Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Review and Book Club Questions: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

Although I read fairly eclectically, I don't often read much in the science fiction or fantasy genres. When I do though, I tend to enjoy the books a lot. You'd think this would translate in me picking up more of them, but no. It means that people know I am reluctant with regards to the genre and only recommend I read the very best, the most thoughtful, the ones that will engage me the most even as they push my regular reading boundaries. Mary Robinette Kowal's novel The Calculating Stars, the first in the Lady Astronaut series, is one of these. Alternate history set in the 50s? Not my usual choice but it came so highly recommended that I knew I should give it a chance. Let's just say that 2 of my 3 year-round book clubs have read it now and this is very likely to be one of the three books for my summer book club as well.  I have the second novel on my shelves to read and was pleased to see that books 3 and 4 have been acquired (novelette 4.5 already exists and was, in fact, written first and won a Hugo to boot).

It's 1952 and physicist, mathematician Elma York and her engineer husband Nathaniel are on vacation in the Poconos when something catastrophic happens.  Initially they think a nuclear bomb has detonated.  Unable to return home to Washington DC, Elma, a former WWII pilot, flies them west to Wright-Patt Air Force base in Dayton, OH where they discover that an enormous meteorite has wiped out the entire East Coast, including the vast majority of the government as well as Elma's family. As if that's not terrible enough, the meteorite has put Earth on a collision course with an ecological disaster so vast that the need to get off this planet and find a viable way to colonize another planet before humanity's time runs out has become of utmost importance. There's no longer a race against other countries to get into space but a cooperative race for space and survival. Elma, who is incredibly brilliant and already worked for NASA before the meteorite, wants to be in the running to be an astronaut. But it's the 1950s and a woman's place is not in space, at least not according to the men around Elma, aside from her husband. As technologies are fast tracked and developed, Elma is right there in the fray. But she faces constant sexism and condescension, being metaphorically patted on the head and discounted until she is proven capable again and again.

Kowal has created a fascinating alternate history that doesn't dismiss the social issues of the 1950s but in fact highlights them in this subtly different world. Elma is a trailblazing character, one who is both impressive and strong but also fully human with weaknesses and doubts. Her push to be included, to realize her dream of being an astronaut, not only raises the question of discrimination because of gender but also finds her allied with women of color who have been doubly marginalized. Because of Elma's profession and ultimate goal to be a Lady Astronaut, there is definitely a good amount of math and science in the story but it isn't necessary to have a full understanding of either in order to enjoy the novel. The social issues and hurdles that Elma faces are really the main thrust here and they are big, complex issues indeed: sexism, racism, mental health, environmentalism. Kowal does a fantastic job raising these issues in the context of the 50s and 60s, using the attitudes of that time to showcase where we today have improved and where we haven't really come all that far. The narrative tension is not really about the outcome of Elma's quest as much as it is about the smaller, more personal pieces of her life (after all, the novelette was published first and its title gives away what has to occur in the preceding books) and it is this focus on the social and personal that makes this such a successful crossover novel. It's a well-researched and thought provoking novel and I'm looking forward to the sequel.

Here are the questions I created for one of my book clubs since I found very little online that suited my purposes. They are in no particular order, just the order they occurred to me as I leafed back through the novel. This novel is eminently discussable and although it might be out of the comfort zone of many book clubs, it raises many worthy questions and can certainly sustain a book club discussion well past that first glass of wine. Feel free to borrow these for your book club as well.

Book Club Questions by Kristen:

Kowall says: “Science fiction and fantasy takes the real world and tips it over to the side so you can see all the gaps in between.” What are the ways you see this being true in this story?

Women in history have frequently been erased but books like Hidden Figures, The Radium Girls, Fly Girls, and other narrative non-fiction like them are starting to bring the amazing sidelined women back into full view. How does fiction like this also add to the narrative?

It’s the coming environmental crisis that drives the push to get into space in the book but when the crisis isn’t nearly as imminent as the public initially thinks, funding for space exploration and settlement could be in danger. How is this mirrored in our world today?

Elma is not only a woman but a Jewish woman and is familiar with both sexism and religious persecution as a result. Does this make it surprising how naïve she is, at least initially, about the treatment of African-Americans, from the government not evacuating survivors in largely African-American areas to the rejection of the best pilots for the astronaut program? How does she try to change her own responses to systemic prejudice?

Elma wants more than anything to have the chance to go into space and makes some pretty big sacrifices towards achieving her dream. What does she sacrifice? Are the sacrifices worth it? Have you ever made sacrifices of this magnitude in order to achieve a long-held dream?

Elma is a character of two extremes. She has crippling anxiety and panic attacks but she’s also fearless enough to excel as a pilot and push against boundaries to be an astronaut. How can these two polar opposites exist so easily in one character? Do these differences make her a more human character?

Nathaniel and Elma don’t have children, although the there is a suggestion that they may want them at some future date. Several other of the potential “lady astronauts” do have children. In fact, one cannot continue in the training program because she’s pregnant. What are the ethics involved in bringing children into a world that is set to self-destruct? Would you choose to have children in the circumstances? Why or why not?

At the end of the book, Elma discovers that her grandmother and great aunt had in fact survived the impact. Should she have searched harder for those she loved or was her lack of curiosity understandable given the widespread devastation? How does the idea of family play a part in the novel?

What does her faith mean to her, especially in the aftermath of the meteorite?

Discuss Elma’s contentious relationship with Parker. Is she right to compromise with him despite his horrible misogyny?

When Elma finally agrees to take Miltown, she keeps it a secret because she knows it could jeopardize her position in the space program. How have attitudes towards medications of this type and the conditions they treat changed over the years? Or have they stayed the same?

Elma and Nathaniel have a strong and equal marriage partnership that isn’t often seen in portrayals of the 1950s and Elma is clearly no June Cleaver. How does Nathaniel’s support of and belief in his wife help enable her to pursue her dreams? Does it feel realistic to you?

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