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Lady Astronaut Universe #1

The Calculating Stars

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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.

431 pages, Paperback

First published July 3, 2018

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About the author

Mary Robinette Kowal

229 books4,803 followers
Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of the Lady Astronaut Universe and historical fantasy novels: The Glamourist Histories series and Ghost Talkers. She’s a member of the award-winning podcast Writing Excuses and has received the Astounding Award for Best New Writer, four Hugo awards, the RT Reviews award for Best Fantasy Novel, the Nebula, and Locus awards. Stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Asimov’s, several Year’s Best anthologies and her collections Word Puppets and Scenting the Dark and Other Stories.

Her novel Calculating Stars is one of only eighteen novels to win the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards in a single year.

As a professional puppeteer and voice actor (SAG/AFTRA), Mary Robinette has performed for LazyTown (CBS), the Center for Puppetry Arts, Jim Henson Pictures, and founded Other Hand Productions. Her designs have garnered two UNIMA-USA Citations of Excellence, the highest award an American puppeteer can achieve. She records fiction for authors such as Seanan McGuire, Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi.

Mary Robinette lives in Nashville with her husband Rob and over a dozen manual typewriters.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 4,723 reviews
Profile Image for Heather Reads Books.
278 reviews9 followers
July 27, 2018
I haven't been this disappointed by a book in a long time. I should learn not to get my hopes up so high, but this one really pulled the wool over my eyes. It is a continuation of a story I did like: I read the short story (called "novelette") of Kowal's featuring the main character, Elma York. It's a simple but well-written story, and I considered Elma to have both heart and gumption. I liked her a lot. The story won a Hugo award, which is pretty notable.

So when I heard this novel was being published to tell the prequel story of how Elma York, the first Lady Astronaut, helped colonize Mars, I was here for it. 1950s Cold War era alternate timeline? A reimagining of the space race from a female perspective, in which a plucky heroine tears down prejudices and stereotypes? Cool, smart references to Ray Bradbury, one of my favorite authors? Real science in my science fiction? Yes, yes, yes, and YES. My body is so ready.

Did the book deliver on any of these things?

Not really. And in a rather cruel fake out, too, because the first one hundred pages or so is quite engaging. The depiction of Elma as a young married woman trying to get her life together in the post-World War II period only to have to grapple with a large scale disaster like the meteor strike rang quite true. I appreciated that she had bucked tradition and flew planes to aid the war effort. I appreciated that her background was Jewish, so that she would understand what it was like to come from a marginalized community. I thought it was interesting for her to discover that the rescue efforts by the government were divided along racial lines, and that she cared enough to do something about it. All of this is good stuff, often overlooked in fiction, which feels more important than ever to explore in our current tumultuous times.

After a time-skip, however, it's like the author decided to drop her own meteor on the narrative. It is difficult to encompass just how spectacularly this novel falls apart, but I must attempt to count the ways.

Characters. I realized halfway through there were either no characters I felt like I knew - or if I did know them, I didn't like them. Obviously we are with Elma the entire time, but she became insufferable so fast. What came off as a world-weary snark in the original story turned into self-absorbed arrogance and incomprehensible mood swings. She also had a strangely privileged background: despite growing up in Depression era 1930s as a girl in a Jewish minority community in the south, she somehow possesses a mathematical genius that allowed her to attend college in her early teens and earn a PhD in mathematics. .... Sure. And then during the war she was able to fly planes and avoid sexual harassment of other officers because she was the daughter of a general. Okay. Handy. Never mind that this novel is unapologetically set up to be about underdogs prevailing, as it states on the back cover: "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." Because of this, I found the incredible advantages she starts out with to be a strange narrative choice, to say the least. And she only stumbles from there.

The other most frequently seen character is her husband, Nathaniel. Again, I liked him at first, but soon his role as the Most Understanding Husband in the World grew wearisome. At every turn, Nathaniel knows exactly what to say! He's dedicated to the success of his wife's career, even though it's 1952! He's so compassionate! He never blames Elma, even when she is so out of it she forgets to pay the electric bill and their power is shut off! How did she find this AMAZING catch of a man? The book never tells us. I kept waiting for some memory of a meet cute, a wartime love story against all odds, but it never happens... though we do get a few out of place harlequin romance-esque sex scenes. So that was disappointing, as was the inhuman ability for Nathaniel to avoid any potential conflict between him and Elma .

Everyone else in the book is barely more than a caricature of the worst variety: we get a (usually non-American) name, a mention of what makes them part of a marginalized group, and a sole defining quality of their character has something to do with said marginalized group. The Asian character has stilted English. The Arab character has to stick to Muslim prayer times in the rocket-ship. The French character speaks French. Women of all stripes complain about the men who are always groping them in the workplace. The disabled character talks about his disability. The Jews talk about their religion. I know this was some attempt by the author to show diversity and inclusivity, but these ensemble characters are so poorly drawn the effect is ironic: reducing these people to the one thing that makes them the "other" instead of taking pains to draw them as complex human beings reinforces the stereotype. You can't just stuff your book with exotic names and achieve proper representation.

World-building woes. One of the things I was really interested in with this premise was the alternate history aspect. How would the post-war Cold War era progress with some sort of catastrophic event decimating the US, with repercussions felt around the world? Would it ratchet up tensions between America and the Soviet Union? What would the space race look like if it was to Mars to live, not just the moon to say we can? What about the very real climatic changes the earth would be undergoing as it was slowly dying? What about decolonization? Western democracy versus Communism? The nuclear arms race? So much was happening at the time on the world's stage and I couldn't wait to see how it played a role.

Boy, was I disappointed. I realized by the end I had no idea what had happened in most of the United States, let alone around the world. There is a vague mention of the former Soviet Union (when did it collapse? Why?), what sounds like the beginning of the Algerian war, and local food riots, and Communist China also having a space program, but the characters don't really react to any of these events. (It is revealed in the "historical note" in the back that the author pulled most of the news stories that start each chapter from real newspapers, and these provided most of what I understood about what was going on in the world, and they were largely divorced from anything the characters interacted with, much to my confusion when I was reading. This makes me suspect maybe she plopped these in after the fact to try to simulate current events without having to write them into the narrative herself.) The space program is somehow hiring a number of foreigners, but there's no explanation of why or how.

Worse, despite predictions in the first part of the novel that the earth would soon become uninhabitable, there is no real indication of hard times in the characters' periphery, nothing to put the pressure on to solve problems and get those people to Mars. There was even a section where some one-off characters posit that the notion that the earth was warming as a result of the meteor that destroyed the eastern seaboard and killed millions of people and displaced millions more was a hoax. Reader, I get the wink and the nod, but I would think this was a harder event to deny than gradual climate change.

Pacing and plot. This is where the book really started to get counter-intuitive. It is a not-short 400+ pages, and it has a second book. That's fine. There's a lot of time to cover here. Decades, really. But things go glacially. Then, instead of the plot being taken up by high-stakes situations, like how to make a foreign planet hospitable for longterm human life while people are slowly choking to death outside by the bad air and starving from world-wide crop failures, what is the main obstacle for Elma? Is it institutional sexism that keeps her from the space program even though she is clearly the most qualified for the job? Is it the crushing societal expectations coupled with social pressure and ostracism trying to force her into a domestic life she doesn't want nor need?


It's stage fright.

That's right. She can do Einstein-level math in her head, avoided German bombers in WWII, but she just can't talk in front of a crowd. She throws up every time, because some boys were mean to her in school I guess?

This is literally the main conflict of the book. It's not Elma against a broken system, or humanity against all odds. It's Elma against herself, and it's baffling because it seems to be the exact thing that would feed the misconception that women are too emotional to go into space. I found myself thinking she did seem too emotional to go into space! What if she has a panic attack while trying to do some maneuver that got the rest of the crew killed and the bajillion dollar rocket destroyed? How far would that set the program back while the rest of humanity was at stake?

Then, the solution comes up quickly with a ham-fisted "it's okay to ask for help" message and some anxiety pills seem to give her an immediate cure all. Never mind that I'm pretty sure most medication for nervous disorders back then knocked you off your feet and/or were highly addictive. Surely Elma is space-worthy now!

I could keep going, because plenty more happens that defies explanation, but I'm tired. I'm especially tired of books that try to shove modern day agendas into period pieces. I'm certainly for more nuanced discussions of mental health issues, but reducing Elma's struggles to some minor and frankly first-world problems is a kick in the teeth to anyone who weathered real persecution and forged a path to progress through social activism. This book, despite its promising premise, betrays a shallow understanding of these historical struggles on almost every level.

Needless to say, I'm skipping the sequel.
Profile Image for Mary Robinette Kowal.
Author 229 books4,803 followers
December 17, 2022
So, I realize that reviewing my own work is weird and also... I just read this for the first time since I narrated the audiobook in 2018. Right now, I'm working on the fourth book in the series, The Martian Contingency, and rereading seemed like a good idea to get back into Elma's voice.

