The Lady Astronaut Stories
by Mary Robinette Kowal
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
The Calculating Stars / The Fated Sky / The Lady Astronaut of Mars
If I was pitching this to a Hollywood producer I'd say, "It's The Right Stuff meets Hidden Figures, but in an alternate history world." The story begins in 1952, and while some historical events from our world can be assumed to have been the same, there had already been some divergence. The main character, the first person narrator, is Elma York, née Wexler. Exceptionally intelligent, she had entered Stanford University at the age of 14. It was there she first met her future husband, Nathaniel York, when she was tutoring his roommate in math. They would meet again a few years later during WW2, when she was a WASP pilot and he worked with the Army Corps of Engineers. Following the war, Nathaniel worked for NACA (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), precursor to NASA, designing rocket engines, and Elma was one of their "computers." The Korean Conflict was still part of this alternate world, but the Cold War and the Space Race had developed differently. NACA had already been successful in launching three satellites in advance of Soviet efforts. Elma and Nathaniel are having a relaxing weekend at a cabin in the Poconos when disaster strikes. What they first assume to have been a nuclear strike turns out to be a meteorite impact just off the coast near Washington, DC. They are somewhat sheltered on the western slope of the mountain, and are able to make it down to where Elma's Cessna is hangered. They fly west and discover the nearest active Air Force base is Wright-Patterson, near Dayton, Ohio. She has to dodge ejecta falling back to Earth, the propeller is damaged, and she is forced into an emergency landing in a field near the base.
I "read" The Calculating Stars in audio book format (although the link is for the paperback). The author narrates it herself, and for the most part does an excellent job. Elma relates all the events going on around her, as well as her internal ruminations. I began wishing some parts had been read by others, such as the news alerts from radio broadcasters that begin each chapter, or dialog from men, including several with foreign accents. I still enjoyed this more than any audio book I'd tried before, although there have been only a handful of others to compare it to. I haven't purchased the second novel yet, but will soon, and might even go with the audio version again. The strengths of the story are both the timeliness and universality of its themes. The barriers to Elma's success are still relevant today, both sexism and anti-Semitism. She and Nathaniel are Jewish, and numerous times they are confronted with inadvertant comments from others who don't realize that (or maybe they do, which is worse). Racism also raises its ugly head, with Elma realizing she is subject to that herself, not necessarily in overt acts or speech, but rather ignorance or indifference to the facts. Their first friendships at Wright-Patterson are with a Black Air Force pilot and his wife. He had escorted them on the last leg of their flight, and takes them into his home rather than let them be subjected to inadequate quarters on the base. Elma is usually the smartest person in any room, but has to deal with the condescending attitudes of men, including her husband on occasion. She finds herself prejudging and pidgeon-holing Myrtle in much the same way, until finding out she is also a brilliant mathematician. Her dawning realization of what Blacks have had to endure, as well as Eugene and Myrtle's changing notions about Jewish people, helps all of them deepen their compassion toward others.
Almost all of the government was wiped out due to the meteor's blast wave, falling debris, and later tsunamis and earthquakes. The new acting President is the lone Cabinet survivor, Charles F. Brannan, who was Secretary of Agriculture under Truman, although in this timeline it was Thomas Dewey who was President when the meteor struck. The new capital is established in Kansas City, and NACA also moves its facilities there. Later, the IAC (International Aerospace Coalition) is formed. Elma's calculations indicate several years of nuclear winter, followed by a long, steady increase in temperatures around the world, which will be devastating to food crops and livestock. Since Brannan is knowledgeable of the needs of agriculture, he agrees with NACA's recommendation of the necesssity of establishing off-world colonies. If not done in a timely manner, diminshing resources would preclude such a project later. A massive effort is undertaken to construct an orbiting space station and prepare for manned flights to the moon and Mars. After a few years, there is a pushback from segments of the population, since they feel condtions are not as critical as predicted. The modeling for the warnings were from previous studies of volcanic eruptions and nuclear blasts, and even Elma admits her calculations have to be adjusted, but still insists on the eventuality of Earth becoming unihabitable. In addition to Brannan, other historical figures featured include Wernher von Braun, and in later stages of the moon shot program, Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins. But Michael Collins would not be pilot of the command module during the first manned moon landing, that honor would fall to Elma York. Long before it was an actuality, she had been dubbed "The Lady Astronaut" by Don Herbert, Mr. Wizard himself, during her first appearance on his TV show. She had to be reminded they had met before, when he was a bomber pilot in Italy during the war.
