Review: The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal

Review: The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette KowalThe Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, science fiction, space opera
Series: Lady Astronaut #2
Pages: 384
Published by Audible Studios, Tor Books on August 21st 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Mary Robinette Kowal continues the grand sweep of alternate history begun in The Calculating Stars.The Fated Sky looks forward to 1961, when mankind is well established on the moon and looking forward to its next step: journeying to, and eventually colonizing, Mars. 

Of course the noted Lady Astronaut Elma York would like to go, but there's a lot riding on whoever the International Aerospace Coalition decides to send on this historic - but potentially very dangerous - mission. Could Elma really leave behind her husband and the chance to start a family to spend several years traveling to Mars? And with the civil rights movement taking hold all over Earth, will the astronaut pool ever be allowed to catch up, and will these brave men and women of all races be treated equitably when they get there? 

This gripping look at the real conflicts behind a fantastical space race will put a new spin on our visions of what might have been.

My Review:

In the Yiddish of which Elma York would approve and Stetson Parker would be desperate for a translation, I am verklempt after finishing The Fated Sky, the second book in Mary Robinette Kowal’s utterly marvelous Lady Astronaut series.

I am also in tears, just as I was at the end of The Calculating Stars. Not because the story is sad, although there are plenty of sad parts amongst the adventure, but because when she waxes so marvelously lyrical about her first sight of stars in the sky over a planet after the years of occluded skies on Earth, I feel like I’m right there with her. Sharing her joy at the sight.

As well as her exhilaration at simply being on Mars. And in spite of everything that has happened to get her to that point, I wish I could see what she sees, not through her eyes, but with my own.

And my eyes are full because I know that it will never be. So I have to live vicariously through Elma York’s terrible and wondrous journey, through this series. And what a fantastic journey it is!

This series began in The Calculating Stars with a very big bang. Not THE Big Bang. More like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. In 1952 a meteor struck Earth, specifically the Chesapeake Bay, and kicked off what mathematician Dr. Elma York, with a little bit of help from her meteorologist brother Hershel, recognizes as an extinction-level event.

The water blown into the atmosphere is going to start a runaway greenhouse effect, leaving Earth completely uninhabitable in a century. Not that things aren’t going to start getting pretty awful within a decade.

So the race is on. A decade before it occurred in real history, and with a whole lot more oomph behind it, the space race slams into high gear in the 1950s instead of the 1960s, with a goal of getting at least the seedlings of colonies established elsewhere in the solar system. Specifically the moon and Mars.

Dr. Elma York, former WASP pilot, mathematician and human computer, finds herself recognized worldwide as the “Lady Astronaut” and uses her reluctant fame to get herself into the first lunar mission, in spite of resistance from pretty much everyone to even the idea of women in space.

Although how anyone thinks a colony could be established without putting women into space is anyone’s guess.

As The Fated Sky opens, the meteor strike is a decade in the past, travel between the Earth, the Lunetta Station and the Moon has become a regular event, at least for astronauts, scientists and, unfortunately for Elma, the Press.

Ten years, however, is plenty of time for the effects of the meteor to get worse, while people’s memories of the actual event are starting to fade. A century is a long time, and humans are all too often shortsighted.

It’s also plenty of time for the racism that was behind post-meteor rescue efforts to affect relocation and refugee assistance, admission to the space program and pretty much everything else. It’s not just painfully obvious that not everyone will be able to escape, but that seats on the escape vehicles will be determined by the color of people’s skin.

Tensions are high as the first Mars expedition goes through its training. “Earth First” terrorism is on the rise, budgets for the space program are shrinking, and a trip to Mars will take three years and a LOT of money that many people believe should be spend to ameliorate problems on Earth – not willing to recognize that the climate problems at least cannot truly be ameliorated, only delayed a tiny bit.

Elma hadn’t planned on going to Mars. Three years is a long time to be away from her husband, and she’s at the age where it’s either Mars or a child of their own – but not both.

But it’s a decision that is taken out of her hands when the International Aerospace Commission needs the “Lady Astronaut” and all of her perky, positive publicity to go to Mars, to bring the hearts and minds of Earth – as well as the U.S. Congress with their budgetary authority – along for the ride.

No matter how conflicted she is about the whole thing – or how much her crewmates do NOT want her along.

Escape Rating A+: The Fated Stars was every bit as beautiful, and every single bit as complex and frustrating, as The Calculating Stars. I called the story in the first book, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and they are all still here in all of their complex, human and frequently painful “glory”.

