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The Calculating Stars - Textual Relations September 2021 Reading

Falselogic

Techno-Threadcromancer
(they/them)
On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.

Elma York’s experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too.

Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.

About the Author:
Mary Robinette Harrison was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, attended William G. Enloe High School, and studied at East Carolina University. She graduated with a degree in Art Education with a minor in theater, and began work as a professional puppeteer in 1989. She has performed for the Center for Puppetry Arts, Jim Henson Productions, and her own production company, Other Hand Productions.

Kowal served as art director for Shimmer Magazine and in 2010 was named art director for Weird Tales. She served as secretary of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for two years, was elected to the position of SFWA Vice President in 2010, and was elected SFWA President in 2019. In 2008, her second year of eligibility, she won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

Kowal's work as an author includes "For Solo Cello, op. 12," which made the preliminary ballot for the 2007 Nebula Awards. Her fiction has also appeared in Talebones Magazine, Strange Horizons, and Apex Digest, among other venues. Her debut novel Shades of Milk and Honey was nominated for the 2010 Nebula Award for Best Novel. Two of her short fiction works have been nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Short Story: "Evil Robot Monkey" in 2009 and "For Want of a Nail," which won the award in 2011. Her novelette, The Lady Astronaut of Mars was ineligible for the 2013 Hugo Awards because it had only been released as part of an audiobook, but was later published in text format[18] and went on to win the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Novelette. The Calculating Stars, the first novel in her Lady Astronaut series, won the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Novel, the 2018 Nebula Award for Best Novel, and the 2018 Sidewise Award for Alternate History.
 

Egarwaen

(He/Him)
I love this book, and this is a great excuse to start in on the sequels.

My food restrictions are medical, not religious, but I sympathize with the scene where Elma and Mrs. Lindholm are trying to arrange breakfast the morning after the disaster. I can't count the number of times I've had practically that exact exchange: "Oh, I can't have dairy". "That's fine, I'll do yours separately". (Dairy contamination ensues) Well, now I have to work out a way of not going to the hospital without being a bad guest.
 
Just started, and I love that the opening shows you're in alternate history so cleanly. President Dewey and NACA instead of NASA? I like it.
 

John

(he/him)
Just started as well, and it's got a fun first person style, at least as fun as detailing horrible tragedies can be. I'm only on chapter 4, but I like that Kowal's put in some seeds of character depth in a few people, like the presumably misogynist Colonel possibly showing that he's not just a representation of Military Brass. It was only a smidgen though, just by inserting the picture of his kids and the interaction with the Major that Elma chose to remark upon. It can be tough to make fully realized characters that aren't just stereotypes in popcorn fiction, so I hope she keeps it up.

Oh, and I looked up NACA, since I wasn't familiar. President Dewey and the Satellite race concluding 5 years early was the obvious tell about alternate history, but NACA was the real predecessor to NASA, which was dissolved and transformed to NASA in 1958. Since this story starts out in 1952, it fits in both our and their timelines.
 
Oh, and I looked up NACA, since I wasn't familiar. President Dewey and the Satellite race concluding 5 years early was the obvious tell about alternate history, but NACA was the real predecessor to NASA, which was dissolved and transformed to NASA in 1958. Since this story starts out in 1952, it fits in both our and their timelines.

Well shit I learned a thing!
 

John

(he/him)
I'm up to Chapter 8, and everyone is fitting into some convenient roles, though there were some minor character traits that I thought were novel. I like that Elma uses her Judaism as a rock to stabilize her. The book's a very easy read, though at times it does feel like Kowal threw a STEM thesaurus at it just to make it stand out as Smart. At one point, Elma's describing Nathaniel's banged-up body after the early events, and said he was "covered in hematomas and contusions" instead of bumps and bruises.

I did like that she at least included the inherent racism of the 1950's. I was a little surprised that she included a Black pilot/officer, and that he has a seat at the table, but it does read that he's their token. I liked the little look that the Lindholms gave each other after discussing how to get Black refugees up there too, and Elma offered to help. It was very much an "oh honey, you don't know how this world works" moment.

