The Calculating Stars
June 17, 2019 7:13 AM - by Mary Robinette Kowal - Subscribe

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.
posted by dinty_moore (12 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Timely! I've got about 90 minutes left to listen to in the audiobook version of this, which is narrated (quite well) by Kowal herself.
posted by Pryde at 7:32 AM on June 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

I really liked this one! I sort of accidentally read it all in one day, which is always a good sign. The intersectional 'well meaning person is kind of a doof about racism/sexism/anti-semitism', causing hurt but maybe learning from their mistakes worked for me.
posted by dinty_moore at 7:37 AM on June 17, 2019

I'm interested to read what others thought about this, because I really didn't care for this book. It just felt really earnest and flat to me, with more virtue than spark, and handled without any subtlety on top of it.

To be fair I often get that feeling from Kowal's books; though I enjoy listening to her talk about writing on the Writing Excuses podcast, I find the product fairly meh. But a lot of people seem to love her work, so I'd be interested in hearing what others enjoy about it so I can see if I'm missing something or if her books are just not for me.
posted by tavegyl at 5:56 PM on June 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

I think it was partially the face that it's filled with people who are trying their best and actually fighting climate change. Even the nastiest people in this all want to work together to help, and while racism and sexism is causing harm, it's all unintentional and people try to get better when they realize they're wrong. It wasn't a very challenging read, but it was pleasant. On top of that, everyone is generally competent.

I think this is the first thing of hers I've read, I don't know if it's typical of her work or not.
posted by dinty_moore at 7:04 PM on June 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Hmm, I see. Maybe it's just not my sort of thing. I've not been enthralled by the current crop of positive, low-key SF/F (Becky Chambers, Katherine Addison etc), and this falls squarely in that category.
posted by tavegyl at 7:55 PM on June 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

I've been liking Becky Chambers' Wayfarers series, but not loving them like I thought I would based on the recommendations I'd seen (currently slightly less than halfway through the second, but I was less motivated to focus on reading that than I was on listening to The Calculating Stars). I also nearly bounced off of Addison's The Goblin Emperor completely, so I get that.

(On the other hand, I've really enjoyed Ann Leckie and N. K. Jemisin, so those recommendations here and elsewhere have been on point for me.)

The Calculating Stars was my first introduction to Kowal, but I thought it was pretty great. I'd heard enough about it and the next book that I knew where this one was going, so there wasn't much suspense in the will she or won't she make it through the astronaut program section. I thought the first half was stronger--the meteorite strike itself, along with the immediate aftermath and recovery, but I also felt the alternate history of the space program was fascinating too.
posted by Pryde at 7:30 AM on June 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

I agree that part of the appeal of this book for me was the satisfaction of seeing competent people tackle enormous planet level disasters, which is definitely soothing to me in our current reality. I think I got a similar enjoyment from this as I did fromThe Martian - though the problem solving on display here was more communal, and the problem less conclusively solved. I felt a similar "space/NASA nerd author tackling a thought experiment" vibe.

I thought Kowal also did a good job of handling Elma's anxiety as a double edged problem for her - treating her mental health issues that interfere with her health and her job simultaneously opens her up to more risk that she'll be stigmatized because of it.

I do think that "earnest" is a good descriptor for this series, and is probably one I'll consciously use when recommending it going forward.
posted by the primroses were over at 3:59 PM on June 20, 2019 [3 favorites]

I just read both of them and my take was “at best, meh” with a strong undercurrent of THAT won the Nebula over Spinning Silver? The best I can really say is well, ok, if they’re a conscious homage to Heinlein, Asimov et. al. then she certainly got the wooden interchangeable characters down. I honestly couldn’t tell the supporting cast apart and in a book that’s very much about institutionalized racism that’s not a great look. Also, Mary Sue much? Here’s Elma, she’s perfect. She’s Jewish, which is her nod to being “other” and she has a form of remarkably predictable, easily controlled anxiety, which is her “flaw.” Hi, my name is MGL & I have generalized anxiety disorder. I would fall to the ground and weep with joy if my triggers were identifiable, straight up, always followed by the exact same sequence of physical symptoms and totally controllable by a (very dangerous, highly addictive and often useless) simple pill I can take only when needed.

On the good side, they’re very readable; I think I strongly agree with her politics, although I hope I am not quite so. . . preachy ... and I suspect I could have learned a lot about rocketry if I hadn’t skipped those parts. And I am just evil enough to enjoy the Perfect Always Loving Wife waiting Patiently at Home trope rewritten as a husband, although, since I actually knew quite a few mid century men, I found it slightly less believable than shape shifting dragon lovers.

edited, I originally said Hugo, meant Nebula, my bad.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:11 AM on June 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

I have to admit, I really don't get arguments that the husband is too perfect. I mean, Nate means well and he generally tries to be a good husband, but he's also lowkey fucking up for the first half of the novel. He's completely oblivious that there might be a problem with the way his wife is getting treated - since he wouldn't have an issue trusting Elma as an authority on her own merits, why would any of these other 'reasonable' people have an issue with her? And then when he's finally clued in that there's a problem, he assumes it's his problem to fix without asking for Elma's input. I don't know if he ever really got why making the doctor's appointment without Elma's permission was so horrible.

And Elma does the same thing a few times - she's oblivious to someone else's problem and then assumes it's hers to solve until someone (metaphorically) slaps her hands away. It's pretty unrealistic that everyone wants to be helpful and nobody reacts to callouts with any real anger, but that seems different than the calls for perfection and understanding.

(I also do think that being Jewish is more than just a nod to being other, seven short years after the Holocaust)
posted by dinty_moore at 6:50 PM on June 30, 2019

than the calls for perfection and understanding

*than calling these characters 'perfect' and 'always understanding'

(sorry, sentence changed direction in the middle there and I didn't course correct)
posted by dinty_moore at 7:08 PM on June 30, 2019

This one was also meh for me. I almost didn't finish, but picked it back up again after I was gifted the sequel. I will read it eventually, but it's been months.

So...I'm a woman in tech. And yes, it's 'realistic,' but I didn't enjoy reading through a string of microaggressions that are just exaggerated versions of my actual life. I also just didn't like being in Elma's head. Every little thing gets drawn out and drags. Maybe I don't understand the anxiety she has, but I cringed whenever she counts primes in her head or recites digits of pi, or has that awkward nerdy dirty talk with her husband. It all felt kind of flat to me and like Kowal's hanging character traits on her like Christmas ornaments. "Anxiety...check. Math...check. Likes rocket innuendo...check."

Other notes: the side characters felt like a diversity checklist, and we barely got to know the women of color. The Taiwanese woman speaks in broken english! The most fleshed out characters are the two white "villains" Betty and Stetson, and I actually found them pretty interesting. Somehow the program magically starts accepting astronauts who aren't white, but that happened off screen. The resolution of Elma's story where everyone finds out she takes anxiety meds was cathartic, but it felt awfully tidy.

Anyway, Kowal clearly did her research and it's been winning all the awards, so I guess most of the world disagrees with me.
posted by j.r at 9:52 AM on July 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

I enjoyed it enough to read the sequel, and I was very interested in the alternate history aspect, but I felt so profoundly Not the Target Audience what with all the Racism 101 and Intersectionality 101 stuff. It just made me keep thinking, well, why am I reading Elma's point of view instead of one of the WOC's?
posted by yasaman at 10:34 AM on July 12, 2019

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