But I realized that this is actually the first time I've read it read it, like the way I would read a normal book. The other times I read it were when I was proofing it or editing it.

The fashionable thing would be for me to pooh-pooh my own work and list all the flaws in it. They're there, sure but I was kinda shocked to discover that I really like this book. It made me cry. I remember these scenes, but I'd forgotten the words that I used to create them.

The reason that I decided to go ahead and do a review is that we model "Oh I hate my writing" all the time and I think that's damaging. It makes you doubt your own taste when you're writing. In hindsight, it's obvious that this book would appeal to me since I wrote it for me. I was just surprised and I think it's because I rarely see people who feel comfortable admitting that they like their own work.

Anyway, I'm very glad I took the time to do the reread and I'm find myself looking forward to reading The Fated Sky
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 6 books3,962 followers
July 16, 2018
I'll go out on a limb here and be mightily surprised if this novel doesn't get nommed for Hugo out of this year's candidates. It has all the right qualities, from good writing, exciting story, delicious premise, and timely application of hot topics and social issues.

Huh? Well, it's like an alternate reality where a meteorite wipes out DC in the 1950's and forces everyone to get into gear with the space program for the best of all reasons... SURVIVAL OF THE HUMAN SPECIES.

It's quick, fun, and cringeworthy in how women are treated... not to mention the racial element! Think Hidden Figures, add anxiety and mental health issues in a big way, mix with sexism, post-apocalypse, brazen and headlong optimism, and do it all with sheer human ability. Computers are people who compute.

Everything else is '50's mentality and an underdog story that leads to getting women in space against all the odds. :)

This is easily my favorite Kowal tale. I'm gonna tell everyone for next years noms that this is one to push. :) It may not be my ABSOLUTE favorite book of the year, but it is certainly the smartest, quickest, and easiest feel-good SF out of the bunch. It pokes a stick at all the big issues and drives the dagger in.

This OUGHT to be a huge bestseller. If it isn't, then there's some big idiocy going on out there. ;)
Profile Image for Philip.
498 reviews672 followers
January 18, 2021
3.5ish stars.

Mary Robinette Kowal writes some great female characters. And they're not stock "strong female" characters either, they seemreal. In this case Elma is brilliant and capable, but doesn't go on a tirade overthrowing the '50s sexist patriarchy because Kowal wisely wanted to represent things as they actually happened, even in this alt-history where she really could have done whatever she wanted.

It's impressively well researched and feels just as real as the actual space race. The alternate history elements are so subtle, one might not realize that this isn't straight historical fiction, even with the whole extinction event thing, because it's really more of a social issue novel than a "dying earth" or "post-apocalyptic" sci-fi novel. Kowal addresses many topics related to discrimination and privilege that are sadly still relevant (race, gender, culture, mental health) without (often) feeling heavy-handed. So much so that it's overwhelming. Half of the book is frustrating bigotry and it's emotionally draining and I'm weak and honestly couldn't enjoy the book as much as I might have wanted to because of it.

I think Kowal is a fine author, but her writing style doesn't always suit my personal fancy. I never felt any suspense or tension when it came to the plot, or much compulsion to keep listening. Add to that the fact that I don't love her audio narration, even for her own books of which she undoubtedly knows the characters and their voices inside and out. I would have liked another narrator interpreting the characters, and actually think it would have added more depth but whatever. If I read the next in the series it will be in print.

Posted in Mr. Philip's Library
Profile Image for Colin Forbes.
428 reviews13 followers
February 19, 2019
I realise that my somewhat insipid 3 star rating (really more like a 2.5) is at odds with the majority of glowing reviews here.

I see what she was trying to do, I really do, but I can't shake the feeling that MRK has tried to squeeze too many issues into one book.

Let’s count. Main PoV character, Elma, is discriminated against because she is a woman. Also, people don't understand her Jewish heritage. She has mental health problems. Many of her friends experience racial discrimination. The public at large don't believe the global warming predictions which are driving the space race she is involved in.

All worthy topics for exploration, but to try to cover all that ground in one story? It's too much. And it's not subtle. The casual misogyny which she recreates is probably authentic to the period and feels so jarringly wrong to the modern day reader that by the tenth or twentieth repetition it really feels unnecessary.

Perhaps it's just not the book I thought it was but when, at three quarters of the way through the book, we have yet to experience spaceflight through The Lady Astronaut's point of view, I couldn't help but feel slightly cheated. Maybe it was always supposed to be a book about race/gender/religion/etc, with the space race as backdrop and not vice versa.

On an intellectual level I had a major disconnect with the whole premise of the book. "A meteor impact has put in motion a chain of events which is going to make the earth uninhabitable - therefore we must go into space to secure the human race's future!" How is it ever going to be easier to build a habitat for humans on the moon or Mars, where there is literally no oxygen in the atmosphere, the gravity is all wrong, there's no easily accessible water and so on? Surely they should be concentrating on building habitats on the earth - in domes, or underground, where there is rather less effort than a rocket launch involved in getting supplies to where they are needed? (Okay, there would be huge moral issues around deciding which tiny percentage of the human race would be selected to be saved within the shelters, but that's an entirely different story.)

With all that said, the storytelling picks up in the last few chapters and I’m moderately interested in finding out how the second book moves things forward. Dammit!

PS Also contains a couple of scenes which are clearly intended to be erotic but actually contain the most painfully cringeworthy language. It's not cute, it's laughable. Can't believe that the editor let them pass.

Update: 27/1/19

I'm a little embarrassed to note that this review is the most favourited thing I've ever published on Goodreads, because it's not exactly complimentary and that's not what I want to be noticed for!

Anyway, today I've embarked upon reading the sequel and hope to be able to write a less critical review of that in due course. Fingers crossed.
Profile Image for Tadiana ✩Night Owl☽.
1,880 reviews22.7k followers
June 23, 2020
Kindle freebie until midnight June 26, 2020, as part of Tor's ebook of the month club. https://ebookclub.tor.com/

This is an alternative history of U.S. space exploration in the aftermath of a disastrous meteor strike. It focuses on the perspective of women generally and, to a lesser extent, black women, who are pushing the male-dominated establishment of the 1950s to let women be legitimately considered as potential astronauts. So this is alt-history about the historic space race from a social justice perspective.

In 1952 a huge meteor strikes the ocean just off the coast of Washington DC, destroying the eastern coast of the US and killing millions. In the aftermath, scientists figure out that there will be a worldwide cold spell for a few years due to all the ash in the atmosphere ... but then a greenhouse effect will kick in. Calculations show that the oceans will likely boil away and it will be an extinction event for the entire earth.

So begins The Calculating Stars, as humans around the world try to figure out what to do about the pending disaster (assuming they even believe the disaster will hit; there are plenty of skeptics). One major effort is to reach out to the stars and try to colonize other planets. In the 1950s, that's quite an undertaking.

Elma York, a young married Jewish woman and a brilliant mathematician, was a pilot during WWII, and wants nothing more than to be an astronaut and go into space. Unfortunately, mid-20th century social views and prejudices haven't been changed by the disaster, and none of the men in the space program or in politics are interested in letting women be part of the space crews. So Elma and some of her female pilot friends, including several black women, start to organize and try to figure out how to convince The Powers That Be to let them have a chance of becoming astronauts.

The Calculating Stars is brilliant at recreating 1950s society and sensibilities, as well as the nature and capabilities of the space program of those times. Major kudos to Kowal for that. The book spends most of its time focusing on that and on the prejudices faced by women and minorities, which was quite interesting. It reminded me of the movie A League of their Own and how the guys in charge wanted the women ballplayers to always look and act like Ladies. But I would have liked more focus on the meteor disaster itself. It kind of felt like, other than the accelerated space program and always-cloudy skies, there wasn't all that much change in the world.

It's a little slow-paced but otherwise well-written. This is the first book in a series, but it works on a stand-alone basis. I haven't read the rest of the books yet; I might sometime, but they're not really calling to me that hard.

3.75ish stars.
Profile Image for Samantha.
416 reviews16.7k followers
April 4, 2019
High recommend listening to this on audiobook! It’s excellent!
Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,885 reviews1,922 followers
June 30, 2019
***2019 UPDATE*** Winner of the Locus Award for Best SF Novel! Congratulations to Author Kowal!

Yep. All five. What a wonderful ride this book was. I'll say more later.


A good, solid alternate history; a very involving story; characters I can believe in, invest in, and even identify with; and an author whose capabilities, established in earlier books, make the catharsis of reading this book as bracing as a pitcher of 'tinis.

The Lady Astronaut of Mars, book 2.5 in the series that (chronologically) begins with this book, won the 2014 Hugo for Best Novelette. There is a reason this is so. Author Kowal honed her audience manipulation (her phrase, not mine, go look at her Goodreads AMA!) skills in live theater. The result is that her mastery of it doesn't Show. It simply is. A wonderful experience in being led and misled results from that skill's genesis. Be prepared to devote your primary concentration skills to this book once it's opened. Doing less will be frustrating.

