The Calculating Stars was such a fun, compelling story. But though it was compelling from page 1, it didn’t start out fun. Having an apocalyptic event occur that wipes out your family and the city you call home, and having to come to terms with the fact that your entire planet will become uninhabitable within a matter of decades is understandably a difficult situation for our perspective character, Elma York. She is a mathematics savant and a killer pilot, and is married to a legit rocket scientist. The couple find themselves at the core of the International Aerospace Coalition, earth’s response to the disaster that struck in the book’s early pages. If the planet will soon be inhospitable, then the only option is to find a way to get mankind into space and colonize other heavenly bodies. Elma and her husband, Nathan, are working night and day to make that plan become reality. But Elma wants to do more than compute equations; she wants to become the first female astronaut.
I loved the setting of this book, and thought that Kowal did a brilliant job balancing fact and fiction. The feel of the US in the 1950s was spot on, including appearances or mentions of real people from the era. The Space Race, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Cold War were such huge parts of that time period, and all of those elements were present in and vital to this novel. I would strongly recommend reading (or watching) Hidden Figures before picking up The Calculating Stars. My decision to do so radically improved my experience with this book, because I was already very familiar with the female computers of NACA and NASA, and the fact that they weren’t given the same rights and recognitions as the men they worked with, as well as who role racism played in the space program.
This is only the second book I’ve read from Kowal, and it couldn’t have been more different from Regency period fantasy of manners that is Shades of Milk and Honey. Because of my experience with the aforementioned fantasy novel, I was expecting a level of cleanliness along the same lines. I was amused to find that wasn’t the case. Not that The Calculating Stars was dirty in any way. If movie ratings were applied to books, Shades of Milk and Honey would’ve been a mild PG, while The Calculating Stars would be PG-13 for occasional strong language and sexual innuendo.
Speaking of sexual innuendo, there was a lot more sex in this book than I expected. It was never detailed, but it was frequent. And cheesy in the best way. Seriously, I rolled my eyes and legitimately laughed out loud on more than one occasion. I love the relationship between Elma and Nathan. I feel like strong, happy marriages are a rarity in fiction, which made the York’s marriage a breath of fresh air. The love and support they have for one another, as well as their healthy appreciation for each other’s physique, was a wonderful contrast to the romantic angst so prevalent in fiction.
Kowal has a deft and delicate hand with characterizations, and that was displayed wonderfully in The Calculating Stars. Both the main character and all of the supporting characters were fun and vibrant and driven to make the most of every opportunity they were given. I also wholeheartedly approve of the levels of sass and sarcasm packed into just over 400 pages. It’s fantastic that something on the lighter end of science fiction won a Hugo this year. I can’t wait to see where Elma York and the other Lady Astronauts go from here.
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