The Lady Astronaut is a series by Mary Robinette Kowal which currently consists of two books and one short story. The Calculating Stars comes first chronologically, with The Faded Sky second. The short story is set many years after both, though was written first and I believe was what inspired Kowal to write the others, and is called Lady Astronaut of Mars.
In the short audible.com review I posted, I called them triumphant. Now, that is, as I stated there, such a reviewer buzzword that I was hesitant to use it, but as it was the word in my head while the epilogue of The Faded Sky played, I’m going with it. I am not ashamed to admit that I was crying at the time.
The premise is this. In the early 1950’s, a meteorite strikes earth. Specifically, it strikes the ocean, destroying not only Washington DC but a large part of the eastern seaboard. The results are cataclismic, setting off a greenhouse situation that is going to make Earth uninhabitable in the foreseeable future. As a result, the space program is kicked into overdrive to try to get first to the moon, then to Mars with the aim of establishing a colony for humanity to retreat to, but is starting with even older technology than the first moon landing had. Elma York is our heroine. A former WASP pilot in WWII with a PhD in mathematics, Elma becomes a human computer for the space program, but dreams of being an astronaut.
That’s the premise. But these books deal with a lot more than rockets and computations. Sexism, racism, nationalism and all the other ism’s of the 1950’s and 1960’s are woven into this narrative in what I, as a white woman who wasn’t born until 1976, perceive as a very realistic way. The issues are neither played up nor glossed over. They are there, and due to the plot and who the point of view character is, they are relevant and handled with sensitivity on the part of the author. Kowal doesn’t shy away from bringing some of the uglier aspects of society out, but she doesn’t over-dramatize them, either. In fact, I would say that she portrays humanity with a sense of optomism and joy that is rare.
You know what else is rare in fiction? The portrayal of an established, happy marriage for our heroine. Elma is already married when we meet her, and while her marriage is no more perfect than anyone else’s, it is and remains solid. You just don’t see enough of that these days. Telling you this isn’t even a spoiler, as the stability of the relationship is never a plot point.
So who is this book for? Everyone. Not just scifi fans, not just women, not just math geeks. I think anyone and everyone will find something to love here. It shows enough of the science to give you a solid idea of how things are working but avoids drowning you in the minutiae of space travel. Kowal’s research shows, but is never shown off.
As an audiobook, these are read by the author. To me, this only seems natural as my initial introduction to Kowwal was as a narrator of other people’s books. She was great there, and she is great here. I’m sure these books do more than fine if read off the page, but they are surely better read by the writer’s own voice. It is also worth noting that The Calculating Stars just won a Hugo award for best novel, and richly deserved the accolade.
I will, on a sidenote, admit to a certain degree of surrealism when it was mentionned in the books that hurricanes were becoming a problem, given that I was listening to that part while Hurricane Dorian was sweeping across Nova Scotia and howling just outside my window.
In short, go get this book. You can thank me later.