Reward yourself for enduring 45's antics with an escape to a better, albeit doomed, world.
Profile Image for Boostamonte Halvorsen.
518 reviews7 followers
July 25, 2018
This book was okay. Nothing amazing though. Here's why:

I've read something like this, and it was better. It was different, but the overall premise is the same. I point you toward Neal Stephenson's Seveneves. His book is so much better than this one. Yes, I agree that they are different in a lot of ways, but fundamentally, they are about saving the human race as the planet dies, with women being the key to the success.

Mary's book empowers women, and I get that that is a primary focus...but I feel like she let it get in the way of the central conflict: getting a space program into space and saving the human race. I felt at times that the "men vs. women" conflict got in the way, like a big fly crawling around on the TV screen. I don't mean to diminish the conflict, or the historical accuracy of the battle for women's rights and respect; but I wish it would have been handled differently. I wish she would have done it like Neal Stephenson did it. Subtle background conflict that comes to a head in a marvelous way that makes women as powerful as they really are--where men and women both drop the book and stand and yell, "FUCK YES! THESE WOMEN ARE BADASS!"

I guess I can put it this way: The world is ending because of Climate Change, and we are given a 10 year window to fix it...but instead, we spend 8 years fighting about how women caused Climate change and visa versa. During those 8 years, Climate Change isn't really talked about. It feels like this:
"It's 120 in Vegas today, how is the progress on the Climinator going?"
"It's going alright, but James keeps messing with the mathematics because he doesn't like my equations because I'm a woman."
"Oh, well we need to get the Climanator going."
"Oh I know, I just really hate that James won't let me do math the way I want to because I am a woman."
"Well what are you going to do about it?"
"Probably complain to my husband, who will then have really awkward sex with me to ease my tension, then meet with the girls at the bowling alley and come up with a way to defeat James."
"Ah, well, we do need to get the Climanator going one of these days."
"Yeah...but James..."

All of that just got too distracting for me. And the awkward sex scenes....they were horrible.

I guess this novel just felt like she was forcing too much together, and it didn't feel natural to me.

I hate that I didn't love it, or like it more than I did...or...didn't.
Profile Image for Lyn.
1,867 reviews16.5k followers
November 30, 2019
OK so it won the Hugo and most people loved it and I’m going to be THAT GUY for being on the outside of the circle.

I did not hate it, actually liked most of it, some exceptional scenes and I very much enjoy her short fiction.

I’m not oblivious to what Ms. Kowal has accomplished, delivering a science heavy alternate history that focuses on feminism and sexism and female astronauts and GOSH DARN IT! Elma’s just such a trooper!

Maybe it’s me and my Vonnegutesque world weary cynicism is in the red on the snark meter and I just cannot read a fine story and enjoy it and be snappy and satisfied. I am a curmudgeon. What should I wear? Tweed?

Elma is of course discriminated against because she’s a FEMALE and she overcomes tremendous odds. Yes, I get it, caught on pretty early in fact and was ready to move on fairly early too. She also deals with anti-Semitism, and she’s got some mental health issues, there’s racism, people are not bowing the knee to environmental issues, yada yada.

Sounds familiar.

Got it.

Too preachy, too many relevant issues explored, too much high-minded indignation.

She had the makings of a good SF story and a more subtle message would have been more palatable. This was like a social justice treatise with some SF story thrown in.

And it’s a good premise: a meteor impact will make Earth uninhabitable and we need to ramp up the urgency on space travel and colonization. But she needed to throw all this other stuff in too.

Towards the end I did start buying in, but too little too late and I’ll probably not read the sequels although I would consider reading more from this very talented writer.

Profile Image for Kevin Kuhn.
Author 2 books563 followers
July 7, 2020
“The Calculating Stars” was published in 2018 and won many awards including the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus. Mary Robbinette Kowal wrote it after penning a short story titled “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” which won the Hugo for Best Novelette in 2014. She has since written three more full length books in the “Lady Astronaut” series and at least five or six short stories or novelette in the series. “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” can be read for free on Tor.com if you want to get a feel for the series.

I haven’t read much alternate history sci-fi, but I was excited to explore this retelling of the United States in the 1950’s. Imagine an America where sexism and racism are commonplace – oh wait, that already exists. Ok, imagine a world where mental health issues are misunderstood and brushed under the rug, oh wait that already exists too! How about a world where rampant global warming is just around the corner, dang it! Let’s try one more time - imagine an America where a massive meteorite destroys much of America’s east coast – now we’re getting somewhere! In all seriousness, this book works, partly because it doesn’t depart too much from the America we all love (and hate). It’s fun to notice the relatively minor differences that occur due to the meteorite strike.

An overriding observation for me is that the novel felt a little calculated (pun intended). I felt like it could have used a little more grit and grime. Yes, there is racism and sexism and the impending doom of global warming, but it’s all pretty softly presented. I’m not sure if part of that was the authors intention of capturing the reserved, innocent, and restrained feel of the 1950’s or if it’s a part of her writing (I guess I’ll need to read more to discover). One example is that the main character’s husband is nearly perfect. Maybe he’s a workaholic, but he couldn’t be more supportive, understanding, and patient with our MC. Yes, there is a bigoted, sexist character, but he’s almost a cardboard trope of an insensitive 1950’s misogynist. Another example is the author’s tendency to get a corny around romance scenes. The husband and wife tend to use rocketry puns when things get sexy and while that might work once, I was rolling my eyes as it was re-used multiple times. Anyway, this is a minor complaint and might even be intentional, as I stated.

On the positive side, the start of this book is intense (with lots of grit and grime!) with the meteorite strike. The rest of the story slows down a bit, but is a nice blend of science, math, and rich character development. The science fiction seems mostly ‘hard.’ There might be a few stretches with rocket engine breakthroughs (which doesn’t bother me), but I think the author did her research and involved amazing resources including former astronauts in support for strong realism. I really enjoyed the final five percent of this story and it’s a bit of nifty writing. From my limited background, the pilot and NASA jargon seems spot on.

Anyway, I enjoyed this alternate history. The prose is clean and well-written. I appreciated the exploration of severe anxiety from a mental illness standpoint, and what a challenge that can be to manage, especially with other’s negative stigmatism around it. I also appreciate the continued exposure of racism and sexism and how that impacts and shapes lives. A well-written imagination of an alternative history where a series of events leads to a slightly different result in the first voyage to the moon.
Profile Image for Trish.
1,915 reviews3,402 followers
July 18, 2018
I've read the short story of this series some time ago and was speechless by how wonderful it was. Naturally, I had to give the novel a chance. And I certainly didn't regret it!

In March 1952, a meteorite strikes Earth. It lands in a body of water which, as it turns out, is even worse than if it had hit land. The protagonist, Elma, is on vacation with her husband (they are newly weds) in some mountains. He's an engineer and responsible for a US satellite program while she is a former WASP pilot (female pilots that flew during WW2), a physicist and mathematician (I think she has 3 PhDs in total but can't remember what the third was for). They both quickly realize that it wasn't an A-bomb and, thanks to their small private plane, make it out of the immediate danger and survive. Many Americans weren't that lucky, including Elma's parents and all of Washington DC.
As you can imagine, chaos descends. But they bounce back and quickly establish that this is an extinction-level event so a plan needs to be drawn up for the future of humanity. The solution: the colonization of the Moon and Mars. But this is the 50s, the very first IBM is sold a few years after the disaster (yes, the book spans a number of years), calculations are done by "human computers". But they are, of course, highly motivated so the bravest and brightest work on an international space program, building rockets, planning manned space flight etc.
Along the way, racism, misogyny, antisemitism and anti-space terrorism (religious nutters) hinder the progress.

The topic of gender equality is not new and a complicated one. Actually, scratch that, it's not complicated at all. People just love to complicate things.
While there are obvious physical and even psychological differences so there are indeed things men can do better than women, there are actually things women can do better than men as well.
As a police officer's daughter, a former Army member's niece, a martial artist (though I've started only about 2 years ago) and someone who's paid attention in biology / is interested in anatomy in general, I know for a fact that there is a reason why sports teams are usually divided by gender.
However, as a woman, the neighbour of a former university professor and a rationally thinking human being, I also know that women can be at least as good at mathematics and physics as any man. History has also proven that women can be at least as gifted at piloting planes as men.
And yes, it's true that - depending on an individual's height - women can be better astronauts than men (the g-force affects them less).
Sure, it takes training and dedication like any other thing that is worthwhile, but the only reason why female pilots during WW2 and female astronaut candidates haven't achieved more is that men held them back (sometimes through legislation even) , probably because they felt threatened.
This book has a brilliant way of dealing with all that in a most realistic way.

