Book reviews / Science Fiction

Book review: The Calculating Stars

So, I managed to pick this up just a couple of weeks before it won the Hugo for best novel. I had seen it around but it never piqued my interest enough to pick it up.

The Calculating Stars is an alternative history, where a meteor destroys Washington DC. But even more devastating, it looks to be an extinction event, leaving humanity not a huge amount of time to try and save themselves. An International space collation is set up to do precisely that – start a moon and Mars colony. The main characters are Nathanial and Elma York, husband and wife, engineer and ‘computer’ (also former WASP and pilot). They get tied up in the space programme due to their backgrounds and Elma quickly realises that she wants to be an astronaut and that they’ll need them for the space program.

But remember, it’s the 1950s, so all prevalent strains of racism and sexism abound. Black pilots are not considered for the program, neither are women. So Elma and the other women who want the chance jostle, advocate and turn public opinion around to give them the chance.

I liked most of the story, it was a really easy read and it’s about astronauts and space and women fighting for equality. I really, really disliked the main antagonist, Colonel Parker, which I suppose is the point. But he felt the least realistic of all the characters in the novel, and despite his status, I just didn’t buy that he he could be that influential. Maybe he would, what do I know about astronauts. But every time he did something that felt unrealistic, he took me right out of the story for being such a prick.

Elma was a great lead character, with her fight and her flaws. She was super smart but even that came at a cost in a patriarchal society. But no matter what, she kept pushing for the chance to be an astronaut, knowing that her and other women were just as capable of going to space as their male counterparts. I love that she was just unabashedly brilliant at maths, and all the delightfully nerdy jokes that went on throughout the novel. As Nathanial says at one point: “I can tell these are your friends, because they’re excited about taking tests.”

As well, because of the international coalition, there are other characters from around the world, like Helen, a Taiwanese computer. And because Elma and Nathanial first stay with a black couple, Eugene and Myrtle, Civil Rights issues are raised right alongside the sexism. Not to mention that Elma and Nathanial and Jewish and that occasionally comes up as a thing as well (especially when she has to be in a room with Werner Von Braun!) I liked the nods to our reality with the inclusion of some of the women from Promised the Moon mentioned at certain points.

It did have parts that felt a little bit too convenient. Not only do Nathanial and Elma land their plane (after the meteor) at the base where everything starts getting planned, so does Colonel Parker (who hates Elma because of an altercation when she was a WASP). But then when they want to advocate for women astronauts, Elma is friends with a former WASP who is also a senator’s wife…and so on and so on. You never get the sense that she has to earn anyone’s respect in these situations, just survive Parker being awful.

It was a pretty pleasant holiday read, though I really only felt like it was a page turner just at the end (which I will not tell you about because SPOILERS). But I really appreciated how many issues it raised (or at least didn’t ignore) because of the characters being women.

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