The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

The background is deep blue with geometric drawing, against which a group of women are silhouetted in black.

Review by Kristen B.

I know we all feel like we’re living in a disaster movie or dystopian novel (ok, maybe it’s just me), but sometimes misery loves company. Particularly, when it comes with a good dash of ingenuity and a lot of hope in humanity’s ability to solve big problems.

At the beginning of The Calculating Stars, a meteorite strikes Earth at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay (basically right here), leaving ruin in its wake. Given this extinction-level event, Earth will become unlivable for humans within a century. The book takes place in the 1950s, as the space race has just begun. Now, it takes on a whole new level of importance as colonizing the moon, and maybe even Mars, appears to be our only hope for survival. The book is full of all the fascinating trials and testing required to put men on the moon.

Not just men. Emma York, Ph.D. mathematician and ace pilot (and baker of pies), is our point of view character. She and her fellow female pilots become part of the cutting-edge cadre of astronauts, because, as she argues, it makes no sense to send ONLY men for the future survival of the race…even Noah understood the principle behind two-by-two. For all of her smarts and derring-do, Emma suffers from fairly severe anxiety driven by perfectionism. The novel addresses both the need and the stigma of treating mental/emotional issues. Emma’s anxiety serves to complicate her fraught relationship with the program’s lead astronaut, a devoted chauvinist.

Kowal doesn’t shy away from the other pressing issues of the times – particularly racism. Black pilots face even more discrimination than female ones, and Black women receive the worst treatment (of no real surprise). Each chapter opens with a news clipping, many of which show the bigger societal picture, and it’s not entirely pretty. The debate rages about who goes to the lunar colony, including mention of fringe factions with all their many conspiracy theories.

As I noted above, there’s also hope and ingenuity and that feeling of “Yes, We Can.” For every setback, there’s a jump forward. For every human foible, there’s a shining example of people at their absolute best. We tackle the hard problems … because we must! I loved this book for its honesty and its hopefulness, and mostly for how Kowal wove them together. If you loved Hidden Figures, you will probably enjoy this.

The story continues with the mission to Mars in The Fated Sky, and a brand-new book, The Relentless Moon, takes a closer look at the trials facing the new colony. The Calculating Stars is also available as an ebook from Overdrive/Libby.

Kristen B. has worked for HCLS for more than 15 years, and currently hosts the Books on Tap discussion group at Hysteria Brewing Company. She loves reading, Orioles baseball, and baking.

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