The main thing you need to know about The Calculating Stars is that it has a slow pace. The other thing you need to know is that it is feminist and nerdy. This alternate-history novel by Mary Robinette Kowal tells a story of women who worked as computers for the US Space Program and who fight to become astronauts. Much of what happens in the book happened in real life(see: Hidden Figures and The Mercury 13). However, in this version of history, a natural disaster accelerates the space program and gives a different outcome to the astronaut-training program.
The book starts in 1952, with main character and narrator Elma York and her husband Nathaniel witnessing a meteorite strike. The strike destroys much of the East Coast, and the first quarter of the book deals with the aftermath and the realization that this will, in the long term, be an extinction level event. If humanity wants to survive the coming disastrous climate change, they will have to colonize Mars within the next fifty years.
Nathaniel is a literal rocket scientist and Elma is a pilot and a computer (a person who makes complex calculations, prior to the standard use of mechanical computers). She has doctorates in physics and mathematics. Elma makes friends with the other computers, who include a woman from Algiers, a woman from Taiwan, and a black woman (Elma and Nathaniel are Jewish). Much of the book involves Elma’s growing awareness about the challenges faced by her friends of color, and the women’s frustrations with sexism and sexual harassment, as well as Elma’s struggles with anxiety and panic attacks.
As the book progresses, the women fight for the right to enter the astronaut training program. Elma appears on the show Watch Mr. Wizard as Dr. York, Lady Astronaut. Elma hates the ensuing publicity because public speaking triggers her panic attacks, and because technically she’s not an astronaut yet. However, she becomes increasingly aware of the impact she has on girls, who say they want to be an astronaut “like her.” Will Elma actually go into space? I will leave that for the reader to discover.
I enjoyed this book once I accepted the slow pace and the fact that this is not a book with much action. It’s not a romance, but the relationship between Elma and Nathaniel is sweet, passionate, and mutually supportive. Elma’s anxiety and her decisions regarding medication are handled in sensitive ways with Nathaniel’s support. Basically, the plot is “will Elma become an astronaut” and the book itself allows the reader to be a fly on the wall during the early development of spaceflight and the training program and the publicity that drums up support for the project. As I said, it’s super nerdy. I mean that as a compliment, of course. As an aside, readers from the South will doubtless appreciate many weaponized uses of “Bless her heart,” and “Isn’t that nice.”
This book is a prequel to Kowal’s novelette “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” which you can read here for free. Don’t skip the “Historical Notes” section of The Calculating Stars, which is fascinating and should send you racing to the books listed in the bibliography. Incidentally, in the “Historical Notes” section, Kowal states that she was thrilled when Hidden Figures came out because she had written The Calculating Stars just before the publication of Hidden Figures and her beta readers found it difficult to believe that NASA employed women of color as calculators. It’s a powerful reminder of how pervasively women, especially women of color, are erased from history. Even though at first I found this book to be slow going, I came to appreciate it for its intersectional feminism and its unabashed adoration of all the science and math that goes into making space flight possible.