The Lady Astronaut Stories
by Mary Robinette Kowal
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
The Calculating Stars / The Lady Astronaut of Mars / The Fated Sky
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, or similar, 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. As the novel begins, Elma and Nathaniel are enjoying 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 of the lives of people with whom she has had little contact. 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, although neither of them would be among the crew of the first manned moon landing. Elma had been dubbed "The Lady Astronaut" by Don Herbert, Mr. Wizard himself, during her first appearance on his TV show, even before that became a reality.
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 was 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 had struck a deal for exclusive story rights with Life Magazine. Elma 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 woman 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 post-meteor world with so few relatives and friends 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 in 2018, 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 revised the timeline for that event 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. 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 through 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.
It turns out that Elma York was not the first woman on Mars, but she was part of the crew of the first manned expedition. As had happened with the first moon landing, she had to settle for staying in the orbiting vehicle while others were granted the honor of first setting foot on an alien world. The moon landing was in 1958. The Fated Sky begins mid-1961, with Elma a semi-permanent resident of the first moon colony. Her job is to ferry other scientists to and from the moon and an orbiting station, with periodic returns to Earth, where her husband Nathaniel still works as IAC's chief engineer. The upcoming Mars project keeps him extremely busy with last minute checks and tests. The first expedition would involve three ships, two crewed (the Niña and Pinta) with seven astronauts each, the third (Santa Maria) carrying supplies for the first colony as well as the landing vehicle.
Even though this is an alternate history, with these space missions occuring earlier than in our real world timeline, quite a few things from our late '50s-early '60s are the same, including social and political tensions, as well as the computer sciences. I read another review which called these stories "punchcard-punk." If you don't know what that might mean, just google early computers. The original crew list for Mars was all men, but that had to change when it became clear the computers installed on the ships were not sophisticated or reliable enough to be trusted, especially when time-delayed instructions from Mission Control are factored in. Since all the human "computers" at IAC are women, several men are bumped from the mission. Once again, Elma has to deal with anxiety and imposter syndrome when she is a late minute addition, resented by the rest of the crew, including her friend Helen, whose place she takes. IAC has had to deal with threats of funding cuts, but they think Elma's notoriety as the Lady Astronaut will be positive public relations. Don't forget the world is still reeling from the aftermath of the meteor strike, with an Earth First movement that does not accept the doom and gloom environmental projections, and thinks the space programs are a waste of time, money, and resources.
The details of the mission, both its triumphs and its tragedies, are not important. The best thing about these stories are the characters, their strengths and their weaknesses, their ability to work through personal problems and mesh as a team. Most of the men are egotistical and misogynistic. Some take pride in not showing emotion. Some are racist. The people of color are resentful of that racism. Elma has to deal with a commander who continually belittles her, so it is hard for her to cope when he later tries to compliment her. They eventually grow closer, but they're never really friends. Their relationship is a good example of why we all should be less self-centered and more sympathetic towards others, since you never know what burdens another person has been carrying. Deaths occur, from illness and accident, and ship systems are compromised on numerous occasions, including losing contact with Earth for nearly two months. As they approach Mars, they face a dilemma. The commander, usually stoic and a stickler for protocol, surprises them with a call to vote on whether they should slingshot around Mars and return to Earth, or risk a landing. The vote to land is unanimous, not only because that is what they've trained years for, they also realize it might be their only chance, perhaps humanity's only chance, if they fail this time.
As much as I admire Elma as a character, I'm equally impressed with the way Kowal presents her and all the rest as flawed humans, trying their best to overcome the odds. (Well, except for the racist asshole who should have been tossed out the airlock.) Even though Elma is Jewish, she is forced to acknowledge she may still be the beneficiary of white privilege. One of the more pointed scenes has a Black man bluntly tell her not to try to explain his situation to him, no matter how well intentioned she thinks her comment to be. Elma may even have to admit she's not the most intelligent IAC computer. I had hoped she would be the first woman on Mars, but also felt it was appropriate and justified that IAC's (perhaps reluctant) push for diversity resulted in the first four to land being a Black man and woman, a Brazilian man, and an Arabic woman. Elma is still exceptionally smart, and a great pilot, so the next time she sees Mars it is while piloting a landing craft, bringing twenty other colonists to the Red Planet, including her husband Nathaniel.
I am very anxious to continue this series. It reminds me a lot of the optimistic SF I read in my early explorations, but tempered with a modern sensibility. Unfortunately, it will likely be at least another year before the next novel is published, or even up for pre-order. Kowal is probably still writing The Relentless Moon now. Not sure if that refers to Earth's moon, or one of Mars' moons, or even if Elma will be the main character again. I hope so, but even if not I'm still interested.
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