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All stories start with a simple question: "What if?" That is especially true of the alternate history genre where writers imagine versions of history where things might have been different. In it, writers have presented everything from Axis victories in the Second World War (such as The Man in the High Castle) to JFK avoiding an assassin's bullet (such as in Bryce Zabel's Surrounded by Enemies). Human spaceflight, which has seemed grounded for so long, has also been a topic popular with writers such as Stephen Baxter with his tale of a 1980s Mars mission in Voyage. Few, however, have been as compelling or convincing as The Calculating Stars, the opening salvo in Mary Robinette Kowal's Lady Astronaut series.
The "What if?" of The Calculating Stars is a fascinating one. Imagine that in 1952 an asteroid had crashed off the Atlantic coast of the United States. An impact that, despite being in the ocean, created a chain of events that threatened to render the Earth uninhabitable in a matter of decades. Imagine a step further that, due to a bit more foresight on the part of the American government, we were already placing satellite's in orbit and an accelerated space program followed. That, in a nutshell, is the premise of the novel.
There's so much more to it than that, though. Kowal could set the novel in a sub-genre you might call "punchcard punk." It's very much rooted in the time and technology of the 1950s, at a time when human calculators (usually women as evident by the book and film of Hidden Figures), overheating punchcard-driven computers, and converted ballistic missiles with "spam in a can" capsules on top were considered the cutting edge of technology. As someone fascinated with the early space program, it's helped to make this a fascinating read. The amount of research and consultation that Kowal put into it is apparent from calculating orbital trajectories to space hardware and the sensory details, all aiding to make the tale at once compelling to a layman and utterly convincing.
The novel gets a boost from its first-person perspective. Told by Elma York—one of those human calculators mentioned earlier, a WASP pilot in the war, and a woman who finds herself driven towards something more—it's a journey through a landscape at once familiar, but also alien. Elma is a guide through the changed United States and the world after the third of March 1952. One that moves in some ways, but not in others, as the issues of both sexism and racism rear their ugly heads. York isn't a Mary Sue though, and far from a perfect person as Kowal explores through Elma's relationships with both her husband, various female pilots, and Colonel Stetson Parker. Indeed, she has a secret of her own, one that is still difficult to discuss today, but would have been even more so in the 1950s without a meteor strike, which further adds to the dimensions given to her. Through York, we see the world both as it is and could be, the dreams and the nightmares, and just what tomorrow could hold. She's a compelling protagonist who makes the story come to life.
The Calculating Stars could best be summed up by that single word: Compelling. It's a cross between Hidden Figures, The Right Stuff, and Interstellar (or at least its opening third or so). It's a gripping tale of what might have been through the eyes of an incredible woman fighting as much against her inner demons as against social norms of the 1950s. And yet, it's an uplifting and hopeful tale, one that should enthrall alternate history fans, NASA buffs, or anyone that enjoys bloody good storytelling.
If this is a taste of what the rest of the series will have for readers, then the Lady Astronaut is a go for launch...