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The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal 05 June 2019

2018 science fiction, distant prequel to the Hugo-winning novelette The Lady Astronaut of Mars. In 1952, a huge meteorite hits the east coast of the USA; the resultant climatic shift is enough to push for quicker development of a space programme, because it looks as if Earth will soon be uninhabitable. Elma York, mathematician, tries to become one of the astronauts, but it's still the 1950s and everyone knows women can't do that.

The first problem here is that we know broadly where this is going to end up: the title of that novelette gives it away. Now, obviously knowing the ending shouldn't render it pointless to read the book; but it does remove some of the dramatic tension. (So does knowing that this is only the first of a planned four books, all set before that novelette; this one ends with the start of Elma's first spaceflight.) What's left is worldbuilding and character.

The worldbuilding dismisses the climate-change-induced breakup of the USSR with a casual phrase. There are occasional mentions of food riots and wars but our protagonists are isolated from, and not very interested in, the world situation. For some reason nobody's developed reliable electronic computers, so they need mathematician-navigators in the space crews, which distances this setting further from the real world.

The characters fall into several classes. There's Elma herself, whom Kowal clearly wants to be a stand-in for underdog-everywoman – but she's a mathematical genius who got into college at fourteen, and a general's daughter, and was taught to fly as a child and then served as a ferry pilot in the war, so what she can do doesn't say much about what normal women can do. And her major obstacle in the book is not the sexism she has to go up against every day, but a crippling anxiety about appearing in front of an audience, which is casually solved with a tranquiliser prescription. (Some of us know just what blunt instruments 1950s tranquilisers were, particularly the meprobamate (Miltowns) that's mentioned here, but obviously only Mean Old Sexists would regard that as a reason to deny her flight status in a role where her mind will need to be functioning at full capacity.)

There's her husband Nathaniel, who is entirely perfect in every way, apparently has no desires beyond pleasing her, and doesn't mind in the slightest when she messes up. (We never learn how they met, or why he is so unlike most other Americans of the era.) There are stock sexists, and a few stock allies, but nobody who reasons themselves into a position or changes their mind; and there are the minorities. Oh, the minorities. Representation, sure; but the only thing we learn about the Muslim astronaut is that he cares about praying at the right times of day. The Chinese computer (still a job title) speaks broken English. The French astronaut speaks French. They aren't even stereotypes; they're single-attribute people, and you could swap them out for different attributes and make essentially no difference to the story. That's not representation, that's spraying random names into the manuscript.

I admit that the book rubbed me slightly wrong from the start: the opening chapter takes place in 1952 during the meteor hit. There's a very bright flash which at first the characters think might have been a nuclear blast, but they quickly work out that it's not, because the radio is still working; indeed, it's playing "one cheerful tune after another". Fair enough. And then the ground shock arrives… which someone says is four minutes after the flash. One tune after another, within four minutes? That's the kind of little inconsistency that niggles me, because there's no good reason for it.

But I actually rather enjoyed the first few chapters, the immediate story of survival followed by working out what happened and what has to come next. It's when I got into the time-skips and the endless slogging through administrative fights and sexism and more of the same that I realised I didn't really care about any of these people.

It probably doesn't help that Kowal started writing this story before Hidden Figures was published, and if I want to read about sexism and racism and unsung heroes of the space programme there's material set in the real world and about real people which can do the job much better than this fictional version. Similarly, if you already know about the Woman in Space Program (the "Mercury 13"), this world's use of some of the same people is rather less impressive.

For me, not a terrible book, but often a dull one. In my head it's already obvious that women should not be debarred from anything because of their sex, and while I realise that there are people who haven't yet got that message I don't need to have it preached at me – particularly not by showing the example of an extra-special woman and the extra-special circumstances carefully stacked in her favour.

(This work was nominated for the 2019 Hugo Awards, and won.)

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