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Return to an alternate history space race with two new Lady Astronaut novels

Mary Robinette Kowal returns with more books about a world where a catalysmic meteor sends humanity racing towards the stars

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After signing a six-figure deal with Tor Books, author Mary Robinette Kowal will expand to her Lady Astronaut series over the next several years with two new novels, The Relentless Moon and The Derivative Base, as well as a standalone sci-fi murder mystery novel, The Spare Man. The new Lady Astronaut titles will join this summer’s fantastic The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky, which followed pilot and mathematician Elma York through an alternate history 1950s space race aimed at sending humanity to off-world colonies after an extinction-level asteroid strike on Earth. The Relentless Moon is expected to drop in 2020, with The Spare Man to follow in 2021, and The Derivative Base in 2022.

Both novels are set in the “punch-card-punk” world that Kowal established in her 2013 novelette, “The Lady Astronaut of Mars.” The Calculating Stars begins in 1953, as the asteroid lands off of Washington, DC, devastating the US East Coast. York and her colleagues quickly realize that the incident has started a chain reaction that will change the climate of the Earth in decades, making it inhospitable to human life. In response, a coalition of nations forms the International Aerospace Coalition (IAC), which works to first reach space, and then figure out how to live there.

Along the way, York and her friends face numerous issues: sexism and racism prevent them from taking part, and over the two books, Kowal details their efforts to overcome the entrenched attitudes that hold them back as they travel first to the Moon, and then to Mars. As Kowal works to expand this world even further, The Verge spoke with her about readers can expect.

Your Lady Astronaut novels were an outgrowth of your original novelette, “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” originally published in 2013. When you completed that story, what lead you to develop and expand this world?

The backstory of the novelette kept picking at my brain. I... kept imagining what it would have been like to survive that [meteor strike]. I mean, there’s a ton of stories in that world that are just itching to be told. And then there was Elma, the titular Lady Astronaut of Mars. I knew some things about her as a young woman because of the structure of the novelette, and my narrative brain wouldn’t let go. In order to be an astronaut, you have to be extraordinary. In order to become an astronaut as a woman in the 1950s, Elma would have to have been pretty darn special and would have faced enormous societal pressure as she stepped out of a traditional housewife role. 

One of the things I’ve appreciated about your career as a novelist is that your works are strongly informed by the past: your Glamourist Histories are set during England’s Regency Era, Ghost Talkers during the first world war, and while these are science fiction, they’re set in an alternate past. What about history is so appealing to you? 

There’s that aphorism, “History repeats itself.” A side effect of that is a certain resonance between historical events and modern concerns. Setting something in a historical period allows for an emotional remove from fraught topics. For instance, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792 in which she argues for equal rights for women.

“Setting something in a historical period allows for an emotional remove from fraught topics”

While many of the behaviors she was fighting against have shifted — yay for women being allowed in university — the underlying systemic attitudes are still creating problems today. So when I write a story set in the Regency, I can talk about feminism without actually talking about feminism. That allows my reader to draw connections to their own experience that are going to be more relevant than any treatise that I could write.

You’ve now signed on for two more Lady Astronaut novels: what can we expect to see from Elma and her friends? 

First up is The Relentless Moon, which takes place while the First Mars Expedition is underway, so it’s a parallel novel to The Fated Sky and focuses on Nicole Wargin and Myrtle Lindholm in the Lunar colony. You can expect everything from church services to bridge parties, which all become more complicated in low gravity. And then a saboteur strikes...

The Derivative Base is back with Elma and Nathaniel on Mars and picks up not long after the end of The Fated Sky as they work with the new colonists to build a home on the planet. With that, you can expect to see frontier town issues on Mars, including prospecting for water, improvised engineering, and when things go wrong... which of course they will because it’s a novel, they only have eight days to try to solve it before the launch window to abort and return to Earth closes.

The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky each addressed issues of systemic sexism and racism. How will you continue to explore these issues in The Relentless Moon and The Derivative Base

That’s an interesting question, because I don’t feel like I addressed the issues so much as just didn’t ignore them. Systemic sexism and racism is baked into our society and seems especially noticeable to a modern audience when looking at something like the 1950s. But for the people living in that time period, everything was just... normal. Annoying, yes. Harmful, yes. But it was also a sort of constant background radiation.