Moreover, the MCs brother has had polio when he was a child and is the perfect example of how one can overcome such an illness (though it can break out again, it never really goes away) and live with a resulting physical disability.
Not to mention that the protagonist herself suffers from anxiety - and I mean REAL anxiety, the medical kind (projectile vomiting and all). So mental health issues come up here as well.
Then we have the host of African American ladies (and gentlemen) that heartbreakingly show us what racism looks like from the receiving end (being black AND a woman was even worse).
Oh, and have I mentioned that Elma is also Jewish?

What did astonish me was how groups that were subjected to discrimination themselves managed to discriminate against others. I mean, shouldn't they have known better, been better?

Anyway, the book also brilliantly shows how stupid and counterproductive discrimination is as it diminishes your workforce. Just look at all the real-life women (mostly African Americans) that did all of NASAs calculations in their heads or on paper until computers came along and proved to be reliable enough (it was a rocky start). That is seriously impressive.
In that regard, the book often reminded me of the movie Hidden Figures, which I loved (yes, it was a feel-good movie, but wonderfully done).

So on one hand we have the brilliant writing style that sweeps the reader off their feet and carries them along the suspenseful string of events and discoveries, accurately explaining the science(s) and making one share the characters' excitement, while on the other hand one is constantly frustrated about the sheer stupidity of so many (often otherwise brilliant) people! Of course, that is how it should be, the reader being invested and all. But it is also utterly exhausting. I cannot count the times I wanted to punch Parker or Clemens. *lol*

What was a definite delight was how well researched this book was. The science regarding space flight, piloting fighter jets and other planes (I looked it up as much as I could), biology, geography, astronomy and mental health as well as the social aspects such as racism, discrimination, everyday/mundane encounters and politics were incredibly detailed and accurate and therefore realistic, which made this story come to life like few others.

Last but not least, I read the audioversion (for now, the paperback is already ordered) and can testify to the brilliance of the author's own narration. I knew she had narrated for a number of other authors before so she has the experience, but her accents and variety in reading style (for example news broadcasts compared to dialogues between people) seriously impressed me.

I'm just glad she'll be publishing the follow-up novel in August already (there is no actual cliffhanger here, but we're not 100% "there" yet either) so I won't have to wait too long. ;)
Profile Image for Cindy.
407 reviews112k followers
January 8, 2019
An empowering story for women, The Calculating Stars has a diverse cast of characters and plot that feel real enough to be a biography. This would be great for fans of “Hidden Figures” or to inspire young girls into STEM. The extent of aerospace and historical details were impressive to the point where I assumed the author must have had some experience as an astronaut before. I was also impressed by Kowal exploring discrimination across race, gender, and mental health within the aerospace industry. The bigotry is accurate and clearly portrayed without exaggeration or avoidance of the topics. The main character is both highly intelligent and flawed, and her privilege and moral dilemmas get checked plenty of times in a way that makes her honest and human.

The reason why I did not rate this book 5 stars is because I found the writing style to be basic, and at times cheesy, especially when it came to the awkward sex scenes. I think this would have been better suited for a younger audience as an excellent example of admirable women who work in STEM. The plot doesn’t have much tension or suspense—I was never at the edge of my seat or super excited at any point—but one could argue that this adds realism to the story. I wish this focused on the entire cast of women applying for the aerospace program rather than just sticking to Elma the entire time. She’s a solid character, but having just her perspective is a bit limiting, whereas being able to read the different struggles that the other women face would have added more depth to the story’s themes. Kowal has already built an impressive cast and represented a variety of different characters, so having multiple perspectives from these women would have taken the story to a whole new level guaranteed to get 5 stars.
Profile Image for Joe Valdez.
485 reviews808 followers
December 23, 2022
My introduction to Mary Robinette Kowal is The Calculating Stars, whose keywords rang up like a jackpot: 1950s. Doomsday event. Social injustice. Space flight. Judaism. Female protagonist. That had me on board. Published in 2018, I found the book at my nearest library and opened it sight unseen. I found a lot to give Kowal credit for, the least of which is building an imaginative alternate history and dealing with civil rights. But I grew awful bored with her story and started flipping pages. This is another example of a novel with terrific table dressing but little on the plate.

The story begins March 3, 1952 with a rousing start as Elma York (née Wexler) recounts where she was when the Meteor hit. A veteran of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, with combat experience flying supply missions over Europe, Elma is a computer (mathematician) in addition to being a pilot. She now works with the launch of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Her husband Nathaniel is a rocket scientist. Thomas Dewey is president. Interrupted from sexual recreation at a cabin in the Poconos at 9:52 a.m., a flash outside has Nathaniel thinking A-bomb, except radio is broadcasting. Elma theorizes it might've been a meteor.

An earthquake levels the cabin. The couple survive and Edward R. Murrow comes on the air to state that a meteorite has struck off the coast of Maryland. D.C. and Baltimore have been vaporized, along with Elma's parents. Running calculations, Elma gives them 15 minutes before the airwave hits. The couple are unable to reach the airfield where Elma parked her Cessna in time, but ultimately get into the air with only cuts and bruises. Elma glides to a landing at Wright-Patterson Air Base in Ohio after ejecta destroys her propeller. On the ground, they find Col. Stetson Parker, an ambitious and condescending "schmuck" who Elma knew from the war, certain the Soviet Union has attacked.

Parker took the chair behind the desk, and only now did I notice his nameplate set front and center. I was surprised he had twins. I wonder who'd married him. He steepled his fingers together fingers together and sighed again. "An explosion--"

"A meteorite."

"That's what the news reported. But given that Washington was wiped out? I place my money on the Russians."

Nathaniel cocked his head. "Is there radioactivity?"

"We haven't gotten anyone close enough to the blast area to check."

Idiot. I spelled things out for him. "There's ejecta falling all around, which, first of all, you could just test for radioactivity. Second, that's not something that happens with an A-bomb. It occurs when a meteorite punches a hole in the atmosphere and the blast material is sucked into space, then falls back to Earth."

His eyes narrowed. "Then know this. The United States Congress was in session, both the House and the Senate. Our federal government was nearly entirely wiped out. The Pentagon, Langley ... So even if this was an act of God, do you honestly think the Russians won't try to take advantage of it?"

That ... was a terrifyingly good point. I leaned back in my chair and crossed my arms over my chest to ward off the chill in the air.

Rather than take up space on base that will soon be needed for an influx of refugees, Elma and Nathaniel are taken in by Major Eugene Lindholm, an African American pilot who escorted their plane to Ohio, and his wife. General Dwight Eisenhower has recalled troops and returned from Europe, a ceasefire has been declared in the Korean Peninsula and Secretary of Agriculture Charles Brannan has been found in Kansas and sworn in as president. While Nathaniel attends a marathon of meetings and uses data crunched by his wife to calm fears that Russia directed the meteorite, Elma is relegated to duties as a volunteer nurse.

Her studies of the impact lead Elma to a bigger concern than World War III. Running her calculations by her brother Hershel, a meteorologist in California, she calculates that "nuclear winter" conditions will ultimately be followed by a greenhouse effect which will bake the planet and make Earth uninhabitable. Her presentation to President Brannan is not embraced by everyone, but preparations are made to reduce greenhouse emissions as well as prepare mankind for life elsewhere in the solar system. Of the "Artemis Seven" astronauts chosen to lead America into the stars, all are men, all are white, and the first in space, in 1956, is Stetson Parker.

Relocating to the nation's capitol in Kansas City, the Yorks work in Sunflower Mission Control. Dr. York is a flight engineer and Mrs. York a computer. She concludes that if the goal is to colonize the stars, women astronauts are a must. Her flight director explains that he'll never risk a female pilot's life and jeopardize funding, while America's hero Stetson Parker tells Elma that he'll never allow lady astronauts. To demonstrate their capabilities, Elma organizes an all-women's air show, striking a bargain with the Kansas City Negro Aeronautics Club to loan them their best pilots and six Mustangs for the show. Her goal is simple: women in space flight.

"When sewing machines were first introduced, people were frightened because they were new and moved with an unprecedented speed. There was concern that you could go blind from watching the machine. So the manufacturers made them beautiful: they added gilding and floral motifs."

Parker snorted, "So you want to send some Lady Astronauts up as decoration?"

"As we explained to the congressional hearing, our goal is to expand humanity to other worlds. You will need women on those worlds or they will never be self-sustaining colonies." I glared at Parker. "I trust you don't need me to explain the biology of babies?"

"Babies or no, it's not safe." Parker shook his head and smiled. "I appreciate your ambition, I really do, but surely the
Orion 27 accident demonstrates that we can't put women in the line of fire."

"No. That is the wrong tactic to take. If you point to the explosion as a sign that rocketry is not safe, the space program will fail." I looked back at Director Clemons, but with the cigar in his mouth, it was hard to read his expression. "You know it will. If you want to demonstrate that the program is safe, then you need to demonstrate that these rockets are safe enough even for ladies."

Parker shrugged, as if none of that mattered. "And we will ... after the moon base has been established."

