I decided to read The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal because I’ve been listening to her podcast for years and thought I would give it a try.
I’m not a fan of alternative histories, because I like history. History is already full of interesting twists and turns and there’s enough of it for a lifetime’s exploration rather than imagining what could have been, in my opinion, anyway. Alternative history is a big section of the fantasy/science-fiction market so it obviously has an audience and people always enjoy asking “What if?”
I was so surprised how much I enjoyed this book! Elma York, the main character, hooked me with her strong contributions to the space program and her desire to travel into space.
In this alternate history, a meteor slams into Earth and brings about climate change on such a scale that humans have to seek out another planet. Yet, this is the 1950’s so they must speed up the space race.
Elma is smart, very smart, so smart that she does calculations in her head faster than anyone can do with calculators. She works at NASA as a computer, since computers don’t exist yet,and supports those who are working to get rockets and men into space to colonize Mars.
Notice I wrote men. I should have also written white men. This is the 1950’s so even though Emma flew in World War II (this still took place in this alternative history), she is not considered a suitable candidate to be an astronaut because she is a woman.
Elma handles the judgement by pushing back against it, time and time again, applying for and demanding her place amongst the men who are going up.
Fighting for something that should be merit based and isn’t, is exhausting. It shouldn’t be happening and Elma asks why it happens when she sees black men being excluded from the space program because of their skin colour, and when her and her colleagues are excluded or worse, paraded around as astronauts only if they show enough skin and do their make up to be a part of the game.
In our own times, these are questions that should have been left in the 1950’s but they remain with us still.
Someone shrieked. That was me. I had jumped and thrown my hands into the air like I was some sort of gymnast…They were staring at me, and I didn’t care.
“They’re taking women astronauts!”
Those lines can very nearly be written for today. Thankfully, we have had and hopefully will continue to have women astronauts like Roberta Bondar, Christina Koch and Stephanie Wilson.
Elma gives us an opportunity to re-examine whether or not our society is actually merit-based and if it isn’t, how can we make it merit-based. This is a complicated problem that requires us to ensure all have the potential to get the skills to participate in a merit-based society but if Elma and her fellow humans can get off the planet, then why can’t we demand that equality?