The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

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Genre(s): Science Fiction, Alternate History
Series: Lady Astronaut #1
Tor Books
Release date: 
July 3rd, 2018
/r/Fantasy Bingo Squares: Disability (HM), #Ownvoices

Goodreads | Book Depository | Amazon

Execution: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Enjoyment: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐


“I never thought I would see such a thing. I didn’t know why you’d want to be an astronaut, or even really what one was, but now…” She looked up to the clouds, where all trace of the rocket had vanished. “You must.”

The Calculating Stars was simply brilliant. I loved it. It’s taken me quite a while to write this review, in part because this was such a comfort read – one that I didn’t want to follow up with a review that would make it feel more like “work.” This books is filled with tragedy, heartbreak, unfairness, and discrimination; yet, for all that, it’s also filled with hope, optimism, and accomplishment. I apologize in advance: this review will be a bit personal and touchy-feely. 

Before we get into the aspects that made this book hopeful, I feel that it’s important to make it clear that this is not, fundamentally, a happy book. In the very first pages, nearly half the eastern seaboard is entirely wiped out by a meteor strike. This event is what sets off the early journey to space; the strike is an extinction event, and if humanity cannot successfully get off of Earth before it become uninhabitable… the future doesn’t look great. Kowal doesn’t downplay the tragic elements of the strike, with many passages focusing on the lost family members, the sense of desperation, and the poverty that ensues. It was heartbreaking to see Elma tallying those she’d lost and frantically trying to contact the few who weren’t within the strike range. 

You’d think that at some point the grief would stop. I put my hand over my mouth and leaned forward, as if I could somehow fold over the pain and keep it from escaping into the world again. There might be cousins out there somewhere, but between the Holocaust and the Meteor … it was just the two of us.

I read this book shortly after a trip down to visit my parents and step-siblings in Florida. I had thrown a request up on Reddit’s r/Fantasy board seeking a book with a married couple who are genuinely good to one another, and this absolutely delivered. The Calculating Stars is a reminder to the reader that couples who genuinely care and hold respect for one another do exist, which is just such a lovely thing in a world filled with books focused on strife. It was similarly lovely to have a book about two people who are truly a team, where they start out together and finish together. This wasn’t a book about dating or will-they-won’t-they. It was a book about two people who are completely in love with each other and want to support each other. 

After having dealt with my family for three days, it was a breath of fresh air. I always forget how my step-father forces everyone around him to cater first and foremost to his needs. I forget the way we have to walk on eggshells, lest we set off his anger or – almost worse – a lecture and long, lengthy anecdote from his life about why we are wrong or why he thinks something is a certain way. There’s just no space for anyone else. He walks at his pace and will not walk faster even if everyone else is outpacing him. He expects us to follow his plans. He wants to do what he wants to do. When my mother, step-sister-in-law (oh my, that’s a mouthful), and myself went off to do our own thing for a while, it was dismissed as “girl stuff.” When my step-sister-in-law asked if anyone had a razor she could borrow because she forgot hers, he just had to make it a whole thing about how he doesn’t know anything about what “girls” do with things like that. I couldn’t help but make at least one comment there: “Surely you’ve shaved your face? It’s like that. But legs,” to which his only response was, “Well, that was more than I needed to know.” Cool, cool. 

I needed something that wasn’t about these horrible ways of looking at genders other than your own. This book was everything I needed in that moment. Elma and Nathaniel are simply kind, good, and supportive of one another. Their relationship is based on building one another up in every way possible. Elma, for example, has long struggled with anxiety – specifically, over public speaking. She’s been trained all her life to minimize it and pretend it doesn’t happen: “What will people think?” Even today, women are socialized not to take up space and to be viewed as feminine and accommodating. Kowal takes this and brings it to the forefront, showing the challenges Elma faces from a social standpoint. The oppressive society she lives in has taken its toll on her, and she must work to succeed in spite of it. When Nathaniel learns how deep her anxiety goes, his immediate reaction is to find out what he can do to help. He encourages her to see a doctor and to take steps to take care of herself in these situations. 

My dear lady, your body is not supposed to react to stress in this way. I needed to pull myself together before Nathaniel got back from the control room, or he would worry. I was not sick. I was fine. Deep breaths. Slow, deep breaths, pushing past the knot of tension in my abdomen. 2, 3, 5, 7, 11 … The show had gone well. Don was pleased. I hadn’t been eaten by bears.

Kowal is very, very well-versed in the challenges women face in a world designed for men. She has done an astronomical amount of research for this book, and often has incredibly insightful Twitter threads about the difficulties women face in the modern era. In The Calculating Stars, however, the social climate has not advanced nearly so far. Elma has to fight constantly to be taken even slightly seriously, and although Nathaniel would do anything to help her… he, too, is in some has been taken in by his own upbringing. At the time, men weren’t encouraged to examine the inequality that took place around them. Nathaniel often misses seeing the less obvious and subtle ways his wife is discriminated against, though he always stands up for her when he does see something. 

In addition to focusing on the sexism of the time, Kowal also makes it a point to address the casual racism occurring. Even Elma, who prides herself on being accepting, makes blunders. She works together with the black pilot community both to help with refugee rescue and to advance the goal of getting women – both white and black – into space. In these efforts, she often makes mistakes. Kowal addresses these in a tactful and graceful manner; she makes it clear that Elma has done the wrong thing, and brings her around as a character to address it and apologize for her behavior. 

“Now, see here. I’m inviting you to fly, not to mop floors or serve dinner.” 

She smirked. “See? That’s the only way she can picture us. I’m a mathematician and a chemist, working in pharmacy, but all you could think of were servant roles for me. So, no thank you, ma’am. You can just go on and convince yourself that you’re trying to save us. It’ll be without me.”

There are a thousand more things outside this that I loved about the book. It resonated with me on so many levels and is intersectional and delicate in approaching challenging issues. I highly recommend The Calculating Stars to anyone seeking a book about good people overcoming impossible odds by working together. 


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Have you read this book? What did you think? Do you have any questions about it?

Let me know in the comments below!


Published by Christine Sandquist

Christine Sandquist is an NYC-based sensitivity/developmental editor and author assistant to writers such as Hugo Award Winner Mary Robinette Kowal, World Fantasy Award Winner Tobias S. Buckell, and SOVAS Award Finalist Cadwell Turnbull. They specialize in analyzing and providing feedback on works that include diverse, queer casts, representations of sexual trauma, and broader gender-based violence. They are part of the team behind Reddit r/fantasy, the internet’s largest discussion forum for the greater speculative fiction genre.

7 thoughts on “The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

    1. I really, really recommend it! I’m so disappointed by how long I waited. I’d read Shades of Milk and Honey first and liked it, but this one just blew me away. Kowal has come so far as a writer!

      Liked by 1 person

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