I pressed my hands flat against my skirt to keep me from balling them into fists. "If you refer to page six of my report ... After World War II, there is no shortage of women who flew as WASPs and have the right skills. But if you wait too long, those women will be too old, which will raise the barrier of creating the colonies."

"She has a point." Wernher von Braun, of all people, stepped into Clemons' smoke cloud to support me. "The Russians used their Night Witches in the war to devastating effect."

Parker tilted his head at the mention of the Russian women's air squadron. "I always thought they were propaganda."

"Propaganda, perhaps to begin with. But real and effective." Von Braun shrugged. "And even propaganda has its uses. We want the space program to continue, yes?"

Propaganda. Yes. I was well aware of what propaganda could do.

There are details in this alternate history science fiction civil rights novel that I found compelling. Elma and Nathaniel are part of a diaspora who lost family back east. Jewish observations are a part of the book. Sexism is confronted and so is racism, with the skin color of the refugees alarmingly white until Major Lindholm and his wife, with help from Elma, change that. The Meteor and mankind's response raises questions whether those in charge value a diverse human race or would be content with it looking all white and mostly male. Global warming is pooh-poohed by deniers.

"A couple of years of bad weather, and they're telling us we have to go into space?" He shrugged, the flesh of his neck bunching over his collar with the movement. "Even if I believed this nonsense, why not spend the money making things better here on Earth?"

"They are." I rested my hand on Nathaniel's knee to let him know that I would take this one. "That's why we have rationing--they're trying to eliminate anything that will add to the greenhouse effect. The space program is just one aspect of it."

"Eternal winter. Please." Luther waved his hand toward the front window, where we starting to draw level with the top of the lock. "You heard the captain."

"I think you've misunderstood. The winter was temporary. The problem is that the temperature is going to start rising soon." 'Eternal summer' is what we're actually concerned about." Being in Kansas City, at the IAC, we were surrounded by people who understood that, and were all striving for the same goal. "Besides, it's not a good idea to keep all your eggs in one basket, right? All the space program is doing is making another basket for eggs."

"Ma'am, I appreciate your thoughts, but there are economic forces at work here that I don't expect you to understand. This is all about big business seeing an opportunity to make a buck off the government. It's conspiracies and shadows all the way down."

There are moments when this 1950s story is written with too much of a 2018 sensibility for me. It detours from an apocalyptic tale toward a second-rate version of The Right Stuff. There's already a first-rate version of The Right Stuff. It's The Right Stuff. Kowal imaginatively conjures a doomsday event, then puts her focus on Elma's obsession with social anxiety. The stakes remain low and I grew bored with the book, which concludes like the first installment of a series rather than a standalone novel. I appreciated the STEM material as well as the acknowledgment that the heroine has a sex life, but the story let go of me. It's a nice novel that I cautiously recommend.

Length: 100,870 words
Profile Image for Tatiana.
1,399 reviews11.7k followers
Shelved as 'dnf'
October 2, 2019
Ultimately, making historical novels retrospectively woke just doesn't work for me, even if it is sci-fi. Such stories lose authenticity and become way too self-aware and anachronistic in tone, IMO. And what is especially grating is when it's a suddenly social-justice-conscious privileged white lady who leads this feminist, diverse kumbaya. Yet again.

I do get this desire for revising the past and righting its many wrongs, but too often these revisionist stories ring false.
Profile Image for Xabi1990.
1,969 reviews848 followers
July 14, 2020

¿Ciencia ficción? .....Vaaaaaaale, acepto pulpo como animal de compañía.
(pero que sea una ucronía para mí no justifica meterlo en el género)

¿Libro didáctico sobre la emancipación de la mujer en los 50 americanos? ...pues igual es reseñable el libro en este aspecto, no sé, no tengo conocimientos sobre el tema como para posicionarme.

¿Racismo y estatus social en la América post Guerra Mundial? ...También, también se toca el tema.

¿Merece un Hugo, Nébula y Locus? Para gustos, los colores, los culos y las flores.

¿Existe un marido como el Nathaniel ese? NO, COÑO, NO. Que no os engañen, chicas, no existe. Ni maridos perfectos ni príncipes azules. Os podéis creer todo el libro, menos eso (Y lo digo yo, que soy marido y casi, casi, casi perfecto. Pero “casi”).

Hipótesis, para quien ande despistadillo: la cosa va de que cae un meteorito de grandes dimensiones y a la Humanidad le va a tocar lidiar con lo mismo que ya hicieron los dinosaurios.

Solución : establecer colonias en la Luna o Marte.

Problema : en los comienzos de los 50 del siglo pasado apenas estaban avanzando con los cohetes y hay que inventarlo todo. Y en la novela es parte fundamental el racismo de la época y la situación de inferioridad social de la mujer.

Y de eso va el libro, de ir contando los avances en esos tres frentes, todo ello de la mano de una Licenciada en Físicas y Matemáticas, Elma, casada con un Ingeniero Jefe de la base de lanzamiento de cohetes, Nathaniel (este es el perfecto ese).

El libro va más de relaciones humanas que de Ciencia. Más de la lucha –light- de un grupo de valientes mujeres (pero sin activismo violento) por conseguir que las permitan ser astronautas que de la mejora de la técnica en cohetería (al menos sale Von Braum) o de construcciones orbitales. Un poco de tecno jerga para aderezar el libro, pero poco más.

Opinión: Se deja leer, especialmente si te involucras mentalmente en los temas sociales que he comentado o el aspecto de ansiedades. Si esperas esa CF que ha ganado los Hugo, Nébula y Locus, sigue esperando.
Profile Image for Jenna ❤ ❀  ❤.
789 reviews1,180 followers
Shelved as 'abandoned'
March 9, 2019
Gave up at 85 pages. Such a disappointment. The premise is awesome -- a feminist alternative history of the Space Race, taking place after a devestating meteorite strikes the earth. However, the writing is fluff. The main character, a WASP pilot and mathematician who works for NACA, comes across as a teenage girl instead of a mature and respectable pilot. Apparently I'm the exception -- the book has an average rating of 4.21 stars. I don't know how it managed to get that; I guess the author's writing style is just not my cup of tea. This is way too dumbed down for my liking; it hurts my brain with its simplicity and silliness. Ick!

[Metaphorically tossing this on the scrap heap]

Whew! That's a relief! Now let's see what else is available to read.
Profile Image for Dennis.
659 reviews268 followers
October 2, 2019
Since I‘ve read and loved Mary Robinette Kowal’s 2014 Hugo winning novelette The Lady Astronaut of Mars (which now has been moved to book 4.5 in this series – as Goodreads is telling me), I really expected to love this book. But it wasn’t to be.

It all starts in 1952 with a meteorite striking Earth and accelerating the greenhouse effect to the point where the planet might not be inhabitable in the near future and humans have to look beyond Earth and increase their efforts to reach for the stars and ultimately try to colonize space.

The beginning was tremendously thrilling, as disaster struck immediately in the first chapter and people were running for their lives. Our main protagonist being in the middle of it all and simultaneously, together with her husband, figuring out the huge implications of the meteorite strike. As they are a mathematician and rocket engineer respectively working with the NACA.

But the novel ran out of steam quickly as the alternate history of the space program was only the backdrop for the story instead of its focal point.

The book is about the main character’s fight for equal rights for women and her battle with anxiety as she’s becoming the face of the Lady Astronauts. With discrimination of people of color being the other main point of the story.

Now while this sounds very interesting as well, it wasn’t what I was expecting and I also couldn’t shake the feeling that the book didn’t dig deep enough to tackle those issues in a satisfying manner. I ended up being a little bit disappointed.

Putting it into perspective, considering my very high expectations and the fact that I thought I would be reading a different book, I think this is somewhere between a three and four star read. It’s a little repetitive but otherwise well written and thought out and there’s a very interesting story somewhere between the lines.

But I round down as three stars reflect my level of enjoyment way better than four.


