Women’s Book March: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

No matter how much I love the radical scientific extrapolations and handwavium of space opera, sometimes I get a craving for rigorous, technical hard science fiction–the kind whose calculations have been checked over by physicists for accuracy. The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal is that craving satisfied and wrapped in a gripping alternate history tale that pits sexism and racism against an overwhelming need for humanity to work together to escape ecological catastrophe.

When a huge meteorite destroys Washington D.C. in 1952, it sets off a series of climatic changes that could render the Earth uninhabitable in mere decades. Elma York, a computer and a former World War II pilot with the Women’s Air Service Pilots, is working for a nascent NASA when the disaster hits. She and her husband Nathaniel join the International Aerospace Coalition, or IAC–part of an accelerated, international effort to establish viable colonies in space. Despite her and other women’s vital contributions to the space program’s efforts to put a man on the moon, the IAC resists allowing women to join the astronaut corps. But Elma’s desire to go into space is so strong she won’t rest until she and every qualifying woman has a chance to.

There’s so much I loved about this book: rigorous science, a richly imagined alternate history, and a main character whose trials, successes and growth had me glued to the pages. Elma is determined, smart, and does her best to help other women in similar positions as herself. At the same time, she struggles with sometimes debilitating social anxiety, as well as prejudice due to her gender and Jewish heritage. Yet she also has her own blind spots regarding how she has benefited from whiteness, especially at the beginning of the book. Part of Elma’s growth in the book involves gaining awareness of the racist systems that affect the Black and Asian women on her team, and trying to use her privilege to get their voices heard, too.

It’s equally inspiring, and often harrowing, to watch her deal with her anxiety as she gains fame as the “Lady Astronaut” and circumstances conspire to place her in the spotlight.In a society in which people with mental illness often have their symptoms belittled or are encouraged just to “push through” them, it’s very heartening to see Kowal treat anxiety disorder as a condition deserving serious consideration and one that is possible to live with given the appropriate treatment.

Give this book a shot if you’re into alternate history, hard science fiction, and well-developed female characters of diverse backgrounds!

Already read The Calculating Stars? Let me know what you thought in the comments!

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