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Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

Updated: Mar 2, 2021

Reviewed by Max Johansson

As a child, I read just about anything that came my way, but a few things stand out in my memory. Books about aircraft and space exploration were among them, as were atlases and encyclopaedias, but especially near and dear to my heart were some old serial boys’ own adventure novels about pilots and astronauts, written in a time when pilots and astronauts were the newest, most exciting professions imaginable, that I inherited from my grandfather and his brothers. There were the Biggles books by W. E. Johns, and a number of interchangeable American, British and Swedish books, most of whom were probably attempts at imitating them. The ones I remember, though, were the Mike Mars books by Donald A. Wollheim, in which a young US Air Force pilot and his slightly stereotypical Native American sidekick go through training in a hyper-realistic (well, to my child self at least) Mercury-era astronaut programme while dealing with various plots against their success.

So I was not a little bit excited when I found out that this year’s Nebula Award for Best Novel went to an author who’d clearly read at least some of the same books as me. And when I started reading it and figured out it was also alternate history, well… the review you’re reading happened.

The Calculating Stars begins in 1952, but it’s already a somewhat different 1952. Thomas Dewey is President, Operation Paperclip went through faster than in our world, and Wernher von Braun has just masterminded the first US satellite launch. Then, one March morning, a giant meteorite crashes into Washington, D.C. Millions die, entire cities are flattened, and the United States descends into chaos. But that’s not the worst part. The force of the impact generates enough heat that all of Chesapeake Bay boils off, releasing huge amounts of water vapour into the air and causing runaway global warming. Within a generation or two, the Earth will be uninhabitable.

But the world catches a break when Dr. Nathaniel York, head engineer and public face of the aforementioned satellite launch, narrowly escapes death and gets to safety at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where he, the Secretary of Agriculture (who’s now Acting President), the Air Force and the UN hatch a plan. Shortly thereafter, the International Aerospace Coalition (IAC) is formed. Humanity is reaching for the stars.

But the book isn’t about Dr. York – well, not that Dr. York. It’s about his wife, Dr. Elma York, mathematician, IAC computer and former Woman Airforce Service Pilot (WASP). As a skilled pilot and a scientist with experience in orbital mechanics, she dreams of becoming one of the IAC’s first astronauts. Of course, this is still the 1950s, alternate history or no. So it’s an uphill struggle for Elma, as institutional resistance, sexist superiors, public scepticism, and her own inner flaws all conspire against her. But as they’re all about to find out, Elma York is a force of nature.

The female half of the space programme traditionally gets left out, as crucial as it was – in recent years, we’ve seen this partly made up for by works such as Hidden Figures, and Kowal works in a similar tradition to them. The computing department at the IAC, the WASPs and the Ninety-Nines (the women’s piloting club, co-founded by Amelia Earhart, of which Elma York is a member) are all depicted with painstaking realism, and throughout the book, we see glimpses of wider American society, some parts changed by the meteorite impact and others entirely real. Elma York’s 1950s may not be our 1950s, but they feel more than enough like our 1950s.

So that’s The Calculating Stars as a scenario, as science fiction and as women’s history. But how does it hold up as alternate history?

Well, as mentioned, the actual point of divergence is Dewey actually defeating Truman in 1948. In the afterword, Kowal notes that this was mostly done so that von Braun’s ideas would be picked up in time for the meteorite strike, and the meteorite strike was in turn timed the way it was partly so that the US can go to the Moon and Mars in a time before mechanical computers (she refers to the setting as “punchcard-punk”), and partly to avoid having to retcon already-published short stories set in the same universe.

Dewey apparently runs something of a unity administration, because Truman’s Secretary of Agriculture, Charles F. Brannan, remains in office. A Quaker, a Coloradan and an ardent New Dealer, Brannan turns out to be suited to a time of radical change and reconstruction. He moves the capital to Kansas City, where the “New Capitol” and “New White House” are built, partly below-ground, to house the federal government. Sunflower Ordnance Works, just west of the city, houses the IAC, whose membership includes all NATO states (and their colonies) plus Brazil, Spain, Taiwan and possibly a few more countries. Basically the whole Western Bloc of the Cold War.

The Eastern Bloc, meanwhile, fails to withstand the double shock of Stalin’s death and the meteorite winter. Russia is mentioned as an independent state, as is Serbia. So there’s no actual Cold War to speed things along here, which means the dynamic is a bit different. The space programme is subject to heavy scepticism from US politicians, but still goes on with much greater ferocity than in our world.

The first man goes to space by 1957, and the first manned lunar landing happens in July 1958. The second book in the series begins in 1961, at which point there’s a permanent lunar settlement, and… now I’m getting ahead of myself.

If you hadn’t guessed it by now, The Calculating Stars takes inspiration from those same works of the space age I read as a child, and have gone on to read as a man-like creature. Nathaniel York gets his name from Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, which gets an oblique mention in the book, and the Apollo 11 crew get a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo toward the end. And of course, Wernher von Braun’s Mars: A Technical Novel gets called out by Kowal in the afterword as a major source of information on early space programme planning. Von Braun, too, appears very briefly at the back of a meeting room, causing the Jewish Elma York to just about succeed in holding back her disgust.

Overall, the world feels like a mixture of the forward-looking, science-worshipping 1950s and the “United Nations Fight for Freedom” aspects of World War II. The Space Race as we know it may not be on, but a global emergency is, and the world is banding together to fight it just as it did the Nazi menace. (Well, except for “Red China”, which is mentioned as trying to launch a rival space programme – maybe we’ll see a bit of Space Race action after all as the series goes on.)

Is this how it would happen? Would a relatively slow-acting climate emergency be treated as a global threat and would the world band together to deal with it? The currently-ongoing climate crisis seems to be saying a big fat “no” to that, but given that Kowal’s global warming crisis is preceded by a lethal meteorite strike and comes on the heels of history’s deadliest war, it’s not outside my suspension of disbelief. Besides, it would be a very dull novel if they just said “no” and stayed on Earth as it slowly boiled under their feet.



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