***Winner of the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Novel***
***Winner of the 2018 Nebula Award for Best Novel***

2019 Hugo Award Finalists

Best Novel
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers
Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee
Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

Best Novella
Artificial Condition by Martha Wells
Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire
Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor
The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson
The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard

Best Novelette
If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again by Zen Cho (Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog)
The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections by Tina Connolly (Tor.com)
Nine Last Days on Planet Earth by Daryl Gregory (Tor.com)
The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander (Tor.com)
The Thing About Ghost Stories by Naomi Kritzer (Uncanny Magazine)
When We Were Starless by Simone Heller (Clarkesworld Magazine)

Best Short Story
The Court Magician by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed Magazine)
The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society by T. Kingfisher (Uncanny Magazine)
The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington by P. Djèlí Clark (Fireside Magazine)
STET by Sarah Gailey (Fireside Magazine)
The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine)
A Witch’s Guide To Escape: A Practical Compendium Of Portal Fantasies by Alix E. Harrow (Apex Magazine)

Best Series
• The Centenal Cycle by Malka Older
• The Laundry Files by Charles Stross
• Machineries of Empire by Yoon Ha Lee
• The October Daye Series by Seanan McGuire
• The Universe of Xuya by Aliette de Bodard
Wayfarers by Becky Chambers

Best Related Work
Archive of Our Own, a project of the Organization for Transformative Works
Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee
• The Hobbit Duology (a documentary in three parts), written and edited by Lindsay Ellis and Angelina Meehan
An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards 1953-2000 by Jo Walton
• The Mexicanx Initiative Experience at Worldcon 76 by Julia Rios, Libia Brenda, Pablo Defendini, and John Picacio
Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing by Ursula K. Le Guin with David Naimon

Best Graphic Story
Abbott, written by Saladin Ahmed, art by Sami Kivelä, colors by Jason Wordie, letters by Jim Campbell
Black Panther: Long Live the King, written by Nnedi Okorafor and Aaron Covington, art by André Lima Araújo, Mario Del Pennino, and Tana Ford
Monstress, Volume 3: Haven, written by Marjorie Liu, art by Sana Takeda
On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden
Paper Girls, Volume 4 , written by Brian K. Vaughan, art by Cliff Chiang, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Jared K. Fletcher
Saga, Volume 9, written by Brian K. Vaughan, art by Fiona Staples

Best Art Book
The Book of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition illustrated by Charles Vess, written by Ursula K. Le Guin
Daydreamer’s Journey: The Art of Julie Dillon by Julie Dillon
Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History by Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, and Sam Witwer
Spectrum 25: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art, editor John Fleskes
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – The Art of the Movie by Ramin Zahed
Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, editor Catherine McIlwaine

Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (Henry Holt; Macmillan Children’s Books)
The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton (Freeform / Gollancz)
The Cruel Prince by Holly Black (Little, Brown / Hot Key Books)
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland (Balzer + Bray)
The Invasion by Peadar O’Guilin (David Fickling Books / Scholastic)
Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman (Random House / Penguin Teen)

2018 Nebula Award Finalists

Best Novel
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang (Harper Voyager US; Harper Voyager UK)
Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller (Ecco; Orbit UK)
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik (Del Rey; Macmillan)
Witchmark by C.L. Polk (Tor.com Publishing)
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga)

Best Novella
Fire Ant by Jonathan P. Brazee (Semper Fi)
The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing)
The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean)
Alice Payne Arrives by Kate Heartfield (Tor.com Publishing)
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson (Tor.com Publishing)
Artificial Condition by Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing)

Best Novelette
The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander (Tor.com Publishing)
The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections by Tina Connolly (Tor.com 7/11/18)
An Agent of Utopia by Andy Duncan (An Agent of Utopia)
The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births by José Pablo Iriarte (Lightspeed 1/18)
The Rule of Three by Lawrence M. Schoen (Future Science Fiction Digest 12/18)
Messenger by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi (Expanding Universe, Volume 4)

Best Short Story
Interview for the End of the World by Rhett C. Bruno (Bridge Across the Stars)
The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington by Phenderson Djèlí Clark (Fireside 2/18)
Going Dark by Richard Fox (Backblast Area Clear)
And Yet by A.T. Greenblatt (Uncanny 3-4/18)
A Witch’s Guide To Escape: A Practical Compendium Of Portal Fantasies by Alix E. Harrow (Apex 2/6/18)
The Court Magician by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed 1/18)

Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (Henry Holt; Macmillan)
Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi (Rick Riordan Presents)
A Light in the Dark by A.K. Du Boff (BDL)
Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman (Random House)
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland (Balzer + Bray)
Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword by Henry Lien (Henry Holt)
Profile Image for Justine.
1,132 reviews309 followers
July 12, 2018
Definitely one of my favourite books of 2018.

And to think I considered giving this a miss. I'm interested in space, but an alternate history of space exploration? What a colossal mistake giving this a pass would have been.

This is a masterful alt history set in the 1950's that illuminates the very real issues of discrimination. Elma's character suffers painfully from discrimination because she is a woman. On top of that she is fighting a personal battle with severe anxiety. At the same time, while trying to elevate herself and the other highly skilled women around her, she also quite rightly gets schooled on her privileged position via a vis people of colour.

Something I really appreciated about this story is that it recognises discrimination on so many levels but does not try to minimize the pain or damage it causes to any class of persons who suffer it. This is a story of individual battles and personal growth within the efforts of a large group, and I thought it captured those myriad experiences well.

Of course if you liked Hidden Figures this is an easy go to, but really, it's a wonderfully written story recommended for anyone interested in the personal and political forces at play in any group engaged in achieving a long term goal.

This book can be read alone and finishes up nicely but fortunately the sequel, The Fated Sky, is scheduled for release right away in August.
460 reviews396 followers
March 12, 2019
I picked this up almost entirely because a friend of mine, Tam, read this and loved it and said it had a great audiobook. I only have time for audio’s right now so I immediately picked this up since it’s been a while since I read a great sci-fi.

Set back in the 1950s very shortly after WWII, a giant meteorite struck the Earth which left the east coast of the United States in ruins. The capital was wiped out along with most members of the government. The US is trying to pick up the pieces and figure out how to recover and move on. The main character is a very gifted mathematician and she and her husband were camping when the meteorite struck. She used to fly planes in WWII and has a private plane of her own she used to get her and her husband out of the Poconos to safer ground. When things start to stabilize her husband was asked by the remaining government to help rebuild and come up with ideas. While Elma is an incredible scientist she still struggles to get respect in the military and scientific communities. Her husband is also talented but it’s much easier for him to command an audience – he’s a well-respected physicist who works on rocketry and propulsion.

With Elma’s help, they convince the leaders of the world that the meteorite’s damage wasn’t just the tidal waves and obvious destruction – but that the true danger is yet to come. The meteorite strike blew catastrophic amounts of dust and particulates to go up into the air which caused a global cooling period. However, after that, there’s a predicted spike in temperature and it’s possible that the oceans themselves may start to boil, they are looking at an extinction event. The leaders of the world have formed an international effort to get humanity to the moon, and then to Mars for a colonization effort. Elma tries to argue that women need to be a part of this, and her struggle is real, and she’s made the cause very public, appearing on shows like Mr. Wizard. She’s starting to become a bit of a reality star and is warmed by all the letters she’s receiving by little girls all over the country looking to her as a role model.

I absolutely loved the marriage between Elma and Nathaniel, it can get a little heavy-handed and even a little overly perfect – but I still think this is one of my favorite romances of any book I’ve read in the recent past. It ticked all my boxes, the couple was a bit ‘older’ in their 30’s, it was a well established and healthy relationship, and the sex scenes were a bit hilarious and sweet. Yes please, more of this, please. Some people may become frustrated that these two never seemed to have any issues, they basically didn’t fight throughout the entire book. They were very cognizant of each other’s feelings and were very careful to always be mindful of how they spoke to each other. I didn’t care much though, I’ll take an ‘overly healthy’ relationship over a toxic one any day – and there’s a skew in the toxic direction in fiction.

This is a very unapologetically feminist book, it went into detail about how hard Elma had to struggle against sexism in the 50s. It was an ever-present issue in her life and you saw how it affected her emotionally and how it hindered her career and options. It also delved into how well-meaning people can still be ignorant of other peoples struggles. Racism and prejudices played a major role in this book, and how Elma came to be more aware of those around her.

If I were going to have a complaint about this book it would be the pacing/time jumps. There were a lot of leaps forward in time that skipped over major events and technological breakthroughs in order to get to the next plot point in the story. One other small nitpick that only applies to the audiobook – the accents used by the author/narrator were a bit grating, especially the French accents. It wasn’t a big part of the story, but when it was there I was like “wow that’s not a great accent” lol.

Overall, I really loved this book and even given the awkward accents I was surprised by how well the author self-narrated the book. I’d absolutely pick up another book by her in the future.
Profile Image for Elle (ellexamines).
1,084 reviews17.4k followers
April 15, 2020
The Calculating Stars is alt-history book about a world in which a meteor hit the earth in the 1950s. Following Elma, a Jewish computer aspiring to be on the moon, we see the mundane parts of an apocalypse, the scientific parts of an apocalypse. Other characters include Nathaniel, Elma’s husband, who is really cool; Nicole, one of Elma’s best friends; Ida, a black member of the 99 club and aspiring astronaut; Imogene, also a member of the 99 club and an aspiring astronaut; Helen, a Chinese aspiring astronaut; Betty, white reporter for Life; and Parker, an arrogant bastard.

This... was interesting, first of all. It is certainly an interesting premise, and I think the focus on perceived normalcy—how we adapt to the daily grind as if it’s always been—is interesting. This book focuses not just on the race to save the world, the race to find a new home, but also on the gender and racial politics of the time, and the barriers that Elma and others must break down.

