Review – The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Fated Sky is the sequel to The Calculating Stars and is set four years later, so this review will have spoilers for that book. If you haven’t already, go and read it; it’s excellent and I’ve babbled quite happily about it.

Not only has Elma York made it to the moon, she now travels there regularly. She is content with this, she sees her husband, Nathaniel, on a regular basis, and they’re even beginning to talk about starting a family. Then, terrorists strike, budget cuts are threatened, and Elma is asked to, once again, put her publicity behind the Mars expedition. The story continues on from there.

One thing I enjoyed about both of the books is that Kowal puts marriage, not romance, front-and-center. Elma and Nathaniel are married before The Calculating Stars begins and they’re still married at the end of The Fated Sky. Their marriage is strong, good for both of them, sometimes romantic, sometimes sexy, but always committed. Kowal gives us a look at a marriage through not just the good times, not just the epically bad times, but through the gritty “eh” times that affect us all. Not only does Elma support Nathaniel when he’s doing important work while she’s consigned to volunteering, not only does Nathaniel support Elma’s drive to join the astronaut corps, when she forgets to pay the electric bill, he accepts that it was a mistake and supports her. It’s not that they never get angry, it’s not that they have a “perfect” marriage, but it’s that they have a good, solid marriage that can handle whatever life throws at them.

Another thing I liked about these books is that there no one is all good or all bad. There are heroes, and people we root for, and there are good and evil actions, but people are a mix of both, and Kowal shows this in her characters. Elma spends a lot of time reminding herself of Parker’s good qualities in The Calculating Stars, because he does such a good job of showing her mostly his bad ones. He despises her because she had the audacity to report him for harassing other female pilots, and getting him into trouble. (Because his actions were, of course, completely acceptable.) On the other hand, she has a tendency to pick at those things that she knows irritate him, without real cause.

Elma really demonstrates that she is far from perfect when she is initially accepted to the Mars mission. Because she has decided she wants to do it, she ignores what it will mean to the others who have already been training together for months. She also steps forward to support, and speak for, the people of color in the group–without talking it over with them first. Racial discrimination is a real issue throughout both of these books, and Elma hates it and wants to stop it, but she’s not always considerate of the feelings of those who have to live with the ways she tries to help.

And, then, of course, there’s the trip to Mars. Which is wonderful, with all the terrific hard science details that make this series such a delight. I recommend this book highly to anyone who likes a good story. This is one.

Kowal, Mary Robinette. The Fated Sky. New York, NY: Tor Books, 2018 (August 21). 320 pages. 5 stars.

Review – The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

The fact that The Calculating Stars is an alternate history has very little to do with why I love it, even though I enjoy alternate histories. It’s hard science fiction, the kind that I first fell in love with decades ago and the kind that doesn’t seem nearly as common these days. It’s not a dystopia, although the world could be ending, but it’s not a utopia either. And, since I’ve read Rise of the Rocket Girls and The Glass Universe in the last couple of years, and need to read Hidden Figures, the women computers at the center of the novel seems very timely.

What I loved about this book, and the other stories in this universe, is Elma York. She has a Ph.D. in mathematics and physics, was a WASP pilot during World War Two, is married to a rocket scientist, Nathaniel York, and works for NACA (her universe’s NASA) as a computer. She’s Southern, she’s Jewish, and she’s someone I wish I’d met when I was a girl, because I would have followed her.

The event that sets the novel in motion is a meteorite that strikes Earth in the Chesapeake Bay in 1952. The effects it has destroys Washington, DC and causes destruction all along the eastern coast of the United States. Later calculations, largely done by Elma, indicate that the meteorite may be an extinction-level event. The result of this is an international drive to get mankind into space and start colonizing there.

Although Elma suffers from extreme anxiety when forced to speak before a group of people, she is otherwise a confident driven woman. Since she is a pilot, and was the first person to calculate the size of the meteorite and its long-term effects, she wants to be one of the first astronauts, and she’s willing to do the work to get there.

The book tells Elma’s story as she battles to become an astronaut and go to the moon. In addition to crippling anxiety, she has to battle discrimination because she’s a woman. While she’s fighting that, she has her nose rubbed in the fact that non-white people suffer from much greater discrimination than she does. When she realizes this, she does work to eliminate that as much as possible.

A traditional hard-science plot and a number of strong competent, intelligent women make this a book to enjoy. I talked it up so much that my spouse, who hasn’t had the time or energy to do much reading, even picked it up to read.

Kowal, Mary Robinette. The Calculating Stars. New York, NY: Tor Books, 2018 (July 3). 384 pages. 5 stars.