3 ways The Calculating Stars shoots for the moon (and mostly succeeds)


Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars mixes alternate history with a story becoming much more well-known, and the result is a wonderful ride.

The event that sets off Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars sounds like the plot to a ’50s sci-fi B-movie all by itself: a really big meteorite hits the water near Washington D.C., and it’ll cause an extinction-level event within people’s lifetimes. Hence, the need to colonize space. Tor sent me this book, and, to be honest, I was enamored just by the title both of the novel itself and the series title: Lady Astronaut.

What can I say? It has a glamorous, almost Old-Hollywood feel to it. The book itself doesn’t have that same glamour, but honestly, it’s probably for the better that it doesn’t.

If you like space (and who doesn’t like space?) with a side of very timely writing, then The Calculating Stars is for you. Here are the highlights:


It’s a good thing that Dr. Elma York is a complex character, because she’s our narrator. Not only does the book show her combating her anxiety issues — and her hangups over taking medication for it — but she also has to confront prejudices both directed at her as a white Jewish woman and towards others, particularly women of color who are just as talented as she is, but haven’t had the same opportunities.

The thing is, Elma is allowed to struggle and not always say the right things. But when she does mess up, she usually apologizes and starts to do better. Nor does she always like her other astronauts in training. Yes, this is a positive. Kowal could have had Elma go for the whole concept of a perfect sisterhood, but no sisterhood is perfect.

Showing your work

Elma is completely mind-blowing in terms of her skill with math. But that doesn’t stop her from being a good narrator. She has her quirks, yes, including reciting prime numbers or the Fibonacci sequence when she’s particularly nervous, but it’s clear that even with her talent and burgeoning fame, she’s still a person. There’s a deftness to how Kowal handles having someone so smart as a narrator — particularly when that intelligence might not be something Elma has in common with readers. Does it land all the time? Not necessarily, but that’s down just as much to some technical issues in the writing that didn’t always make this read particularly smooth. (Particularly, there were some weird tense changes.)

In the notes, Kowal also details how she was particularly pleased to see Hidden Figures come out, and it’s not hard to see how that would be the case. This is a book that comes with a bibliography, for goodness’ sake. She even justifies why she has President Dewey instead of President Truman!


Nathaniel York complements Elma pretty well — as he should, considering that he’s her husband. The two are also pretty happily married in all respects. Aside from that, though, he’s not just an accessory to Elma’s storylines; he’s the lead engineer on the international space project.

He doesn’t necessarily undergo much in the way of character development; nor do a lot of characters, oddly enough, although we get to learn more about Stetson Parker. It’s perhaps something that will change in future novels; a second, The Fated Sky, is due out next month.

Next: How Empire of Silence puts the opera back in space opera

All in all, the issues with The Calculating Stars might be enough to turn some readers off, but for those looking for more about women and spaceflight, you’ll find something to like here.