It's a super fast read, and even with my glacial reading pace I can probably finish this in a few days, unless the Second Part changes things up dramatically.
 

Egarwaen

(He/Him)
I'm up to Chapter 8, and everyone is fitting into some convenient roles, though there were some minor character traits that I thought were novel. I like that Elma uses her Judaism as a rock to stabilize her. The book's a very easy read, though at times it does feel like Kowal threw a STEM thesaurus at it just to make it stand out as Smart. At one point, Elma's describing Nathaniel's banged-up body after the early events, and said he was "covered in hematomas and contusions" instead of bumps and bruises.

Part of this is establishing a character trait; as you'll see later in the story, Elma tends to cover up her anxiety by retreating to an analytic mindset.

I did like that she at least included the inherent racism of the 1950's. I was a little surprised that she included a Black pilot/officer, and that he has a seat at the table, but it does read that he's their token. I liked the little look that the Lindholms gave each other after discussing how to get Black refugees up there too, and Elma offered to help. It was very much an "oh honey, you don't know how this world works" moment.

I'm not equipped to judge how effective Kowal is at writing Black characters, but she definitely seems to be trying to avoid tokenism in general, and takes some care to present the intersectional and structural nature of the prejudices and bigotry of midcentury America.
 

John

(he/him)
I wasn't saying that Kowal included them as tokens, but that the military complex in general may have, since they are the only ones depicted (so far). I think it was an interesting inclusion that could've just been whitewashed away, as my own white privilege assumes (and that I try to check constantly) that everyone in a story looks similar to me. In Dayton Ohio, where in 1950 the population was 86% White vs 14% Black, it maps out that Blacks would be less visible.
 
I'm up to Chapter 8, and everyone is fitting into some convenient roles, though there were some minor character traits that I thought were novel. I like that Elma uses her Judaism as a rock to stabilize her. The book's a very easy read, though at times it does feel like Kowal threw a STEM thesaurus at it just to make it stand out as Smart. At one point, Elma's describing Nathaniel's banged-up body after the early events, and said he was "covered in hematomas and contusions" instead of bumps and bruises.
Part of this is establishing a character trait; as you'll see later in the story, Elma tends to cover up her anxiety by retreating to an analytic mindset.

I dunno, I agree with John. There seems to be a lot of dancing around the science and math, throwing out terms without really clearly understanding them or using them properly. I was honestly really annoyed at p 71/72 when all the interesting parts of Chesapeake Bay boiling are reduced to ellipses, and of course I was especially annoyed that her brother just does it.

The dynamic of being Jewish refugees in a Black household also seems like it could have been a lot more powerful and better explored than it was. I thought the sitting shiva scene and not being able to muster the strength to explain why newly bought clothes would be ripped was powerful, but a lot of other stuff just seemed skimmed over.

While the opening scenes were drawing me in and I was absolutely glued to the book, everything after they reached the base is not working as well for me. Still, liking it so far, just started Chapter 11.
 

Egarwaen

(He/Him)
I dunno, I agree with John. There seems to be a lot of dancing around the science and math, throwing out terms without really clearly understanding them or using them properly. I was honestly really annoyed at p 71/72 when all the interesting parts of Chesapeake Bay boiling are reduced to ellipses, and of course I was especially annoyed that her brother just does it.

To a certain degree I think this is a consequence of the science for the story not actually making sense. For example, in order to make travel to Mars with 1960s technology work, we've got the usual Magically Efficient Rocket Fuel. I'm not as familiar with the math on materials science, but I'm pretty sure there's a few cheats going on there too. It wouldn't surprise me if the physics of the water impact were a bit fudged as well.

I think it's quite interesting who does math and when; in the era of manual computers, there's a lot of complicated status markers, and they do change in some really interesting over the course of the book.
 

John

(he/him)
I will say she either gets better at hiding it, or I notice it less as it goes on. I'm on Ch. 25, and thought that after a few time jumps the base life opens up a bit more. I do have an issue with keeping the who's who in the supporting characters straight in my head, which can be tough to plot out with a first person narrative. It mostly turns into "Here's Elma & Nathaniel, plus whatever women she's interacting with on the good side, and whatever men are her impediment at the moment".

