I have never cheered as hard whilst reading a book as I did when Elma York is sitting in the capsule and is launched into space, on her way to the Moon.
Cheered and cried to be honest with you. Elma’s journey is heartbreaking, frustrating, disappointing, hilarious, filled with heart, and joyful.
How can it be all of those seemingly contradictory things?
It comes down to Robinette Kowal and her incredible ability to create some of the most realistic characters I have ever read.
But first let me fill you in on the world that Kowal builds. The Calculating Stars is alternate scifi history. In the 50s a meteorite strikes the east coast of America and the resulting environmental effects are essentially going to make Earth uninhabitable.
Enter Elma York.
You love Elma. You love her when she stands up for herself and others in the face of 1950s (and today, let’s be honest) misogyny. You love her when she puts the opinions of other people ahead of her own, despite her being right. You love her when she views herself as fragile, as weak, even though you know she is neither of those things. You love Elma when she is right, when she is wrong, when she is frustrating and when she is hilarious.
She is the heart of this novel and what a heart it is. Elma York has more depth than the entire cast of some novels and as you travel with her through this period of her life you get to know her inside and out.
But she isn’t the only character in the novel, she is the main one, sure, but every character is thought out and every one is fleshed out.
There’s Elma’s husband, Nathaniel, the supportive, also frustrating and also sometimes pig-headed partner. He is a wonderful character because he is believable. Parker, the antagonist, though it feels reductive to label him as such. As a ‘bad guy’ he is one of the best. Because he is what a lot of men in positions of power would have been like in the 50s. He belittles not just Elma but all women on the basis of gender. He is crass, rude, and seemingly wants nothing more than to see her fail. But Robinette Kowal does that very rare thing and makes him more than a caricature. She turns him into a character, one as complex and with as many layers as Elma herself.
And I would be completely remiss if I didn’t mention the cavalcade of other amazing women that populate the novel. All pilots, all striving for something more than the scraps they are given by the misogynistic society they live in.
Helen, Nicole, Sabiha, Jacira, Betty. All of them are complex in their own way. Not all of them get along with Elma, some do, some don’t. Some do at some points and at other points they seem like the worst of enemies. There’s rivalry and support in equal measures. They aren’t there to tick a box, or fill a gap in the plot. They are characters with depth equal to that of any other in the novel and it shows.
The main thing about the characters in this novel is that they are realistic. These people feel like people you know, or people you’ve heard about from your friends. They are as real as it gets and full credit goes to Robinette Kowal and her ability to achieve that.
This novel is a detailed, technical look at the early history of the space program, through the lens of historical science fiction. Kowal clearly does the work and the details she puts in make the world feel real. It’s also a scathing indictment of the social views at the time. She doesn’t shy away from the fact that there was blatant racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism (among other prejudices accepted at the time) within NASA and the government in the 50s. Kowal brings those to the fore and shakes them in front of the readers face through the lens of Elma and you feel it. You really do.
I don’t have much at all negative to say about The Calculating Stars. I know in a review you might be expected to have balance, this is good, this was bad. But with this novel I find myself coming up short on the bad. Very short. That’s not to say this novel will be for everyone. I’m sure it won’t be- space travel might not interest you. Sexism may not interest you or having topics like that brought up in novels might not be what you read them for. And that’s fair enough, you might not like this book.
But I did. I loved it and that comes down to Robinette Kowal’s skill as a writer.
Oh, and one more thing, if you can listen to the audiobook version of this, I would. Kowal is not only an author but also a voice actor and she narrates the novel. It is wonderfully done and might even be better than reading it.