That’s all interesting. The problem is I didn’t feel like much happened in this book. There are long swaths where things are happening, but little that has long-lasting consequences within the narrative. Actually, very little has long-lasting consequences, period. Kowal often bows out from playing up the consequences of plotlines, such as . I also think I could’ve gotten more into this were I more invested in the characters. Elma is cool but I just wasn’t that invested in her as a specific character. This all came together with a much more personal aversion: I personally don’t tend to gel with science-heavy novels even when they’re down to earth. I think if you liked The Martian, you might absolutely love this.

I understand why this won a Hugo as it’s a very creative premise and interesting story; however, it was not really my thing.

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Profile Image for Lindsay.
1,260 reviews222 followers
July 13, 2018
A beautifully researched and told alternate version of the space race from the point of view of brilliant woman pilot, scientist and mathematician with dreams of going to space.

It's 1952, and Elma and Nathaniel Wexler are vacationing in the mountains when a massive meteorite strikes just off the US coast in Chesepeake Bay. Much of the East Coast, including Washington DC is destroyed or flooded, and it's only Elma's and Nathaniel's quick thinking in the face of the disaster that save them both. Elma was a WASP pilot in WWII and also has doctorates in physics and maths and her husband is a brilliant engineer, and both work for the National Advisory Commitee for Aeronautics (the predecessor of NASA). NACA itself gains immediate prominence in the aftermath of the meteorite and even more so when Elma's calculations reveal that the meteorite has set the Earth on the path to a runaway greenhouse effect.

What follows has the space race happening years earlier, and racing the diminishing habitability of the Earth rather than Russians. It's also a space race that begins with the International Aerospace Coalition rather than NASA, so has diverse nationalities from the beginning. But this is the 1950s and both racism and sexism are the norm, setting up barriers for many of the people who wish to go into space. This is the story of Elma Wexler as she works for NACA, IAC and strives to become an astronaut, and it's also the story of the community of people working with her and often against her as well.

This is one of the best books I've read this year.

A mix of Hidden Figures and Apollo 13 with a heavy dose of The Martian, and impeccably researched and imagined, this hits my sweet spot for space program fiction as well as covering issues like gender discrimination and racism and giving further welcome attention to the women who were active in the science and technology field when "computer" was a job, not a thing.

Very much looking forward to the second part of the story.
Profile Image for Erin Beall.
442 reviews118 followers
December 21, 2018
I am a feminist. I love feminist books. Feminism is for everybody, quoth the inimitable bell hooks. But "women are great!" can't be the ONLY message of your book. This thing just hits you over the head with it, again and again, to the detriment of the plot. Ultimately, I DNF'd.... sadly.

Oh, and check out Boostamonte Halvorsen's review, which summed up my feelings pretty exactly: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
Profile Image for Monica.
592 reviews621 followers
October 16, 2019
I really did enjoy this novel with a feminist, retro appeal. Yes it was corny in all the ways it was meant to be. A pleasant sojourn in an alternate history. For me the novel had a bit of an enlightened moment as the author discusses many of the obstacles (purportedly in the 50s though one does wonder how much has seeped into the present) and treatment of people of Jewish faith. I have not really been that exposed to the "otherness", the disaffection, the casual bigotry associated therein. The novel also explored racial inequality, women's inequality and the deleterious effects of how society deals with and treats people with anxiety and other forms of mental illness. The novel actually touched on a lot of issues that somehow update it to the present day which may not be entirely a good thing. We humans (Americans in particular) have a knack for mis-remembering history and the times in a way that makes us appear more admirable. As such, nostalgia (a form of narcissism said someone wise) comes in and we are doomed to repeat mistakes due to our misguided views on history. Yearn for a time that never was. The novel is written in such a way that all of the characters are moving in the same direction. Even the bad guys want the same thing as the good guys. It's as if the only issues in this alternate universe are racism and sexism. Not greed, or desire for power, or even religion for that matter. I enjoyed this novel world. But really, who can resist a female empowerment story where all of the characters have basically good intentions. It's fiction folks!

4ish Stars

Listened to on Audible
Profile Image for Anthony.
Author 4 books1,861 followers
September 2, 2018
This is a stirring and surprisingly intimate exploration of an inspired “what-if?” scenario: what if a globally-scaled natural disaster accelerated our space program? The resulting story feels extremely authentic and altogether possible, grounded by the entirely relatable narrator, a genius but altogether human Lady Astronaut. It’s incredibly refreshing to encounter a character whose intelligence and courage don’t always protect her from her own anxieties, nor from the machinations of a fearful, male-dominated world; she is tested from without and within, and her journey feels totally believable. I look forward to the conclusion of her story in the sequel.
Profile Image for Evelina | AvalinahsBooks.
859 reviews439 followers
July 9, 2020
I'm always excited to read astronaut books, as you might know from my posts like this one, this one or this one. So I was even more excited to read one where women fight their ground to get to be astronauts. As it turned out, it was not an easy fight, even if it's one written in an alternate 50's Earth. The Calculating Stars is no bright and easy read, but it deals with some really important topics, and is also very engaging and strong. I loved it, and here are the reasons why you might love it too!

So come and read 5 Reasons To Read The Calculating Stars!

I thank Tor Books for giving me a free copy of the book in exchange to my honest opinion. Receiving the book for free does not affect my opinion.

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Profile Image for Melissa (Mel’s Bookshelf).
445 reviews286 followers
September 28, 2018
I really felt like listening to a sci-fi book and this one was in my audible recommended list. So without thinking too much about it, I started listening. What I got was not entirely what I expected. It's not so much a sci-fi as it is a historical fiction, alternate reality book. A REALLY good one!

It's the USA in the 1950's. The Second World War may be over, but humanity is dealt another blow when a meteorite lands on Washington and obliterates the entire government and hundreds of thousands of people. Then, just to make matters worse, super math wiz Elma discovers that the blast has created an extinction event and humanity as we know it will be wiped from the globe within decades. So what can be done about it? Humanity needs to look at the stars and planets for its future, and they need to get a wriggle on, as time is running out. However, putting people into space is not easy, and for those aspiring astronauts things are difficult enough without accounting for 1950's sexism and racism. Elma wants up. But her endeavour to get to the stars is going to be harder than she ever imagined.

This book was historical fiction with a touch sci-fi, a splash of humour, and a pinch of fantasy and a LOT of fun! When I realised it wasn't going to be exactly the sci-fi epic that I imagined (no I didn't particularly read the description, obviously!), I was going to abandon it. But it has this beautiful charm which kept me listening. And I am so glad that I did keep listening, because it turned out to be absolutely one of the best books I have read this year!

The writing is absolutely delightful. So easy to read (or listen to), flowing beautifully with a captivating storyline that may not sound the most enthralling, (I mean getting women into space isn't something I think I would have picked up if I HAD read the description properly!) But it was a really wonderful story!

I adored Elma. I thought she may annoy me as the story went on, but I came to love her. I ABSOLUTELY LOVED the fact that she has major anxiety, but is extremely high functioning. There aren't enough characters like Elma, or maybe I have just been reading the wrong books!

Her HEALTHY relationship with her husband was so refreshing, and there were some characters that I loved to dislike.

The audio version was AMAZING!!! I couldn't get over how good the narrator was and wanted to know if she has narrated anything else, and then I realised it was narrated by the author!! BRILLIANT! I loved the southern accents. It was utterly charming! I'm won over!

I honestly don't have one bad thing to say about this book! I loved it!

Would I recommend The Calculating Stars?

Yes! If it sounds like your cup of tea, give it a go! And even if it doesn't you may still enjoy it like I did! I think I will neglect to read the description more often!

I purchased The Calculating Stars at my own expense at audible.com.

For more reviews check out my:
Profile Image for Yun.
513 reviews19.8k followers
September 30, 2018
The Calculating Stars is an alternate history of a meteor hitting the earth in 1952, in what will eventually become an extinction-level event. So earth must fast-track its efforts to colonize space. And there is a group of amazing women astronauts ready to kick ass. Sounds awesome, right? Well, it turns out to be terribly disappointing.

First, the main character Elma isn't very likable or relatable. She wants to become a woman astronaut at a time when women weren't really considered for more than housewife duty. But instead of being written as a strong character, she's meek and dithering, constantly hiding behind her husband and letting him take care of things for her. She is scared of everything (people she doesn't know, her boss, reporters, talking to media and having her pictures taken), and has panic attacks and vomits constantly. She doesn't think what she has is a problem and refuses to see a doctor, instead reciting the number pi or the Fibonacci sequence to try to get over it.

The plot of this book isn't what I thought it would be either. What I wanted is female astronauts kicking ass; what I got instead is a meek mouse saying she wants to be an astronaut while hiding and shaking with fear. The majority of this book is mundane, driven forward with dull dialog between uninteresting characters. Hardly anything happens in it. The author also chose to include a few sex scenes with truly cringe-worthy nerdy dialog, and random religious tidbits through every scene, as if trying to convince the reader that Elma is very Jewish and you better not forget it.

