I was so eager to read this when it came out, and then somehow it slipped further and further down the pile. Finally, with Hugo voting coming up, it was time! And I devoured it in a day. The Calculating Stars is an alternate history wherein, after a meteorite large enough to wipe out most of the East Coast of the US strikes, the space program is dramatically accelerated, with one chief aim: a colony on the Moon. It’s an extinction-level disaster, with a good chance of leading to the world’s oceans boiling, and in the center of this is Elma York. She survives the initial strike, along with her husband, and returns to her work as a computer, easily winning her way into working for the space program. But she has a bigger dream: she was a WASP pilot, and she wants to become an astronaut.
I love the way that throughout this book, her relationship with her husband is rock solid. He seems like a pretty great guy, and between them they make a formidable team — even when sometimes (like Kowal’s other protagonists in the Glamourist Histories) they have to work on their relationship. (Actually, there’s something a little idealised about Kowal’s leading couples, to me, and it’s partly because they always seem to work through their issues. It’s lovely! There needs to be more of it in fiction! But it feels weirdly unexpected.) I also love that they’re Jewish, because that shapes some of their responses to people, and that Elma suffers from fairly intense anxiety, because a) representation and b) it makes her relatable. And I do enjoy the way that Elma is repeatedly forced to confront that there are people just as good as her being blocked from the space program because they’re black, and the way she uncomfortably and conflictedly tries to deal with it.
I also really enjoyed the slight nuances about a character who is pretty unlikeable: Parker. He’s a sexist pain in the butt, and yet he has his moments where you see the humanity in him. I was surprisingly invested in wanting to know what happened to him, and between him and Elma. There’s also Betty, who is in some ways unlikeable and yet you can also see why she does what she does.
Finally, let’s talk about the magic system. People being able to compute those numbers in their head? Ha! Totally unrealistic… (Note: this is a joke. I do not actually think it is magic. It is possible, it just feels magical to me.)
It’s amazing how fast 400 pages can whip by: there was something joyous about Elma’s achievements and this whole story, as well as more quietly in her relationship with her husband, and I’m very much looking forward to where the second book goes. I’m not entirely sure about giving this five stars, but then the rate I whipped through it speaks for itself. I don’t think I have any genuine quibbles, so… there we go.