A Race to Survive

February 12, 2020

“The Calculating Stars”

by Mary Robinette Kowal, 2018

 

What if a meteorite—the size of the one that brought about the extinction of the dinosaurs—struck the Earth in 1952? Kowal answers that with an accelerated space race, in which the world unites to build a colony on Mars. First, they must put a man into space.

 

But what about the first woman in space? And, keeping in mind that this is the 1950s, will the government include anyone of color? Those themes are the foci of this exciting, fast-moving, and historically-accurate novel, the first of a trilogy, I believe.

 

Just over a year ago, I survived a disaster that leveled an entire city. So I can vouch that the evacuation and rebuilding aspects of this book are realistic.

 

The heroine and narrator of the book is Elma York. She's a brilliant computer—one who computes, before the word computer was applied only to machines. She's a veteran pilot and the wife of the chief engineer of the new space program. She's the perfect candidate to be the first woman in space. But she also has a secret.

 

Elma is afraid of crowds, of speaking in public. A small thing? An astronaut is the focus of the world's attention and she has a bad habit of throwing up when her phobia hits. The only solution, it seems, comes in the form of a mind-deadening tranquilizer.

 

At the midway point of the book, a revelation shows us just how severe her problem is.

 

With any alternate history tale, the real question is believability. If you accept the premise—which, after all, did occur sixty-five million years ago—the actions taken by the characters only make sense. The book is well researched. Kowal not only knows a great deal about space technology, but life in the 1950s. References to food rationing, Brylcreem (which is still around, but nowhere near as de rigueur as it once was), poofy skirts and gloves, newspapers introducing the first women of the space program as “beauties”, all ring true to the time. And the kid saying, “Golly, that's keen” was priceless.

 

I spotted very few anachronisms, the phrase “game-changer” being the worst. Really, it's a small criticism.

 

Cleared for launch. “The Calculating Stars” is a Go.

 

5 stars

 

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