Next up on the Hugo nominee list is Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky. Technically only the first book is nominated, but this is one of those series where it’s really just one book cut in half, so it really only makes sense to read them together.
So the backstory on these novels is that Kowal wrote a novelette, “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” (which you can read for free), about an old woman who had been one of the pioneering Martian astronauts, and then decided to write the prequel about her as a young woman in the 1950s, trying to become the person she becomes.
This is the kind of Hugo-bait that I honestly feel a little conceptually ooked-out about, as it’s basically just fan service for the nostalgia for the Space Age rocket program that got so many aging SF fans into the genre in the first place, back when they were little kids watching original Trek and moon landings and what-not. And the book positively revels in the details of its alt-history space program, organizational, technical, and procedural. This is, fundamentally, a book about how the protagonist really super wants to go into space, more than anything else in the whole world, and we’re supposed to go along with that premise without a second thought.
But it’s hard not to notice that this is a phenomenally selfish desire. You can see it in the inciting events of the book—Kowal has a giant extinction-level meteor hit, one that will lead to lethal levels of global warming over a period of decades, and the protagonist’s first thought is “well, they’d better start colonizing other planets, so that some of us will still stay alive when Earth is dead.”
This makes basically zero sense on a conceptual level—terraforming a too-hot Earth is waaaaaaaay easier than terraforming Mars—and of course it also means writing off billions of people as casualties of Earth’s demise while focusing on the hundreds or thousands that might survive on a Mars colony. But the book never even really gets into this, and it treats her space advocacy as matter-of-fact science that nobody could really argue with except irrational short-sighted idiots.
And then too on a personal level, there’s the selfishness of this woman being the one who wants to get into space personally, right. And to some extent that’s kinda inevitable in any competitive field—there probably weren’t any astronauts out there who were genuinely deep-down chill about whether or not they got picked to go to the moon or whatever, you know? And of course, because she is a woman in a time when women faced super-overt discrimination, that kind of “selfishness” more naturally reads as a fight for equality, right. Who wouldn’t cheer for this highly qualified woman to get the job that she by rights ought to have?
And so yeah, I wouldn’t normally read that as selfishness at all… except that there are also black characters in the cast here, including a number of black women, who btw are facing some even more hardcore discrimination here in 1952, and she pretty much steamrolls right over all of them, too. She kind of idly means well, off and on, but at the end of the day, she’s not really doing much of anything to advance their cause even after they’ve helped her out. I think the book sort of recognizes this—they get very angry with her obliviousness at various points—but at the same time, the book is frequently setting things up for her to get to be ineffectually righteous and burnish her good-person cred in between stints of not really giving a shit about anyone except herself.
So there’s kind of an unpleasant undercurrent lying underneath the thing, but the nonsensicality of responding to a planet-threatening disaster by trying to leave is pretty much baked into the space colony genre. And on the race front… well, at least the book doesn’t just make her into a total white savior figure; this kind of imperfect historical figure is a lot more plausible, and really the main problem there is just the hagiographic tone of the books.
So that’s a lot of negative words, but these really were a pleasant quick read with interesting technical details, and I burned through the both of them in quick succession. Recommended if you’re less allergic to Boomer nostalgia (and SF fandom’s space fetishism) than I am.