Both forthcoming Lady Astronaut novels will continue to address systemic sexism and racism

So those issues will continue to play out in both new novels. But in The Relentless Moon we’re also going to get the question of the accessibility of space. With current technology, the G-forces are such that a lot of people wouldn’t survive the trip into orbit. High blood pressure. Heart disease. Asthma. What happens when you are trying to establish a permanent settlement knowing that you’re leaving family behind on a dying planet? 

In The Derivative Base, again, those issues of systemic sexism and racism are there as well. Specifically, I’ve got a character who is loosely based on Ola Mildred Rexroat, who was the only Native woman in the WASPs in WWII. (The real pilot was a badass — she towed the planes that were used as target practice by the fighter pilots. Women couldn’t fly combat, but it was apparently okay if it was our guys shooting at you.)

My fictional version of her objects to calling Bradbury Base a “colony” because words have power, and she doesn’t want to import those problems from Earth. Meanwhile, there are also cultural things that people do want to import which get complicated because it’s Mars, like... how do you have a minyan when there aren’t ten Jewish men on the planet? If everyone speaks a common tongue, languages will die, taking cultures with them. How do you manage that?

Climate change was a big focus in the two novels as well, as well as the skeptical reaction to it, something that feels very relevant today. What do you hope readers will take away from reading this series?

Mostly that, as individuals, we can make different choices. Look: Alexander Graham Bell worried that unrestricted burning of fossil fuels “would have a sort of greenhouse effect.” This is in 1917, and he worried about that because we’d known the effect of “greenhouse gases” in trapping heat since the 1850s.

We talk a lot about the oceans rising and storm patterns getting worse, but how many of us actually make a change in lifestyle on a personal level? It’s true that a single individual taking the bus is not going to affect the climate, but it’s easy to use that as an excuse to feel okay about not giving stuff up. In World War II, victory gardens and recycling made a huge difference because it was done nationwide. War is an immediate peril. Climate change is a someday peril, but slow disasters are still disasters.

“Climate change is a someday peril, but slow disasters are still disasters”

You’ve written a handful of shorter stories set in the same world: how are you using short fiction to experiment with ideas in this larger sandbox?

Short fiction allows me to shift the focus to other characters so we get a look at how the larger world is changing after The Meteor. Plus I feel free to play up and down the timeline of the Lady Astronaut universe. There are so many stories that I want to tell in this world. Like... there’s a Girl Scout troop in The Calculating Stars that is spelunking when The Meteor hits. They come up and everything is just... gone. I refer to them in passing in the novel, but I want to dig into that.

Your Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction story “The Phobos Experience” feels like one of those things you were able to dig into... Is it safe to say that that ties in a bit with these upcoming books?

It’s farther forward in the timeline, but astute readers will note that the last name of the geologist in “The Phobos Experience” is Lindholm. That’s all I’m going to say about that at this time. La, la, la...

The Lady Astronaut series feels as though it’s a huge sandbox: what plans do you have for it, long-term? 

When my editor asked me if I wanted to write any other books, I handed her a list of seven different novels. There’s a novel that I want to write about Rachel and Thomas, Elma’s niblings, and the effort to get a lander onto Venus. I want to write a novel that takes place after “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” and follows Elma to the new planet. There’s a middle-grade novel about the first kids on the Moon. More immediately, I’m writing a novella which follows that Girl Scout troop I mentioned earlier.

You’re also planning on writing another science fiction novel: what can you tell me about that? 

It’s basically The Thin Man in space. With all the glittering banter of 1930s noir, this novel takes class, privilege, and identity theft and wraps them inside a murder mystery. Tesla Crane, heiress to the Crane fortune, and Shalmanseer Steward, a retired private detective, are on their honeymoon cruise from Earth to Mars. When Shal is framed for murder, Tesla has to find the murderer before they try to silence her husband. And yes, for fans of the Myrna Loy and William Powell black and white films, Tesla and Shal do have a dog. Named Astra. Like, seriously, I am not kidding when I say that this is The Thin Man in space.