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The Lady Astronaut novels are an enthralling alternate history of the space race

The books might be set in an alternate past, but they’re cutting-edge SF novels that speak volumes about the present

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In 2013, Mary Robinette Kowal published a story in an audio anthology called “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” introducing what she described as “punch card punk” science fiction: a story of space exploration with all the trappings of the Apollo program. This summer, she’s added to that world with two new novels: The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky.

The novels play out in a breathtaking alternate world where humanity must establish a foothold off-world after an asteroid devastates Earth. While that world-ending scenario sets the stage, it’s the underlying social issues that arise in the aftermath, from race relations to gender equality, that really drive the plot. The resulting duology is an enthralling read that’s pressingly relevant in 2018.

Spoilers ahead for both novels.

Image: Tor Books

The Calculating Stars (read an excerpt here) begins in 1953. Emma York and her husband Nathaniel are enjoying a weekend in the Poconos when an asteroid crashes just off the coast of Washington, DC, wiping out much of the East Coast. Nathaniel is a scientist who worked on rockets for the US government, while Elma is a mathematician who served as a WASP during the Second World War.

As they (and the remains of the government) take stock of the devastation, they conclude that Earth has likely experienced an extinction-level event. Global temperatures will plummet in the years ahead, before rising again to unsurvivable levels. To ensure that humanity doesn’t go extinct, the world unites and founds a scientific group called the International Aerospace Coalition (IAC), which begins a massive effort to reach space and then learn to live on the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

Kowal creates an alternate space race that’s running not against the Soviet Union (which collapsed due to famine in this history), but against the coming changes in the Earth’s climate. IAC selects its first astronauts and begins to take the necessary steps to bring them into space, first launching them into orbit, and then taking them through more complicated missions as they go to the Moon. Nathaniel oversees the technical development of the program, while Elma watches from the sidelines, her frustration growing.

Many of the arguments in Kowal’s alternate space race echo real-world examples

As that international moonshot ramps up, Elma and her friends — all well-qualified pilots — are shut out of the all-male astronaut selection process. Space is dangerous, they’re told; it’s no place for women. They reason that any effort to colonize space will require women, but the argument falls on deaf ears, leaving them to work as computers and in administration.

This gender segregation echoes NASA’s policies during the real space race, when women and minorities were shut out of the program over fears of how it would play with the public. Those stories of exclusion have recently played out in films such as Hidden Figures and the documentary Mercury 13, and they tarnish the triumphant achievements the US made in the 1960s.

While it took decades for the US to send a woman to space in our world, however, Elma accelerates the timeline in Kowal’s alternate history. She’s a driven character who recognizes the enormity of the problem: systemic sexism and racism that’s embedded into society. And she successfully leads a campaign to get women into the IAC’s astronaut program using publicity stunts like an all-female airshow.

That change doesn’t come easily. Elma faces indifferent or hostile superiors, colleagues, and press. She’s working to end the IAC’s racial segregation as well, but not without her own stumbles and biases. She struggles to deal with the pressure and fame that’s been thrust upon her. Even beyond the pressure of saving humanity, she endures crippling anxiety based on her experiences as the smartest kid in the classroom as a child, where she was used as a tool or a prop by her teachers to encourage her less-motivated male counterparts.

Elma fights to end the IAC’s gender and racial segregation, but she has her own stumbles

Elma and others drive home the need for women to be a part of the space program early on: after all, they’ll be needed if humanity wants to expand off of Earth. But while the world slowly adjusts to the asteroid impact and begins to move on, people begin to wonder if they really need a space program. After all, the climate isn’t changing all that quickly. Kowal neatly borrows the arguments of modern climate change deniers to throw barriers in the way of the space program, which Elma contends with as she works to change the attitudes of the astronaut corps.

Elma’s actions and drive make for an enthralling adventure as she fights to become the “Lady Astronaut” that she’s made out to be in the press. The Calculating Stars is a gripping read that I couldn’t put down. I blew through the entire 400-page novel in a single sitting as I followed her from Earth to orbit, laughing, crying, and cheering for her along the way as she struggles to move the needle forward.

Image: Tor Books

The Fated Sky picks up a couple of years after the events of The Calculating Stars. York and her companions are now experienced astronauts, and the IAC has established a base on the Moon. But getting to the Moon is just the first step toward a bigger goal: establishing a colony on Mars. That’s the focus of this novel, as York is assigned to the upcoming Martian mission, along with 13 other astronauts of various nationalities, who will set up the first outpost.

While the two novels are linked by characters and circumstance, they’re both very different in tone. The Calculating Stars is akin to Hidden Figures, but The Fated Sky feels a bit more like The Martian or Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars. Kowal takes her readers along with the would-be colonists as they make their long, slow ride to the Red Planet, exploring the technical details for such a mission.

Certainly, this is territory trodden by numerous science fiction authors who have come before — Meg Howrey’s 2017 novel The Wanderers comes to mind — but Kowal throws another spin on it, examining how a mixed-gender, multiracial crew would work together in an era of stark inequality. And, as before, there’s considerable tension. With a smaller group of characters, Kowal deftly plays through the friction that arises between crew members, and forces them to confront their own hangups as they speed toward Mars. A South African crew member takes pointed, racist jabs at his non-white counterparts, and York must work with a commander who previously told her women couldn’t handle spaceflight. The journey to Mars isn’t just one to a distant planet, it’s a look at how people learn and overcome their own privileged view of the world.

That attention to characterization results in a wholly realistic and vulnerable character

Kowal’s attention to characterization results in a wholly realistic and vulnerable character who grows over the course of The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky, which makes both novels delights to read. The Elma York that we first meet isn’t the same character we see decades later in “The Lady Astronaut of Mars.” She’s grown and matured, and that learning process isn’t an easy one. But it’s also clear that Kowal spent the time poring over the finer technical and scientific details. Just as rocket scientists have said that we could go to Mars right now if we had the money and political will, everything in this book feels like a look at a world that might have been had NASA not canceled its Apollo 18 mission and continued on the track that the Apollo program seemed to lead to: Mars.

Hopefully, there’ll be more installments to come. Kowal sets up a vast potential for a larger literary universe, and she has already begun fleshing it out with a handful of shorter stories, such as “The Phobos Experience,” which appeared in the July / August issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; “Rockets Red” in the January 2016 in F&SF;We Interrupt this Broadcast,” and “Amara’s Giraffe.”

These two novels and handful of short stories feel like a glorious look at “what if,” with all the technical and scientific detail that delighted readers of The Martian, accompanied by the social progress that we could have reached. The Lady Astronaut series might be set in an alternate past, but they’re cutting-edge SF novels that speak volumes about the present.