. It is not often that an author can pull off such an excellent job of voice performance (only Neil Gaiman seems to come to mind at the moment), but Mary Robinette Kowal is used to performing. She happens to also be a puppeteer.
I highly recommend The Calculating Stars.