The Lady Astronaut series is alternate history, set in the 1950s and now in the early 1960s. The constant drumbeat of draining, wearing, annoying, disgusting sexism and misogyny that Elma faces at every turn will make any woman grit their teeth, scream in exasperation and roll their eyes in sympathy all at the same time. (Try it, it hurts). It also feels entirely realistic. The 1950s were awful for women. And the racism was even worse, and deadlier. The 1950s really were like that, and through Elma’s eyes we feel it and see it. We also see her struggle to grasp just how truly pervasive and horrible the racism was, because she CAN ignore it and sometimes does – and then hates herself afterwards for doing so.

At the same time, when the realization does slap her upside the head, she also wonders where those racists would put her. She looks white. But she is a Jew, and at least some of the people who hate and fear anyone non-white, include her among the people they hate. The calculus of that question is one that I am all too familiar with. It was one of the many ways I found it so very easy to get inside Elma’s head.

Which is good, because we spend the entire book inside Elma’s head. This is her story – her hopes, her fears, her dreams and her nightmares. Her desperate loneliness and need to belong, while knowing that she left everyone she belongs to and who belongs to her back on Earth. The longing in her voice is marvelously captured by the narrator of the audio, who in this case is also the author. We’re in her head and we feel with her.

The story of the actual expedition, the “intrepid explorers” cut off from home and planet, reminded me a great deal To Be Taught, If Fortunate. Particularly in the way that the group feels cut off from Earth even before (and after) they actually are, and in the ways that the small crew both does and does not bind together into a unit wrapped around their mission. Taught also does the same excellent job of telling a story of big science and remote discovery and putting it into a very human scale.

There was also a lovely bit of life imitates art imitates life circularity. In the story, Gene Roddenberry is inspired by black astronaut Florence Grey to create the character of Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek, which he still produces in this alternate universe. In real life, Uhura inspired Mae Jemison to become the first black woman astronaut.

But what carries the story, at least for this reader, is the way that it takes its huge scientific story and makes it real and easy to identify with. I can feel Elma’s joy of discovery, her fear of failure, her love of complex calculations and her need to make a difference. I can participate in her love of science and her mastery of its complexity without needing to understand the details of that science. I’m in her head and I feel like I’m in her shoes. Or her Mars boots, as the case may be.

Just as with The Calculating Stars, I’m trying to keep from squeeing and I’m failing. Happily and miserably.

I loved The Fated Sky every bit as much as I did The Calculating Stars. And I can’t wait for The Relentless Moon, coming in July. And I’m hoping that the author will return for another turn behind the narrator’s microphone, because she’s just awesome at it.

Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette KowalThe Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut, #1) by Mary Robinette Kowal
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, science fiction
Series: Lady Astronaut #1
Pages: 431
Published by Tor Books on July 3, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

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.

My Review:

This was one of those times when I had to put off writing my review for a few days after finishing the book so that I could tone down the squeeing and be halfway coherent. And I’m still not sure I’m going to manage it.

The Calculating Stars is enthralling, exhilarating and infuriating, sometimes in equal measure. And those are three things that are just not meant to go together. But this time they absolutely do.

There are three, let’s call them prongs, to this story. Or themes. Or threads. They happen simultaneously and are completely interwoven, but there are three of them just the same.

The first is the very big bang that sets off the entire story. It’s 1952 and Drs. Nathaniel and Elma York are vacationing in the Poconos when they witness, from a barely safe enough distance, a meteor crashing into the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. Somewhere near DC.

It turns out to be the Chesapeake Bay, or thereabouts. And thereby lies the crux of the matter. Because the meteor strikes water and not land. Which initially is thought to be better – for extremely select definitions of better – but is actually much, much worse than a land strike.

As Elma York flies herself and her husband inland to someplace where there might still be “civilization” or at least safety, she begins the calculations. That’s what she does, she’s a mathematics genius who can do most of the work in her head.

And the results, eventually confirmed by climatologists and meteorologists around the world, is chilling in its results. That water strike was an extinction-level event. Like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Except that human beings are capable of figuring out what is coming. The question, throughout the book, is whether they are capable of mustering the political will to do something about it, before it is too late.

And that is the heart of this marvelous book – and where human beings show both the best and worst sides of themselves – often at the same time.

Nathaniel York is an engineer. He and Elma were both employed by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA. Nathaniel is the leading survivor of NACA’s engineering team, and finds himself the lead engineer for everything that comes next.

Elma is a computer. In the 1950s, computers were women and not machines, as has been detailed in several recent nonfiction books about the period, notably Hidden Figures and The Rise of the Rocket Girls.

But it’s the 1950s, and Elma’s mathematical genius, wartime pilot experience as a WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilot) and not just one but two Ph.Ds, is initially completely ignored by the men running the show. Even though it was her calculations that determined the scope of the disaster.

