Book Review: The Calculating Stars

I’ve joined a book club! I’ve never been part of a book club before, and honestly didn’t really understand what they were. I don’t know if old lady book clubs that swap books work differently from this book club, but it’s called the Bookish Broads, and it’s part of Manchester WI. Having never been part of a bookclub, but having done plenty of literary stuffs in my time, I went into my first meeting a bit… gobby, to be honest. But they did not kick me out, so I stuck around for another month. We had a sci-fi theme for (my) month two, and if you’ve been paying attention, I’ve read more sci-fi in the last year than I have ever before. The book we read for sci-fi month was, well, not sci-fi (apparently this happens often). Somewhat disappointed in this, I bought another on the original sci-fi shortlist because it was an author that I’d heard from lots but not actually read any of her work: Mary Robinette Kowal. The book in question: The Calculating Stars (2018), first book in the Lady Astronaut series.

Cover art stolen from the interwebs as always.

Mistress of puppets: Mary Robinette Kowal

I was really particularly keen to read this book, to discuss it even, because I had heard so much good sense from Mrs Kowal. Born in North Carolina and originally trained in puppetry and theatrecraft, she is now an estimable, multi-Hugo-award-winning author, dispenser of valuable writing and life advice across several platforms. I first came across her as an author sharing some incredibly insightful writing prompts and directions on the podcast, Writing Excuses (which I really must get back to!) with Brandon Sanderson and some others. She presented a guest lecture on Sanderson’s SFF writing course that I devoured on youtube, about short story writing. Now, having sampled her writing, I wanna go back and watch it again, and actually work on some short stories, which I’ve historically just not done well with. Too verbose, you see.

Kowal’s background in puppetry and theatre work means that she really gets story and characterisation. In the audible version I read, she was reading her own story, which I really enjoyed. Great to hear her engage with her own prose in that way.

A lesson in being a badass Lady Astronaut

Elma York, PhD (twice, I think), is pretty darn exceptional. During WWII, she was a WASP in the airforce, ferrying non-armed fighter planes to various air bases so the “real pilots” (heavy sarcasm) could use them to fight. The novel starts with Elma and her husband Nathaniel experiencing the emotional, geographical and political fallout of a meteor hitting the eastern seaboard of the USA. Elma, who is a mathematician and physicist as well as a pilot, and Nathaniel start working for the International Aerospace Commission. Their goal is to help humanity leave the world, doomed to an extinction event due to meteor-induced climate change.

The Calculators were a crew of women who did basically all the maths required to get humans into space. This alternative history puts these women, particularly the women who can fly, at the centre of the story. Elma wants nothing more than to go to space, but she has a lot of sexism to battle before they’ll let her go.

I thoroughly enjoyed Kowal’s visceral and relatable explorations of Elma’s anxiety disorder. Her coping mechanisms and terror of failing the other women looking towards the sky keep her on her toes throughout. I loved the sensitivity to race as a challenging vector of inequality, alongside the blatant sexism of some of the key astronauts. Elma’s growing awareness of racism through her friendships with a Black officer and his wife and other people of colour manages the issue in a way that doesn’t feel at odds with the 1950s setting, while still being critical of the stark inequalities associated. Like, good intersectionalism, as far as possible.

I also loved loved LOVED reading a functional married couple that supported each other to being mutual badasses. I can think of few books that have this sort of dynamic (actually, I can think of no books like this – either marriage is the end goal after which the story stops, or the marriage is a lop-sided power struggle or a string of poor communication and jealousy-induced misunderstandings). Where can I read more like this? Like, I think I learned some communication techniques I’ll be applying in my own marriage.

And honestly, the sex scenes, which lots of Goodreads reviewers found awkward, were like, what I aspire to for writing sex scenes in my own work. Lots of targeted innuendo and then fade to black. Classy, sexy, full of self-aware humour. Just… yes.

Worth it?

Best new universe I’ve read about all year. Would have said best damn book I’ve read all year, but I’ve read some Discworld and some Robin Hobb too (familiar universes for me, and also like, top-notch writing too). The Calculating Stars was so good I’m going to buy a hardcopy version, and part two of the duology, and the third book too. Maybe in audible and in hardcopy.

Just do it.

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