The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: TOR Books
Series: Lady Astronaut #1
Format: Paperback
Genre: SF | Alt History


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.


The opening to THE CALCULATING STARS is the star of this novel, and in a page-turning, spectacular, world-ending way. The Eastern seaboard of the continental US has just been taken out by a large meteorite, life as we know it is about to go through the wringer before it gets so hot, life becomes extinct. The world is collapsing into chaos and yet … 

And yet, the only mention we get of all this impending doom, comes as news segments at the start of each chapter. Which tells you all you need to know about how slow the pacing of the plot is. There is very little in the way of action and only two set pieces that come mid way through. 

What plot we are given is focused on Elma York, and her rocket engineer husband, Nathaniel York. Who we learn are Jewish, drink a lot of martinis, and seem to be there purely as vehicles so the themes of racism and bias can be explored ad nauseum. Never mind Elma’s anxiety issues, which hamper her throughout the narrative, are harped on about, but never fully explained. So much so, that the character becomes irritating rather than one in need of our sympathy.  

All of this makes the story feel too rehearsed and lacking emotional connection to the extent it feels manipulative rather than organic. 

It’s okay to explore a wide range of issues within context, but it would be better served without the sledgehammer approach. It’s jarring and unnecessary and does nothing to advance what little plot there is.

I think part of the problem stems from the fact Kowal tried to cram too much into this slow-paced novel, which is neither that much of an alternative history, nor a cracking good SF read. This could well have been done in a contemporary setting, and worked better. 

In the end, THE CALCULATING STARS is a little too heavy-handed and slow paced to be an enjoyable or immersive read.

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