The Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut #1) • 2018 • Alternate History novel by Mary Robinette Kowal


Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

How dare I rate this Hugo / Nebula / Locus / Sidewise Award winner with only 2.5 stars? Because I’m honest, because I often don’t match with popular opinion, and because I can’t shut my mouth talking about suboptimal works missing my expectations.

First of all, there’s a maximum level of anxiety vomiting that I can endure. And this novel easily breaks the world record after half way through. Dr. Elma York is the main protagonist, and she has that special kind of stage fright. This issue makes her human, because otherwise she is over-privileged: white, daughter of a general, married to the lead engineer of the U.S. rocket program, genius mental calculation skills, highly intelligent. Add to that her past as a WWII WASP pilot. 

Well, I guess, our hero needs some privileges, because otherwise she wouldn’t get accepted as an astronaut, right? And who doesn’t love to read some superhero novel once in a while?

The novel follows Mrs. York in first person perspective through the early phase of the U.S. space race. As a female, she isn’t an engineer like all the males with mathematical skills, but works as a “computer”. There weren’t reliable machines available in the 1950s, that’s why those ladies had to find the formulas for orbital mechanics and manually calculate everything. 

Now, if you’re interested in that part, you really should watch the excellent film “Hidden Figures”. It’s not about over-privileged white girls, but ingenious Afro-American computers working at the same target. Just do yourself a favor and don’t read the very detail loving and boring non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly – I have a review up, though you might need to translate it from German.

These early days of astronauts were fun, and the training of astronauts is certainly interesting. Mrs. York had to fight hard to become part of this program against several obstacles – male bias only one them. That’s unlike her real peers, who were involved early on in the U.S. space program but only as a kind of marketing – the first U.S. woman in space was far later than in this novel. 

Kowal gives us all of that, and it might be a fun read for first-time readers of this topic. Sadly, it was only a boring repetition for me, and I found far more interesting descriptions of astronaut training in Michael Collin’s autobiography “Carrying the Fire”.

Our main protagonist has a very loving and understanding husband. Let’s call him Mr. York. If I ever meet a man like this, I’d marry him instantly. Such a caring man, ever knowing to speak exactly the right words, never playing the alpha male role he would probably have as the 1950s Lead Engineer. I simply call that unbelievable. And don’t ask me about those absolutely awful sex scenes *shudder*. 

Did I mention why the Moon Race started already in the early 1950s in this novel? One could nearly forget about the reason, because it really didn’t have any impact on society or politics later on. The novel starts with the impact of a huge meteor at Washington D.C.’s Atlantic coast, flattening the city, killing the former president, the members of the two houses as well as hundred of thousands of people living in that area. The impact would generate a greenhouse effect years later and make Earth completely inhabitable. Humanity has to relocate to Moon or Mars. 

Wait, what did I write??? A “meteor”??? Bless my heart, how could I! The novel tells me time and time again that it’s a meteoroid, and it’s a crime against humanity to call it anything else. In other words, sometimes the novel can be a little bit heavy-handed. 

Kowal totally missed the chance to say anything about the results of that impact on economy, society, or politics. I take it as a literary device to push our Lady Astronaut in place and keep events moving. 

Sometimes, the prose gets very strange, like a blueprint whenever mathematical or astronaut slang comes along. How often did I read the Fibonacci numbers which the protagonist uses to calm herself during her anxieties? Do you believe that as a genius mind calculator, she starts from scratch with “1,1,3,…” every time? In her afterword, Kowal clarifies that someone helped her getting the slang right by filling in her templates. It reads exactly like that, hurting the reading flow.

The novel ends with the rocket breaking Earth’s atmosphere towards the Moon. In between, I found a formulaic narration with a lot of cringe moments. That didn’t meet my expectations after an awesome start with the meteoroid. 

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14 Responses to The Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut #1) • 2018 • Alternate History novel by Mary Robinette Kowal

  1. Great review! I’ll stick with the movie Hidden Figures. That one was pretty good.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. JJ says:

    I wouldn’t classify these characters as “over-privileged white girls” (unless you are also going to characterize the male astronauts of that time as “over-privileged white boys”).

    The Mercury 13 were all massively-accomplished pilots and worked their asses off to attain the sort of skills and expertise portrayed in this book — to be as good as any of the male astronauts — and then they got screwed over by the people making the decisions for the space program. I really appreciated that the author gave the Mercury 13 an alternate history here, where they were valued and given the opportunity to make meaningful contributions.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Andreas says:

      General‘s daughter and white is over-privileged.
      A PoC lady from lower society would never have a chance. That’s why those ladies from the 99club aren’t involved, even though they were better pilots.

      As for a Mercury 13 tribute, I liked the AppleTV show „For All Mankind“ far better.


      • JJ says:

        At least some of the Mercury 13 were Ninety-Nines. All of them had more than 1,000 hours of flight experience. I encourage you to read more about the Mercury 13. They were just as real and as accomplished as the women profiled in Hidden Figures. Recognizing the importance and abilities of one group does not take anything away from the the importance and abilities of the other group. It’s not an either-or equation, it’s a BOTH equation.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. In your review I saw mirrored my own disappointments in this story, from the glossing over of the impact’s consequences to the characterization: a good chance missed indeed…
    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jeanne says:

    I didn’t care enough about this novel to write about it, but it’s very much a young adult novel. I gave some copies to young women interested in science, math, and space travel and all three of them said they loved it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ola G says:

    Ouch, ouch, no! Thanks for the review, one off my TBR 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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