The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal just won the 2019 Hugo award for best novel. Congratulations! It also won the Nebula and Locus awards. I read both The Calculating Stars and its sequel The Fated Sky this month and loved them. I fully understand why The Calculating Stars is winning all those awards.
I’m not going to try and review The Calculating Stars because it’s gotten plenty of press. What I want to explore is why it’s so likable and readable. Anyone daydreaming about writing a wildly successful science fiction novel should study it. It’s definitely a page-turner. I generally avoid sequels but I also raced through The Fated Sky too.
Why is The Calculating Stars so popular? To me, the appeal of Elma York’s character is primary. This novel was atypical for science fiction because it was extremely character-driven. It almost felt like I was reading a memoir of a real person — and one written by a literary major.
But there was much more to why this book is exceptional. The story was a do-over, an alternate history where Americans were first into space in the 1950s, and women and minorities became astronauts much sooner than actual history. The story felt like it made amends for Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson — the women in Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly; for the women pilots called the Mercury 13; for the women profiled in the book Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt; for the black aviators in the book Black Wings by Von Hardesty; and for Ed Dwight who should have been America’s first black astronaut as part of the second cohort of astronauts after the Mercury 7.
The Lady Astronaut series is also another kind of do-over, one where we went to Mars. Why did we abandon our Martian destiny in 1972? I grew up with Project Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo in the 1960s. Everyone expected us to go on to Mars in the 1970s — everyone except Congress and Richard Nixon. So we’ve boldly explored low Earth orbit for nearly fifty years now. I doubt humans will make it to the Red planet, except in science fiction stories like this one.
Finally, I believe there’s one more defining emotion that made The Calculating Stars great. Maybe it’s wistful sadness, maybe it’s bitter regret. There’s a famous scene in the 1954 film On the Waterfront. It’s the scene where Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is telling his brother Charlie (Rod Steiger) that he could have been a contender. Terry was an up-and-coming fighter, but Charlie worked for the mob, and Terry was made to take a dive, ruining his future forever.
I think many readers of The Calculating Stars wish they could have been astronauts and gone into space. Kowal knows that women, minorities, and all us science fiction fans lacking the right stuff wanted our chances too. We wish we could have been contenders and The Calculating Stars resonates with that desire. I feel the book looks back in regret, saying that America should have been better, more just, more equal, more open, and more egalitarian. That maybe we’re doing better now than we did in the real 1950s, but we aren’t there yet, just like we never made it to Mars.
It should have been different. In our timeline, it wasn’t our night, but in Elma York’s timeline, it was.
James Wallace Harris
(By the way, The Calculating Stars is currently on sale at Amazon for $2.99 for the Kindle edition, but I don’t know for how much longer.)