The Calculating Stars — Alternate History Sci-Fi Set In The 50s

November 10th, 2023
Cover image of the post


On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.

Elma York’s experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too.

Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.

The book cover below includes alt-text.

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal. A Lady Astronaut novel. Silhouettes of 7 women walking against the backdrop of the night sky with some diagrams drawn in it. "An alternate history of spaceflight that reminds me of everything I loved about Hidden Figures." — Cady Coleman, astronaut. "Winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel.


The book started with such an urgent, fast-paced and wonderfully-written scene, that I was immediately hooked. The meteorite hits, and Elma and her husband try to outrun its catastrophic aftermath, using their scientific brilliance and resilience. Their relationship shines in this scene, as they efficiently work together to survive.

Then, they deal with the immediate consequences of the tragedy, which slowed the narrative a bit, but it was still pretty interesting.

Then, the pacing turned glacial and remained this way until the end of the book.

The premise is that the meteorite triggered catastrophic climate change that will soon render the planet uninhabitable. In order to save humanity, the space program is accelerated and given priority.

Elma, the main character, as well as some other women are great candidates to become astronauts because of their qualifications and training. However, it's the 50s. Women aren't seen as much more than housewives, regardless of how brilliant they are. So, there are obstacles on the way, that Elma very slowly tries to overcome.

I understand that this is accurate, and this is how it would likely have been. Breaking through inequality is not easy, and doesn't happen overnight, even when humanity's survival is at stake. But the problem is, because of that accuracy, not much happens in the book. Our main character struggles and struggles, she proves again and again how qualified she is, moving one millimeter at a time.

Along the way, the author explores such issues as antisemitism (the main character is Jewish), racism (some of her friends are people of color, and it's only through them that she learns about racial inequality), mental health stigma (she struggles with anxiety, and that can disqualify her from the space program) and, of course, sexism.

Again, the representation of these issues feels accurate for the 50s, and what's more disappointing, a lot of that still exists today. This is not an objective criticism but just my subjective impression — the incessant sexism quickly got frustrating, and I grew really tired of it. It made sense. It was accurate. But it made the book less enjoyable for me, and made any progress almost impossible for Elma.

I'd also like to spend a moment on the main couple's relationship. Elma has a Perfect Husband. He always supports her. No matter what happens, he's always got her back. Which is great — I'm all for wholesome relationships, and it's awesome to see a man who truly respects his wife and takes her ambitions seriously. But... he just never expresses any emotion except being Very Supportive and Understanding. They never fight, or have a misunderstanding, even when they are exhausted, overworked, have lost everything and live in a tiny studio.

She wants to go to space. Which means leaving him behind. And again, I'm very much in favor of him supporting her on this, it's just that it can't be easy for any couple. Being left behind is painful, and scary, and it would bring up lots of emotions, and generate tension in a real relationship.

I think if I'd seen him struggle with it, suffer or suddenly snap, resulting in them having a fight, his ultimate support would have felt more genuine. I'd know he'd overcome his very human if selfish emotions because he loved his wife and wanted the best for her. But because there was never any conflict or tension, the relationship didn't feel real, and was, in fact, pretty boring and even stale for me.

After finishing the book, I was thinking about buying the next one in the series, when I realized that I hadn't really enjoyed it and didn't care much about the characters. I was vaguely interested in what would happen next, but not enough to motivate me to start the second book.

However, The Calculating Stars is a pretty popular book that a lot of readers love, and it's won lots of sci-fi awards, so don't let my lukewarm opinion discourage you.

You might enjoy the book if you like exploring the effects of sexism in detail and watching women gradually overcome it despite all odds, enjoy a brilliant female protagonist whose only "flaw" is anxiety and alternate history set in the 50s.

You can get The Calculating Stars at Barnes&Noble, Kobo, Apple, Amazon and other bookstores.

The author

Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of The Spare Man, Ghost Talkers, The Glamourist Histories series, and the Lady Astronaut Universe. She is part of the award-winning podcast Writing Excuses and a four-time Hugo Award winner. Her short fiction appears in, and Asimov’s. Mary Robinette, a professional puppeteer, lives in Nashville.

Check out her website, Mastodon, Instagram, TikTok, Pinterest or Facebook.

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