The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal – ★★★★★

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Introductory thoughts (8/22/19)

I just started this, and I am already a quarter of the way through this 400+pg book. There is so much to love.

Let’s start with Mary Robinette Kowal herself. She narrates the audiobook. I am not usually a fan of self narrations. While an author knows better than anyone how they perceive a character expressing a line, I don’t think they’re as effective as (some) professionals (e.g. Stephen King). Kowal is an exception. I was very happy to learn she is a professional narrator. In fact, she is a part of the duo who narrates the Devil and the Deep that I have been reading. That makes transitioning into this story far easier.

The story itself is amazingly engaging. I don’t always like historical fiction because I can get lost in the details (see To Say Nothing of the Dog). Then there are instances where the details are beautifully integrated into the story and around interesting characters (e.g. 11/22/63, one of my favorite books of all time). I also find the concept amazingly intriguing. An asteroid collides with the Earth, hitting right around Washington in the 1950s. Politics aside, it is fascinating to think about the geologic effects of such a real threat. In Calculating Stars, Kowal puts us in a world where an extinction level impact event takes place, altering the course of history. The reality of this situation (an impact event effecting the globe) is all too real. Kowal takes us through the moments of the impact, detailing what distinguishes it between an impact event and an atom bomb. What’s more, she takes on a journey of scientific discovery as our characters determine just how severe the damage is. Let it be known, an extinction event does not happen over night. It takes time, but not always as much time as we would like. The level of realism here makes me think about the distinction as “Science fiction and of Margaret Atwood’s famous novel, A Handmaids Tale, that is often classified as Science Fiction even though Atwood disagrees.

I like to make a distinction between science fiction proper and speculative fiction. For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can’t yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth. 

Margaret Atwood, The Guardian, 2005

So, how much science fiction really exists here? Speculation, sure, but the event this revolves around is all too real. This work is a prequel to Kowals 2012 short story, The Lady Astronaut of Mars. That suggests there will come a point that science of the Calculating Stars transitions from existing to futuristic, and it will be an interesting line to follow. A lot of what we need for space exploration exists. Although, there still exists significant barriers to colonization and human transport to and from Mars. It is still fascinating to think about how this type of event would expedite the process. I look forward to seeing how Kowal takes us on this journey. At this point, I am all in.

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The prequel short story that sets up the world Kowal now seeks to create in her Lady Astronaut Series, where Calculating Stars is but the first.

Some Additional Thoughts

I was worried coming into this. There is a certain part of me that feared this story was made to benefit from the current zeitgeist that has evolved from works like Hidden Figures or the rise of #metoo. Perhaps that is not a bad thing, even if it were true, but often this is used as an excuse to redo what as already been done and reclaim it as your own. Or, it is just a blatant money grab. That isn’t the impression I am getting. I think this story has the potential of contributing to the dialogue rather than leech off of it. I am hoping for a new look at women in history and a glimpse of what might have been and hopefully still can be. What’s more, the fact that this builds on an existing short story suggests it isn’t just reactionary.

Update 8/25/2019

I’m nearly 2/3rds of the way through the book, and I am still loving it. I think it may even be one of my favorite books of the year, up there with The Fifteen Lives of Harry August. There is definitely plenty to say about it.

First, I’d like to discuss it as a historical work of fiction. Overall, I would say it doesn’t excel all that great. While I do worry about getting lost in details, I feel as though this story could stand a bit more details about the time we are in. Obviously, there are points of world building to put is in the time, but it feels superficial. I still love the story. I don’t see this as a major disadvantage, nor do I feel I am being taken too far out of the story. It just takes away from the realism. On that not, I want to change focus to the discussion on the current cultural zeitgeist influencing this story. I think it is very apparent that it is the case. However, I don’t think it does that in a bad way. The author takes very relevant and important issues of today and applies them to the past in ways that are justified. My issue is that the way the issues are resolved feels a little optimistic. Again, it takes away from the realism. This may just be a function of my own pessimism, but it is still interesting to think about.

The reason this story is so intriguing is that it essentially uses a entirely realistic event (asteroid impact) to facilitate the requirement of decades of progress (and more) for the sack of humanity. That means we have to deal with climate change, racism, antisemitism, sexism and so much more. The author is presenting us with a world where humanity is able to make use of the tragedy to achieve the progress they need to survive. That is very optimistic, but the inherent speculation involved is enough for me to still enjoy the story. Because, at the core, this story is one of hope. It presents us with modern problems being solved in a world where they are objectively harder to solve. Despite that, there is a clear path to doing these things. That, is inspiring and fascinating to consider. For that, I absolutely love this novel. I am lucky enough to still have a third of the book left, but let there be no doubt, you should read this book.

Finished 8/28/2019

This is tied for my favorite novel of the year next the Fifteen Lives of Harry August–maybe I like it even more. I don’t have much more to say since my last update. It maintains the tone and excellent story telling. The one thing I want to do is backtrack, if only slightly, on the book being overly optimistic. I will avoid details, so as to prevent spoilers, but there is plenty of shitty moments in this story. Our characters are often put through the ringer, and Kowal does not shy away from making the issues of that time (and still today in some fashion) very prominent in the story. The biggest issue with getting to space is never about technology; it is about the human race holding itself back. This is ultimately a story of whether we will overcome our own flaws. It does not happen easily, nor does it happen uniformly. Nevertheless, this story presents a mindset where it is possible with the right motivations.

Perhaps that is what makes the story such a thrill to read. It is a blessing not to read a dystopian novel with hope. All I want to do is keep reading. The fact that there is a sequel already out is torturing me. It would be so easy to put myself into the next book, but I am going to try not to just yet. 1) It is time for Halloween therefore horror galore, but 2) when I am done, I’m done. Then its an indefinite wait for the next one. This is a chance to pace myself and enjoy.

Finally, I want to touch on the only other issue I had with the book. This question of historical detail. I don’t want to be berated with complaints saying I am misrepresenting the book, so let me be clear that there are plenty of examples of us being grounded in the times. Personally, I’d love a deeper dive into the politics of the time. Then again, this book feels perfect, so me yearning for more, detail and story, may just be another example of how great it is. What’s more, I recognize this story is meant to follow our main character. For that reason, our perspective is somewhat limited to her own. Branching out beyond that would risk losing some of that cohesion.

Read the book. READ IT 5/5 Stars, rounding up!

4 thoughts on “The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal – ★★★★★

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