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The Calculating Stars - sci-fi or historical fiction?

The Calculating Stars #1 by Mary Robinette Kowal

Genre: Sci-Fi or Historical Fiction

Awards: Nebula, Hugo, Locus

Published 2018, 431 pages

This book won all three of the prestigious sci-fi awards and is most often listed as sci-fi because it's about space exploration I guess, but I wouldn't categorize it as that. At first it starts off in an almost dystopian way as a huge meteorite crashes to Earth and obliterates Washington DC and hundreds of miles surrounding it. Then the story settles into an alternate history 'space race' story set in early 1950s as the main characters (a rocket scientist engineer and his wife, a 'computer') try to convince the world that the meteorite is an extinction event and the planet is going to die.

“It’s hard to convince people that catastrophic weather changes are coming on a nice day.”


Elma and Nathaniel are great characters: smart, in love, supportive of each other. I like that Elma, as the heroine, is strong but not in an aggressive way. She's got self confidence issues and the depth of her reactions to conflict and standing up for herself make her seem very real. In keeping with the era and how she was raised (a proper Southern woman), she's polite and retiring, but with a backbone. That backbone takes a while to strengthen and show itself.

There's lots of math references since she's a math savant as well as a war pilot, and the info about a global accelerated space program is really interesting. Somehow I was expecting something like Hidden Figures, and it is in a minor way - it's about women fighting for their place and value in a male dominated society that wants them at home, barefoot and pregnant and looking pretty, but it's also a character study of Elma and her personal growth.


The Calculating Stars has the obligatory charming asshole that wants to keep all women in their place but has a particular antipathy toward Elma - and that makes for some good dialog and conflict dynamics. There's also a strong acknowledgement of racial disparity on top of female discrimination and Elma's gradual awareness of it is handled beautifully as she comes to realize that some qualified women are excluded from the pilot and astronaut programs because of their color. She fights to correct that and to correct her preconceived ideas.

The plot isn't particularly intricate, but the writing is stellar and makes the 400+ pages fly by. At odd times during my work day I found myself thinking back to this book because I was so totally invested in Elma and Nathaniel and the battles they fought to save the planet. All in all, a good book and and I look forward to reading the second in the duology which follows Elma to Mars (sounds more sci-fi).

Reading Challenge: #PopSugar20 #23: 2019 award winner; #Bookworm20 #33: book with 'star' in title

photo: IanSimmonds via unsplash

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