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Book Review: “The Calculating Stars” by Mary Robinette Kowal

By Linann McDonald

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal starts with a bang! Literally, a giant meteor hits the Earth, completely wiping out the East Coast of the United States. This event begins the process of climate change, which some believe will eventually make the planet unlivable. A race to create a space program that could eventually get a colony of humans on Mars starts, but only with male astronauts. Well, not if Dr. Elma York has anything to do with it! Even if Science Fiction is not a genre you usually read, this book is still very much worth your time. Despite a lack of character development for most characters, you will find a heart-warming and relatable story with an amazing protagonist that you will be cheering for every step of the way.

There is a lot to love about this book, but I will only mention a few of my favorite things. First of all, this story is an alternate history to our own 1950’s. Regardless, the underlying issues dealt with in the book are very relevant to our own day and age, those issues being, gender inequality, racism, climate change and mental health. I believe that the relevance really draws you in as a reader and helps you to identify with the characters and their struggles. Also, who doesn’t love a good underdog story? The hope and anticipation for a favorable outcome for the protagonist made this 400-page novel a shockingly quick read. My favorite thing about this book though, is the protagonist, Dr. Elma York. She is quite the accomplished woman and firmly believes that females should be allowed to be astronauts, herself included. Even though Elma is one of the coolest female protagonists around with her doctoral degrees in Physics and Mathematics and having been a courageous pilot during World War II, she has her own struggles like any normal person would. She is terrified of speaking in front of crowds and thinks too much about what others think of her. These flaws make her character a bit more believable. Also, it is nice to see that a female can be portrayed as strong and capable without just being really stubborn all the time, which is often the case and is, in my not so humble opinion, really overdone in literature. Even though I certainly will never be a genius that instantaneously works out math problems in my head, Elma is still a relatable character who is just a woman working towards her goals within the constraints of the society she lives in. 

Even really great books have things that can be critiqued. For this book I had wished at times that some of the characters other than Elma had been more developed and less one dimensional. The main antagonist, Colonel Parker, would have been a great character to develop and understand better. As readers we know so much about Elma and her thoughts and motivations, but so little about Colonel Parker and why he is such a very unpleasant man throughout the entire book. There had been opportunities when his character could have grown and I have no idea why he did not.

Overall, I would highly recommend this captivating and feel-good book. If you liked Hidden Figures, then this might be your new favorite story. However, don’t take my word for it, read The Calculating Stars for yourself and see why it won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Sci-fi and Fantasy in 2019.

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