The response to the disaster is the second prong of this story. Earth is going to go through a brief but survivable mini-ice age and then the temperatures are going to start rising. The water thrown up by the meteor strike is going to kick off a runaway greenhouse effect. In a century or so, the seas are going to boil away.

The only way out is off. Human beings need to find another basket in which to put our eggs. We have to get off this rock before it’s too late. The second prong of the story is the development of the space program a decade before it happened in our history, and under much more desperate conditions.

The third prong of the story relates to the way that Elma’s contributions are ignored, because it comes back to the fact that the general population in the 1950s had terribly misogynistic views about women, and terribly racist views about anyone who wasn’t white. And that’s combined with the usual human problems of not being willing to think in the long term when current conditions seem pretty good for their individual perspective – think of current reactions to climate change to see how that part works.

The story is told from Elma’s educated, intelligent, informed perspective as she is forced to deal with a whole bunch of men who either hate her for her achievements, disbelieve her because she is female, or both, and will do anything to keep her down and out because her existence and perseverance upsets their worldview.

We are with her every step of the way as she is forced to cajole, accommodate, hope, fear, pray and scream as she pushes or sidles her way into the halls of power – and into the stars.

Escape Rating A+: In my head, I’ve labeled those three plot threads as “the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” – complete with theme music. Do not mistake me, that rating is for real, this book is utterly awesome from beginning to end. And the audio is fantastic and amazing and read by the author. Which is even more amazing. The only author I’ve ever listened to who is half this good as a narrator is Neil Gaiman.

But those prongs of the story, they definitely fit the theme. The initial meteor strike is the Bad. Very, very bad. There really isn’t a way to think of an extinction-level event as good, after all. The sheer number of people who are wiped out in that instant should defy imagination – and it does. At the same time, the author does a fantastic job of personalizing all of the attendant grief through Elma’s reactions. Her family, her parents and grandparents, and pretty much everyone she knew or worked with, is gone in an instant. Her grief is heart-felt and utterly heartbreaking.

The space program is the Good part of the equation. Not that some of the details of how that sausage gets made don’t dive into the Ugly, but the concept and overall progression of the space program were very good. So good that it made me cry when we see all the emotions in Elma’s head and heart when she attends a launch with her great-aunt. (In the end Elma does discover that she has two surviving family members besides her husband. And her commingled joy and grief at those discoveries is beautiful.)

But there’s plenty of ugliness in this story, and it’s that ugliness that makes the reader want to scream. Or at least this reader.

This story takes place in an alternate 1950s. Sexism and racism were at a high-water mark during that decade, which resulted in the cultural upheavals of the 1960s in real history. In this story, it’s all on display, and it’s ugly right down to the bone. Not just in the way that Blacks are treated when they are present in the narrative – and they definitely are – but also the way that political forces try to use the terrible circumstances to literally remove them from that narrative. And the ways that they fight back. That part of the story sent chills up my spine both in its verisimilitude and its portrayal of an entire society’s callous disregard for millions of people due to the color of their skin.

And, because the story is told through Elma’s perspective, we feel every time she is ignored or set aside or deliberately blocked from achieving her dreams as a body blow. I wanted to reach through the book and knock some sense into many, many of the male characters. Most of them deserve a good swift kick where it would hurt the most.

Elma’s husband Nathaniel, however, is a complete mensch. Mensch is a Yiddish term of high compliment, implying just how truly good that person is.

It also signifies something that is a kind of underlying thread through this entire story. Elma and Nathaniel are Jewish. And it matters. To others it may not be that big of a deal, but for me it mattered so much. In Elma’s use of occasional Yiddish, the way that she sat Shiva and mourned for all of the family that she had lost, her desire to be a bit more observant in the wake of both the Holocaust and the ongoing tragedy, I more than felt for her. I felt part of her. I felt heard and represented at a very deep level.

The way that I was drawn into her story because she represented me in a way that most characters do not gave me a new appreciation for the power of representation in literature and the arts. It made me appreciate the Cuban heritage of Eva Innocente in Chilling Effect because I knew that if Elma made me feel represented in The Calculating Stars, then Eva gave those exact same feels to the LatinX women that she represents while telling her own marvelous story.

But the story of the Lady Astronaut has barely begun when The Calculating Stars ends. The Fated Sky continues Elma’s journey and is already out. A parallel story, The Relentless Moon, will be released next summer. I can’t wait to see just how far Elma goes, and how she manages to get there.

There’s a reason that The Calculating Stars won the Hugo Award for Best Novel this year. Take flight with the Lady Astronaut and see for yourself.