By Matthew Kresal
Space flight, both human and robotic, offers up a rich vein for practitioners of alternate history to mine stories. There are, after all, decade's worth of unrealized plans and concepts that could have pushed the people and technology of times gone by toward other worlds. Be it a post-Apollo NASA striving for Mars in Stephen Baxter's Voyage or the Space Race of the sixties extending into the seventies and eighties in Apple TV's For All Mankind. Or, as is the premise of Mary Robinette Kowal's Hugo and Nebula Award-winning Lady Astronaut series, finding a new home for humanity itself. The Fated Sky, published in 2018, carries on the story that began in the award-winning The Calculating Stars and the universe created in her 2014 short story that gave the series its name.
My fellow SLP blog writer Max Johansson reviewed the original novel on the blog two years ago, but it's worth mentioning the premise of Kowal's series. On the 3rd of March 1952, an asteroid struck off Chesapeake Beach, Maryland (the reasons for this, unknown to the world at large, are detailed in Kowal's 2014 short story We Interrupt This Broadcast, free to read on her website). An impact that not only wipes out President Thomas Dewey and virtually the entire American government but also, despite being in the ocean, created a chain of events that will render the Earth uninhabitable in a matter of decades. Imagine a step further that, due to a bit more foresight by the American government, we were already placing satellites in orbit, and an accelerated space program follows the impact to save as much of humanity as possible. The Calculating Stars covered from 1952 to 1958 as Dr. Elma York, a human-computer and former WASP pilot during World War II, goes on a journey that begins with surviving the impact and becoming the titular Lady Astronaut.
As Kowal explained in the acknowledgments of The Calculating Stars, these two books started life as a single volume. The resulting works are a duology, and it's both her and my recommendation that Fated Sky not be read without having the first book as context. That said, Kowal quickly brings readers up to speed on those couple of years between the two novels. Much has happened since the end of that novel, including establishing Artemis Base on the Moon and the International Aerospace Coalition (IAC) beginning construction of the Mars craft. Tensions, though, are rising back on the ground as the Earth First movement gathers strength and the issues familiar to those knowledgeable of the OTL sixties playout. Meanwhile, Elma faces a decision about her future when asked to join IAC's Mars mission, partly due to her PR value as much as her actual skills. And that's before the eventual crews finally head off toward the Red Planet, a journey as fraught and dangerous as space flight enthusiasts would expect.
In some ways, perhaps due to the duology nature of the two novels, Fated Sky feels as though it's making use of the world-building from the earlier book. The novel's opening, in which an IAC capsule goes off-course, and its crew (York included) find themselves held hostage by opportunistic Earth Firsters, is a prime example of that. While opposition to the space program appears in The Calculating Stars but mostly in passing (minus a single scene), here it's more to the fore, both in the opening chapters and as a running theme as those in opposition go from protests to other actions. What the Earth First actions lead to feels initially like an underdeveloped plot point late in the novel, though Kowal would come around to exploring with the sidequel The Relentless Moon (released in 2020), focusing on Lady Astronaut Nicole Wargin.
Elsewhere, while the first novel also tackled the sexism and racism of the fifties, Kowal puts perhaps a heavier emphasis on it here, especially as apartheid South Africa becomes an increasingly significant player in IAC's funding. How an accelerated space program existing in the Civil Rights era and how York, with her background, in particular, deals with those issues makes for some of the novel's most thoughtful reading. Together, they also add a human aspect often missing from discussions (factual and fictional) of spaceflight and its role in society.
Like its predecessor, The Fated Sky is part of a sub-genre Kowal calls punchcard punk but fits into what is typically labeled atompunk. Essentially, imagine steampunk but with the technology and fashions of the mid-twentieth century. In portraying both Artemis Base and the eventual journey to Mars, Kowal deftly manages to combine the ideas of the sixties (and earlier, as she draws upon Wernher von Braun's Project Mars: A Technical Tale) with the things we've learned about spaceflight since then. The amount of research and consultation that Kowal put into is apparent from discussions of trajectories to space hardware, the psychology of long-duration spaceflight, and various sensory details, all aiding to make the tale at once compelling and utterly convincing.
Another carryover from Calculating Stars is its first-person perspective. Told by Elma York, a Jewish woman from the American south, she certainly isn't the typical protagonist typically thought of with alternate history. Indeed, given her position, it might be tempting to think of her as a stand-in for Kowal herself. She's more than that and far from a perfect person, as the Kowal explores through Elma's relationships with her husband, various astronauts, and Mars mission commander Colonel Stetson Parker. Indeed, she has a secret of her own, that she suffers from a social anxiety disorder, which makes her being put in the spotlight so frequently all the more challenging. Through York, we see this world both as it is and could be and both the awe-inspiring and mundane aspects of spaceflight. York remains a compelling protagonist who makes the story come to life in sometimes vivid terms.
The Fated Sky is a worthy follow-up to The Calculating Stars. Kowal not only continues the narrative but explores new facets of the world, exploring her alternate history and its ramifications without losing sight of the space-centric story she's telling. We may not have gone to Mars either post-Apollo, let alone earlier, but by the time you've read The Fated Sky, Kowal will have you believe that we could have.