Monday, December 31, 2018

Book Review: The Lady Astronaut Series, by Mary Robinette Kowal

This is an admirable pair of alternate history novels that has already earned its place on my favourites list.  So much did I like The Calculating Stars, and its sequel, The Fated Sky, that I read them both in the space of a few weeks.  These are two meaty epic novels that are dependent as much as upon their well-drawn characters as is the plot, and setting.  

The point of divergence occurs in an already alternate 1952, where the United States under President Dewey has managed to loft a satellite into orbit, beating the Soviets in our timeline by five years. However, the big change comes when a giant meteorite slams into the earth off the eastern seaboard of the U.S. not only obliterating Washington, New York City, and other major population centres but has also set in motion a climate disaster that threatens to make the planet uninhabitable.

In order to at least save some part of the human race, the United Nations bands together through the International Aerospace Coalition (IAC) on a crash program of space colonization. The chief protagonist of both books is Elma York, a Second World War WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilot) and mathematician who is the titular Lady Astronaut who almost single-handedly campaigns to have women – of all racial backgrounds – to become astronauts.  It's not easy for her. In the beginning, women are kept firmly planted on the ground, working as “computers” grinding out the equations and formulae that will enable the success of the space missions. Perhaps because of the damage the east coast took in this timeline, or perhaps because manned space flight was jump-started in earnest almost a decade before it was in our time, digital computing which depended on integrated circuits and later, microchips technology was never developed and computers remained those big bulky analog things with vacuum tubes. 

In many ways, the books parallel the struggle of both women and minorities to enter the space program in our own history.  As far back as Project Mercury, accomplished pilots such as Jerrie Cobb were unsuccessfully petitioning to fly into space.  The delicate orbital calculations to put those first astronauts into space were done behind the scenes by women - both black and white.

The Calculating Stars tells the story of the initial meteorite impact and the decision to go to the moon, while The Fated Sky traces the follow-on Mars mission. I won’t go much further for fear of dropping some major spoilers, but I will just mention that in order to make those all-important calculations for the trans-lunar and later trans-Martian injections, someone must be along for the ride. 

I love these books. Both its protagonists and antagonists are not presented as absolutes; they are not perfect but are fleshed-out human beings with their own sets of failings with routes to redemption. In addition, Kowal has done her science right and presents a very plausible and enjoyable alternate history. 

I heartily recommend The Lady Astronaut series. I hope there is more to come.

What’s Next?
I have a couple of projects on the go: I am currently reading the last book written by James Conroy, The Day After Gettysburg, which was published after his death. I hope to have a review on this for you soon.  As well, I will be looking at what I remember as the worst alternate history novel I’ve ever read, 1945, by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen. Does it still earn this label? Have I been too harsh? I will let you know with a review after I’ve read it again.

Finally, as this post will be appearing on New Years’ Eve, 2018, I would like to take some to reflect and express my gratitude to you my readers.  I don’t make any money from ads on this blog – I’ve purposely kept it that way. This is something I do from the heart and for those who I am able to share it with, thank you. For the most part, I also buy my own books for review – if you have a genre book you’d like me to review, please reach out. I’d be happy to hear from you. And finally, I would also like to add my best wishes to each and every one of you for a safe and prosperous 2019.  Good luck to us all.

In the meantime, you can help out a poor unemployed writer by purchasing Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are free to preview). All books -- which are already on Smashword's premium distribution list -- are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Sony, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.  Thanks.