Mary R Kowal’s novel - The Calculating Stars - takes place in an alternate history where the USA’s scientists are not driven by the Soviet Union space race, rather by a global disaster that may end the human race. A destructive meteorite has destroyed many major cities in the USA, initiating a similar climate change pattern that led to the extinction of the dinosaur. The world’s scientists unite to fast-track space exploration so that the human race can survive the pending green house disaster.
The 1950s is not my favourite time period for story telling, yet despite my preconceived bias, I couldn’t stop reading this book. This in no small part, is due to Kowal’s word craft, but also her engaging main character, Elma York. It’s Elma’s enduring hope that strikes a chord and carries the reader through the hurdles and triumphs in her life, from barely surviving the meteorite strike to becoming an astronaut.
I also liked the way Kowal balanced the societal impact with the technological challenges, eliciting the human struggle that would be faced attempting to colonise other worlds. Racism, sexism and the stigma of mental health are rife in the 1950’s, yet despite these hurdles, Elma maintains a strong sense of hope and empathy for the many characters that come into her life.
The personal narrative accentuates Elma’s struggle - a woman in a male dominated industry determined to follow her dream. She never loses faith, even while facing harrowing personal and technical challenges. I particularly enjoyed the seamless way in which Kowal blended the technical craft of flying with Elma’s personal feelings as she took on those challenges. This brought a raw realism to many memorable scenes, creating a believability that made me want to read more.