Book review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

Check out The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars is a bit of a departure for Mary Robinette Kowal, who is better known in long form for her historical fiction with fantasy elements. This is a science fiction novel, set in the 1950s, positing a space race that is accelerated by a meteor hitting just outside of Washington D.C. It is set in the same universe as her Lady Astronaut novelette (it is, in fact, a prequel).

Although this was written before Hidden Figures, readers of that book will likely enjoy this one. Elma York works as a calculator for this universe’s version of NASA. She has a PhD and served as a WASP pilot; her husband, Nathaniel, is the chief engineer for the same agency.

Elma is smart, competent, and has an anxiety disorder. This version of the 1950s is still very much grounded in our universe, and Elma and her friends and colleagues are up against a lot of the same issues, to varying degrees, of being erased. Systemic sexism and racism and ableism are present in this universe, and they are also confronted using a variety of methods. This novel lays out the struggle of being simultaneously overly qualified and dismissed due to bias pretty well, on multiple vectors.

It’s also a story about friendships and relationships, and how the kindnesses we show to one another matter. So do the choices we make, the ways we inspire, and the way we view the world.

Fans of Kowal’s other work will still find a loving, supportive central relationship (with a LOT of rocketry puns), a strong, whole, complicated main character who continues to work towards being her best self, and really well executed action scenes.

Highly recommended!

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About Lynne M. Thomas

Lynne M. Thomas is a five time Hugo Award winning editor and podcaster. In her day job, she is Head of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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