In all, the premise of this book was good, but that's about it for positive things. The meandering plot, dull and uncomfortable dialog, the meek main character who's afraid of her own shadow, and the random religious tidbits all combine to make this not for me.
Profile Image for Justine.
465 reviews296 followers
August 12, 2019
Originally posted to I Should Read That

This is a spoiler-free review.

The Calculating Stars seems to be the book that everyone is talking about in the sci-fi world. The winner of the Nebula Award, and probably the winner of many more awards this year, it sounded like the perfect book for me. Lady astronauts, an alternate version of the 1950’s, and smashing the patriarchy with science? Sounds like a brilliant book, right? However, this turned out to be one of the biggest disappointments of the year for me. I'm afraid this will be a very unpopular opinion, as this book is so beloved by the science fiction community.

It has taken me ages to write this review because I’m trying to figure out where The Calculating Stars went wrong for me. I think I’ve identified a few things, many of which will be unpopular opinions, but one of the more obvious ones is that the audiobook narration did the book no favours. I usually love it when authors narrate their own books (hello Emma Newman and Neil Gaiman), however Kowal’s narration did nothing for me. While the book and narration started out strong, Elma’s voice began to feel more and more patronising and condescending by the minute. By the end, I had cranked up the speed to over 2x just so it would be over and done with. I think The Calculating Stars would have benefited from a full cast audiobook, particularly as there are a number of characters of different ethnicities and therefore accents -- my god it was so awkward and actually felt a little icky.

Aside from the audiobook troubles, The Calculating Stars would have really benefited from a wider range of point of view characters. We only get Elma’s point of view -- I’ll talk about her in a minute -- and it felt like there was a lost opportunity for some great additional POV characters. There were so many astonishing women who should have shared the spotlight -- particularly Helen, one of the fellow computers. Elma is good at identifying her privilege and biases, something I liked about the story, however her incredibly bland and boring personality and life simply weren’t compelling enough to carry the story. Kowal does a good job of bringing people of colour into the story, why not use them and their amazing stories to diversify the book? I think that The Calculating Stars would have been a whole lot more effective, interesting, and compelling with these other characters.

I think my biggest issue with the book is Elma herself. She’s the exact kind of character I hate cleverly disguised as the exact kind of character I love -- I feel betrayed. Elma, otherwise known as Captain Perfect with her perfect husband and their perfect relationship, became very one-note and uninteresting to me very quickly. Although I am happy we got a good, supportive marriage in this book, it made for incredibly boring reading. Her husband  was fully supportive of her, which is great, but he basically just nodded and smiled any time she did anything. They're so vanilla that I can't even remember his name, which is saying something. You know that couple who wears matching 'love my boyfriend/girlfriend' shirts, are never seen apart, and flood your Facebook feed with photos from their joint account? Throw in some toe sucking and horrifyingly cringe astronaut sexual innuendo and you get Elma and her husband. Gross.

I think what it comes down to is the fact that Elma feels fake -- she’s not a fully-fleshed out character at all, she’s a cardboard cut-out of what we’re meant to think ‘strong’ female characters are. I prefer my characters to be flawed because it makes them compelling and interesting, and Elma is possibly the least flawed character I’ve ever read. She feels so artificial because I can feel the author waving Elma in my face and shouting ‘look at her! She’s a feminist! She’s sassy! She’s sexually active! She struggles with anxiety! Love her!' Even her issues with anxiety -- something I suffer from and really enjoy seeing in books -- felt like a cold, calculating move to make the reader like her more. In fact, it felt so incredibly fake that I couldn't take her seriously when she was having her panic attacks, which were basically just stage fright plus a lot of vomiting -- I keep saying this but it didn't feel real. Ultimately, her mental health issues were a bigger conflict in the book than any of the sexism she was battling because it was so much more present in the book, whereas the sexism seemed to crop up whenever the author remembered that it was supposed to be an issue too. And, Elma’s mental health is the main thing that will keep her out of space -- she desperately tries to keep it a secret. And you know what? I agree that it should have kept her out of space -- thus defeating the entire purpose of the book. Elma York is nothing more than a list of buzzwords thrown together into a character that is whiter and more boring than under cooked rice.

The Calculating Stars was a huge fail for me and I am so upset. I desperately wanted to love this book, and I still love the premise. However, the execution was so poor for me that it actually makes me angry. What should have been an amazing story of kickass women smashing the patriarchy and zipping off to space fell so completely and utterly flat that it was basically impossible to enjoy.

CW: Anxiety
Profile Image for aPriL does feral sometimes .
1,889 reviews428 followers
March 29, 2020
'The Calculating Stars' by Mary Robinette Kowal is not really my kind of novel. Despite this, it is a terrific read, the main character's travails are sometimes exciting, and the description of the procedures necessary to train astronauts and the preparations to launch a manned rocket into space were engrossing.

I love hard science. I love science fiction. But I dislike the type of writing which unrealistically restrains the voices of all of the characters into polite toned-down dialogue no matter the situation, and all of the action no matter how emotionally crushing is carefully filtered through a gauzy lens of careful bourgeois socially polite responses and off-stage disturbances. Readers might faint I suppose if reading a paragraph of a heated exchange of vicious words, or if more than a sentence is included which refers to a death.

In other words, cozies. This novel is a disguised cozy. I didn't like it for that reason. It is as restrained as a woman wearing a bone corset despite the drama of the plot.

Occasionally I come across a cozy which charms me. It may have a sly wit, a lively plot, or an underlying acknowledgement of dark cruelties imposed by society or people. But this novel's main character, Dr. Elma York, is a 1950's mom-jeans housewife personna of the type played by actress Doris Day in 1950's romcoms with Rock Hudson. She is married to a rocket scientist, Nathaniel, no kids. However, she also has a crippling anxiety disorder triggered whenever she is the center of attention despite that she has the intelligence of a mathematical genius. She is a Stanford Ph.D. graduate with doctorates in physics and mathematics, attained during the 1950's period of massive social discrimination against women. She is not a thick-skinned warrior despite this biography, nor is she a bubbly person. She apparently has no desire for leadership. She loves housework. But her crippling anxiety and shyness does not stop her from joining the Wasps in World War II and becoming an A-list pilot, nor prevent her from fighting for the dream of becoming an astronaut despite all of the built-in gender discrimination against her success.

Elma and the world undergo a tragedy of monstrous proportions - a large meteor wipes out the eastern seaboard of the United States. It kills almost her entire family except her husband and adult brother and his family in California. She figures out this disaster will cause first a mini-ice-age, and then an eternal summer of 120F. Nathaniel and Elma are certain people have to leave earth before that happens.

Four years later after the meteor strike she and Nathaniel are working for NACA, the replacement of NASA. In this alternate history, Dewey is the President of the United States. The space program is accelerated into a faster progress than real history, but Elma's world is otherwise the same as the real-life 1950's. Elma is employed as a NACA computer, calculating rocket trajectories alongside other women, some of color, all discriminated against by the men with a few exceptions. The book vividly describes the discriminatory society of the 1950's so accurately I could hardly bear reading this book as a result. I got angry and claustrophobic reliving that awful time all over again! It was terrible when I lived it for real. Nonetheless, the development of rocket technology, the descriptions of airplanes and jets, and the training of astronauts is fascinating.

But I simply couldn't believe in Elma as a character. I also couldn't stand her. She is a timid housewife type, and yet quick with witty jokes. Always shaking, quaking, sweating, she does everything but kowtow to aggressive people while somehow impressing them with her personal strength of character. How could this person become a leader breaking barriers down at NACA? Apparently by accident, and by demonstrating her skills as a pilot and her amazing mathematical brain. She also is gorgeous. NACA quickly puts her in a bikini for publicity photography while she and the other women are supposedly being trained in underwater escapes from a space capsule crashed in the ocean - she hates it, but does it despite her crippling anxiety. She quickly shows her competence, wowing the reporters. Plus, she prefers being called Mrs. Nathaniel York, not Dr. York.

I can't stand Elma when she is in the grip of her anxieties. I can't understand how she switches into a southern belle charming the neanderthal men by whom she is surrounded because of her choices in pursuing male-dominated work even though she has panic attacks when men look at her to participate because of her expertise. She loves sex with her husband, and stands up against sexual harassment at work, but fears to do practically any other kind of speaking out no matter how innocuous. As a character in a novel, she makes no sense to me.

The book is brilliant in describing the social discrimination and environment women endured in the 1950's, as it also is in describing how NASA/NACA works. But the temperature of the writing is as temperate as what readers expect from a cozy. Elma narrates her story, however the contradictions of her character and ambitions do not explain sufficiently the often muted-down voice in which she explains her experiences and how she conducts herself, math brain or not. Nathaniel is a liberal woman's perfect fantasy man, though. I want him, *ahem*, liked him very much.
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