Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars begins as a disaster story and ends as a space race. Both tales are compelling in their own right, but I’m not sure they fit together as cleanly as they could have.
The book opens in 1952 with a meteor strike that obliterates much of the United States’ east coast. Elma York, the protagonist and a former member of WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots, an organization of female aviators who crewed mostly non-combat missions during World War II), navigates the destruction by flying her husband out of the danger zone. Elma can do more than just handle a plane, though. She’s an ace mathematician employed as a “computer” by NACA, the predecessor to NASA. Her husband works at NACA as an engineer. Shortly after the strike, Elma helps him calculate the size of the meteor and the resulting consequences. Her conclusion: the impact set off a runaway greenhouse effect that will eventually boil the oceans.
The rest of The Calculating Stars becomes an accelerated push to get humans into space so they can colonize new worlds in time to save the species. Much of the history is real: Kowal begins many chapters with an actual New York Times headline and then tweaks the copy to fit her divergent timeline. She also consulted a long list of experts (see the afterword) to get the science right and make her pilot and NACA jargon sound authentic. Sadly, the climate-change skepticism—despite an undeniable trigger event, which our current reality lacks—rings true as well. So does the blatant sexism and racism: even staring down the barrel of an existential crisis, would 1950s America start treating women and people of color respectfully? (Probably not!)
But while good, the majority of the book felt like it belonged to a different genre than the (equally good) start. I don’t mind mixing and match; in fact, I often love it. Yet the gripping survival story at the outset made me assume the rest of the novel would progress in a similar vein. Instead, I got Elma’s incremental quest to make sure women are among the first people to see (her alternate) Earth from orbit. I grew to like that story too, but it took a while, in large part because Kowal set my expectations in a different direction.
Maybe this should have been two books: one about the aftereffects of the meteor and the struggle to comprehend the bigger catastrophe to come (at the moment, Elma figures things out extremely quickly), and one about her battles against chauvinism in NACA. But the Lady Astronaut series is already a trilogy, so splitting the initial installment might have been overkill. And it won awards as is. I’m obviously in the minority with this opinion.
In any case, I genuinely enjoyed The Calculating Stars. Both parts of it. I just had to be patient with the transition.