My Experience with "The Calculating Stars" by Mary Robinette Kowal


I entered this story not knowing a thing about it. I only knew that I'd read one of Mary Robinette Kowal's novels before, and I was delighted with the research and care she took with her characters and historical setting. This novel pays off on my perceived view of her style. It delivers, guys; it really does.

While this is the first Alternate History Hard SciFi novel I've ever read, it fulfills every checkbox I'd want and expect: accurate depictions of society during the time period (1950s), thoroughly researched and well-executed science, and a twist on the past that makes me wonder "What if things had happened differently?"

Her main character, Elma, aspires to be a "Lady Astronaut" after a catastrophe promises an imminent apocalypse. While Elma is hyper-competent intellectually, Kowal breathes humanity into Elma by balancing her with the pressures of society and the demons of her past. The supporting characters are vividly 3-dimensional, and representative of many different outlooks and perspectives of 50s America.

I'm also thrilled to see MRK's acute understanding of intersectional feminism and the complexities of class within the era she selected. And (being raised in the south, myself) I was thrilled to see a varied representation of southern culture. The subtext of her dialogue and nuance of her story dances circles around many attempts at unpacking the implications and consequences of the established social order during the time, holding a stark mirror to our current social landscape, and reminds us of just how much improvement there is to do.

The story isn't without issues. Personally, I like to see a bit more narrative momentum, mystery, and adventure. Kowal focuses instead on character development and drama—both of which I love, but I want the other bits too.

A sequel to this story has already been released and I plan to dive into it soon. I also love that it’s being called the “Lady Astronaut” series. I believe it's set to be a two-book set, and I think the sequel will be even more to my tastes than this one. I’ve also heard that it may continue further than the duology planned.

Looking for an Alternate History Hard SciFi that does justice to intersectional feminist ideas without being preachy? This one is certainly for you.