The Calculating Stars by Marie Robinette Kowal
Publication date: 16 May 2019
Genre: Science fiction
Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
This is a spoiler-free review.
The Calculating Stars seems to be the book that everyone is talking about in the sci-fi world. The winner of the Nebula Award, and probably the winner of many more awards this year, it sounded like the perfect book for me. Lady astronauts, an alternate version of the 1950’s, and smashing the patriarchy with science? Sounds like a brilliant book, right? However, this turned out to be one of the biggest disappointments of the year for me. I’m afraid this will be a very unpopular opinion, as this book is so beloved by the science fiction community.
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.
It has taken me ages to write this review because I’m trying to figure out where The Calculating Stars went wrong for me. I think I’ve identified a few things, many of which will be unpopular opinions, but one of the more obvious ones is that the audiobook narration did the book no favours. I usually love it when authors narrate their own books (hello Emma Newman and Neil Gaiman), however Kowal’s narration did nothing for me. While the book and narration started out strong, Elma’s voice began to feel more and more patronising and condescending by the minute. By the end, I had cranked up the speed to over 2x just so it would be over and done with. I think The Calculating Stars would have benefited from a full cast audiobook, particularly as there are a number of characters of different ethnicities and therefore accents — my god it was so awkward and actually felt a little icky.
Aside from the audiobook troubles, The Calculating Stars would have really benefited from a wider range of point of view characters. We only get Elma’s point of view — I’ll talk about her in a minute — and it felt like there was a lost opportunity for some great additional POV characters. There were so many astonishing women who should have shared the spotlight — particularly Helen, one of the fellow computers. Elma is good at identifying her privilege and biases, something I liked about the story, however her incredibly bland and boring personality and life simply weren’t compelling enough to carry the story. Kowal does a good job of bringing people of colour into the story, why not use them and their amazing stories to diversify the book? I think that The Calculating Stars would have been a whole lot more effective, interesting, and compelling with these other characters.
I think my biggest issue with the book is Elma herself. She’s the exact kind of character I hate cleverly disguised as the exact kind of character I love — I feel betrayed. Elma, otherwise known as Captain Perfect with her perfect husband and their perfect relationship, became very one-note and uninteresting to me very quickly. Although I am happy we got a good, supportive marriage in this book, it made for incredibly boring reading. Her husband was fully supportive of her, which is great, but he basically just nodded and smiled any time she did anything. They’re so vanilla that I can’t even remember his name, which is saying something. You know that couple who wears matching ‘love my boyfriend/girlfriend’ shirts, are never seen apart, and flood your Facebook feed with photos from their joint account? Throw in some toe sucking and horrifyingly cringe astronaut sexual innuendo and you get Elma and her husband. Gross.
I think what it comes down to is the fact that Elma feels fake — she’s not a fully-fleshed out character at all, she’s a cardboard cut-out of what we’re meant to think ‘strong’ female characters are. I prefer my characters to be flawed because it makes them compelling and interesting, and Elma is possibly the least flawed character I’ve ever read. She feels so artificial because I can feel the author waving Elma in my face and shouting ‘look at her! She’s a feminist! She’s sassy! She’s sexually active! She struggles with anxiety! Love her!‘ Even her issues with anxiety — something I suffer from and really enjoy seeing in books — felt like a cold, calculating move to make the reader like her more. In fact, it felt so incredibly fake that I couldn’t take her seriously when she was having her panic attacks, which were basically just stage fright plus a lot of vomiting — I keep saying this but it didn’t feel real. Ultimately, her mental health issues were a bigger conflict in the book than any of the sexism she was battling because it was so much more present in the book, whereas the sexism seemed to crop up whenever the author remembered that it was supposed to be an issue too. And, Elma’s mental health is the main thing that will keep her out of space — she desperately tries to keep it a secret. And you know what? I agree that it should have kept her out of space — thus defeating the entire purpose of the book. Elma York is nothing more than a list of buzzwords thrown together into a character that is whiter and more boring than under cooked rice.
The Calculating Stars was a huge fail for me and I am so upset. I desperately wanted to love this book, and I still love the premise. However, the execution was so poor for me that it actually makes me angry. What should have been an amazing story of kickass women smashing the patriarchy and zipping off to space fell so completely and utterly flat that it was basically impossible to enjoy.
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