I did think that she handled the racial issues better as the story progressed, but I did find it a little hard to believe that there were so many private owners/pilots of P-51 Mustangs in the city, most of them Black, when racial prejudice would've made it hard for them to own property/cars, much less jet airplanes. I can't speak to the science behind the meteor impact and climate change, but I know a bunch of reviews on Amazon were lambasting it for not being super accurate. I’m enjoying it and not trying to fault it for potential inaccuracies that I don't have the experience to judge.
 

Egarwaen

(He/Him)
I did think that she handled the racial issues better as the story progressed, but I did find it a little hard to believe that there were so many private owners/pilots of P-51 Mustangs in the city, most of them Black, when racial prejudice would've made it hard for them to own property/cars, much less jet airplanes.

This surprised me too, but it looks like the P-51 was a mainstay of civilian aviation; "hundreds" of surplus aircraft were dumped onto the market as the military switched to jets.
 
Finished it. This one started so strong for me and I was so disappointed by the end of it. I was starting to write a post but ended up finding this Goodreads review and well I'd just be rewriting that.

I think I was expecting, and was excited for, a mixture of Hidden Figures and the Martian, and the first section of the book seemed to be doing that. Then it just fell apart.
 

Egarwaen

(He/Him)
For me, Elma's public speaking struggle was one of the strongest parts of the book. I've been privileged to know a lot of people who are prodigies at some skill or another, including one college friend who I believe was 12 when her parents got her into a college CS program. To the best of my ability to remember, they've all struggled with anxiety around peripheral skills that they recognize as necessary for the effective use of their more advanced skills. And while it was true to life, I also liked its effect on the shape of the narrative. While the plot's about structural bigotry, we're shown almost straight away that Elma's got at least some tools she can use to make headway - tools that she's unable to use because of trauma from prior experiences with structural bigotry. That brings the stakes down to a more personal level, to Elma's fight with herself.

I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky were originally written as one volume before being split and expanded for publication. Not only would it explain some of the padding, it would explain why the parallel thread about Parker's wife doesn't land until partway through the second book, despite its direct connection to Elma's struggle.
 
Heh, funny thing, last night I went back through the book club threads on a whim and noticed that more often than not you and I have opposing views or pretty different intrepretations/weight of decisions in books. When I made that post after reviewing those I remember specifically wondering if you would feel that part of her character was important! This is why I like book clubs so much, always fascinating to see people's views.

Anyway, based on that review and the fact that I did enjoy the general idea I looked around for the original short story, it's on Kindle but Tor also posted it free online, I like it a lot!
 

John

(he/him)
I finished this today, and mostly liked it, but I understand VV's criticisms. I still thought that by the end, nearly every character who wasn't a York, Parker, or Betty all ran together. I didn't have a mental picture of anyone else, they were all just playing the role of pushing Elma into the Astronaut role that she wanted. Maybe that's on me, that I didn't try hard enough to remember who everyone was, but ultimately it didn't matter to the story.

I won't pick up the sequel right away, but I might if it goes on sale. I wasn't too miffed about the book ending on a cliffhanger of sorts, but I'm not jonesing to find out what Elma does next. It was a very breezy book, though it still took me 20 days to get to the end. Maybe I'll actually see what the library has in stock? We haven't been there since the pandemic hit.
 
Maybe I'll actually see what the library has in stock? We haven't been there since the pandemic hit.
My library added a book quarantine period and expanded their audio/ebook/Hoopla offerings in response to the pandemic. I already used it a lot but even more now. I hope yours is still doing well too.
 

John

(he/him)
My library added a book quarantine period and expanded their audio/ebook/Hoopla offerings in response to the pandemic. I already used it a lot but even more now. I hope yours is still doing well too.
They have partnered with a statewide network for ebooks, and they do have the sequels available. I just don't know where my library card is, so I'll need to go in to get a new one. They have next month's book, but only 4 copies, with 80 people in line so I probably won't get that there. It looks like there's a physical book in stock though, so I'll kill two birds next time I'm in the area.
 
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