17 July 2019

Hugos 2019: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

Trade paperback, 431 pages
Published 2018

Acquired April 2019
Read May 2019
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

This is an alternate history novel, where an asteroid hits the east coast of the United States in the 1950s, destroying Washington, D.C., and also damaging the global climate sufficiently that Earth will become uninhabitable, necessitating an acceleration of the space program so that humanity can survive through colonization. It's told in the first person from the perspective of a female "computer" (think Hidden Figures) who is married to an engineer on the space program. Elma York was a WASP pilot during World War II, and now wants to be an astronaut; the book chronicles her work for the space program as she tries to get this desire taken seriously, contending with the sexism of the era, widespread denial of the problem, her own racism, and her mental health issues.

It's a great book, definitely the best of the five Hugo finalists I've read so far this year. Kowal pulls you in with an intense opening, with Elma and her husband in the Poconos during the meteorite impact, destruction everywhere around them. It's a slow book, but in a good way-- it's very deliberate, bringing you into this world and Elma, and her struggles both internal and external. (I've seen complaints that Elma is always right, and the men she's up against are always evil sexists, but these feel like people projecting their own biases onto the book in a way that causes them to ignore its nuance. Elma is often flawed, especially as regards race, even after it's been pointed out to her, and we learn a lot about the psychology of her antagonists, in a way that makes us sympathize with them, too.) The end has some great moments, too, as she begins to realize her ambitions, and I'm always a sucker for stories where highly trained professionals work together to solve problems.

It's the first book of a duology, and I'll definitely be picking up the second half once my Hugo reading is over and done with.

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