Elma was fortunate to be among the first seven women selected for astronaut training, and while she felt she deserved the honor, she also had to wonder if she was the beneficiary of favortism. After all, Nathaniel is the IAC's chief engineer, and even if not for that, her selection might have had as much to do with her being a celebrity. One of the other candidates is a senator's wife, one is the wife of a veteran astronaut, another a journalist who seems to have struck a deal for exclusive story rights with Life Magazine. She knows she's qualified, but had earlier hated being called lady astronaut when that path seemed to be closed to her, and now she suspects the women are merely figureheads, symbols of an honor which will still be denied them. On top of that, she knew many women of color who had even higher qualifications of flight time, which some of the other selectees lacked. Elma was a member of the Ninety-Nines, a women's flight club created by Amelia Earhart. In the mid-50s, there were several clubs across the country. The one in Kansas City included mostly former WASP pilots, and true to our own history, none of them were Black. Elma later learns of the Negro Aeronautics Club, whom she turns to for help when the other club doesn't have the aircraft she needs for additional training. Several of the women are probably based on real people, such as Bessie Coleman, one of the first Black women pilots, although in our world she did not live as long. Other pilots and "computers" may also be stand-ins for historical figures. Helen, a Taiwanese mathematician, and later pilot, could be based on either Hazel Ying Lee or Maggie Gee, the only two Chinese-American WASPs. I've read that a future novel will feature a character based on Ola Mildred Rexroat, the only Native American WASP.
This novel is at once an exciting adventure story, detailing a frantic effort to forestall humanity's doom, along with a disection of human and societal frailties. The roadblocks to success were prevalent then, and are with us still. Misogyny and sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, and the divisions between the classes, the haves and have-nots. Several scenes brought me to tears, most relating to Elma's family. Just as they were coming to terms with those lost during the war and Holocaust, they now have to live in a world with so few relatives left. She and Nathaniel had not been devout Jews for several years, yet their faith and those traditions become ever more important in dealing with their new life. All of the characters, including Elma, are imperfect, but they are allowed their failures, their insecurities, while at the same time being encouraged by others to become better persons. There are two that are easy to hate through most of the book, the worst being the head of the astronaut corps, who resents Elma from a previous encounter during the war. Even he gets his epiphany, and while never becoming sympathetic, he is forced to (grudgingly) admit her talents and his limitations. Elma and Nathaniel's relationship is another strong element. Their love is apparent, palpable, and even though she has had to keep secrets from him, I am sure that if and when he learns those secrets, it will not diminish his love and support for her. They are still together more than thirty years later, as seen in the original novelette. A few comments about it below, and I'll follow up with my reaction to The Fated Sky as soon as possible.
The first title written in this sequence is a novelette, originally produced like an old style radio drama for an audio book anthology in 2012. The following year, Kowal offered a text version on her blog, which included stage directions used in the audio version. The text, minus those stage directions, is available for Kindle (and other ebook formats), as well as being free to read online at Tor.com. It won a Hugo in 2014 for Best Novelette. It is set about thirty years after the events in the two novels published this year, but Kowal says it's okay to read it first, since the only spoiler is in the title. That's not exactly true, although what I consider a spoiler is the discussion of a previous event, which might actually be from the second novel, which I haven't read yet, rather than the first. Either that, or there are similar events in the two novels, or she reworked that idea before writing The Calculating Stars.
Elma York, now 63, lives on Mars with her husband Nathaniel. One of the other characters is her doctor, whom she had first met on Earth when Dorothy was a little girl living next to the IAC launch facilities. Elma is officially enshrined in history as the "Lady Astronaut of Mars," which I assume means she was the first woman on Mars, or else it's just a continuation of her celebrity, when she was known as a lady astronaut even before it became fact. Perhaps that event is detailed in the second novel, or it may come later, since there have been at least two other books announced. I'll edit this later when I know for sure. For now, I won't go into too much detail, except to say Elma is given another opportunity to go into space. She wants that desperately, even though she thought she was beyond the age of eligibility. It's a unique opportunity to advance man's knowledge and reach, so it is tempting. But so is remaining on Mars with the man she loves. The second-fourth novels will all be set prior to this story, but I hope this is not the last of Elma's adventures we get to share.
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