There is something magic about takeoffs. I know people who are afraid of flying who say that the takeoffs and landings are the only hard parts, perhaps that’s when the act of flying is most apparent. I love the way you get pushed back into your seat. The weight and the sense of momentum press against you and the vibrations from the tarmac hum through the yoke and into your palms and legs. Then, suddenly, everything stops and the ground drops away. It never feels like I’m rising, but that the ground is falling away from me …
Most kids? Their dad teaches them to drive. Mine taught me to fly.
Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars is often referred to as a kind of scifi Hidden Figures (most notably by astronaut Cady Coleman, who called it “An alternate history of spaceflight that reminds me of everything I loved about Hidden Figures” on the book’s front cover).
How do you resist a book like that?
Even praise that high isn’t praise enough for this story. Kowal had me hooked on page one, paragraph one, and she never let me go. This story wrung me out, overwhelmed me, and inspired me.
Kowal introduces an alternate history for America without much fanfare, and follows a down-to-Earth (so to speak) female mathematician (computer) as her world (and the world) changes when a meteorite strikes the Earth in 1952 and devastates the planet.
As people struggle to live on, they also struggle to come together, and Kowal’s story makes fast friends out of folks who wouldn’t have had much interaction in a pre-meteorite 1950s United States. Their struggles to understand one another are juxtaposed beautifully against their yearning to connect and to support each other in a way that has more depth than the brutal post-apocalyptic visions we’ve been force-fed since the dawn of modern science fiction, while still having room for the flaws central to humanity and clashes of culture.
Much of the book is dedicated to female characters’ fight for their seat(s) at the proverbial table, and Kowal represents this beautifully. Her characters are none of them saints, but many of them are on (one might say) the wrong side of history; Kowal manages to portray them faithfully and realistically as both foils for these women AND as period-appropriate misogynists without vilifying them.
At the heart of this story, of course, is the struggle to overcome an incredible loss – not just loss of life but loss of hope. And as they begin to rebuild, across America and the world, characters and the reader alike are faced with the imperative to balance “doing it right” with “doing it quickly”. On the one hand, here is an incredible opportunity to directly address (and solve) the flaws built into the old system. On the other, the easiest way to get social and governmental systems up and running is to replicate what was already there – and in an emergency, delays mean continuing tragedy.
This is most evident in the women’s fight for equal rights, as they have an unparalleled opportunity to advocate for (and then work within) social, political, and scientific institutions that finally see and treat women as equals. Their message is clear to the reader, who must sympathize with them as they face hurdle after hurdle: first to be in the room, then to be heard, then to be understood and believed, and finally to be respected.
These women are mathematicians, scientists, and wartime pilots who are doing absolutely integral work the importance of which nobody denies. However, because of their gender, their religion, and (often) the color of their skin they are not considered for any vital roles in the rebuilt world order, nor is their input about that world order heard or valued. As the book continues and the world recovers from its initial tragedy to forge a new path, the evolution of this continuing struggle is one of the book’s most powerful narratives.
In addition to the abstract fight for equal rights on a national scale, and the struggle for respect in government, scientific, and social environments, Kowal’s characters alike struggle with very personal existential questions in the aftermath of the meteorite strike.
“They asked me if they should still get married. It seemed as if the world were ending. Should they marry?
“Yes. Marriage, too, is a threshold between Before and After. We have many of these, every day, which we do not recognize. The threshold is not the question. The question is: what do you do after you cross that threshold?”
Questions of how to continue the practice of their faith, whether to adhere to previous personal standards (like chosen dietary restrictions), or whether life plans (and dreams) from before the event are reasonable, fair, or right in the new world face all of these issues and more.
All in all, it’s clear that Kowal’s The Calculating Stars is just the beginning of an incredible and very moving story – one I’m grateful I read and eager to continue with the sequel: The Fated Sky.