Fiction, Loved-it, NetGalley, Scifi, Women's

[Scifi] Women Break The Barrier In An Alternate 50’s To Become Astronauts The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

I’m always excited to read astronaut books, as you might know from my posts like this one, this one or this one. So I was even more excited to read one where women fight their ground to get to be astronauts. As it turned out, it was not an easy fight, even if it’s one written in an alternate 50’s Earth. The Calculating Stars is no bright and easy read, but it deals with some really important topics, and is also very engaging and strong. I loved it, and here are the reasons why you might love it too!

5 Reasons To Read The Calculating Stars

A nice summer’s day in the 1950’s USA turns into a nightmare when a huge meteor falls from the sky right on the hub of society as well as all governing structures of the US. But this is not a dystopian novel – it’s a scifi, and I find it hard to class it as a typical scifi – it deals with so many social issues and it’s not just about other worlds or scientific achievements – it’s as much about living through adversity and fighting for your rights.

Elma and Nathaniel York are both scientists – he is the lead engineer in the US space program, and she is a computer – she does calculations for spaceflight. Elma is also an airplane pilot. And she is the one that realizes the meteor is an extinction event – which has sparked global warming to a degree where in a certain number of years the world won’t be habitable anymore. This means that humanity has to put all of its resources towards relocating off the Earth – and actually, convincing people to run from a far off danger isn’t that easy (the greenhouse effect doesn’t exist, right?) But that’s only part of the problem. Despite wanting to start colonies off the Earth, the government somehow thinks it will be able to do that without women. Because they are not fit for spaceflight, apparently. Elma and her colleagues set out to prove that is wrong. And it won’t be an easy point to prove to a society who doesn’t want to hear anything about it.

It’s About The Women… Obviously

A GIF of a woman in a jumpsuit, spelling out the word Astronaut

The book illustrates the hostile environment for women trying to break into ‘men’s fields’ – trying to be anything other than what they were supposed to be in the 50’s and 60’s. Even though it’s set in a fictional timeline that diverges from ours when the meteor falls, the ladies’ fight was probably much like it was in reality back in the day. What I like about this book especially though, is that it accelerates the timeline, because of the main plot event – an actual ticking clock for how long people have on Earth. But that’s not what the novel focuses on. It has many things it discusses, but the top priority here is still women and women’s fight to be allowed to take their position in society. I especially liked how often there were scenes where women would attest to how smart and capable they were. And that was not at the expense of belittling the men. Very inspiring!

Another thing I really connected to was Elma’s experience of being the single girl in her university class. It was the same for me – in my class of engineers, there were 99 boys and me (literally). Yet, I could tell how much things have changed! Yes, I would get laughter and catcalls when I solved maths at the board, but those boys knew I could do it better than them. They were half in jest, there was no real hatred. They didn’t claim they could out-math me. They didn’t try to put me down (apart from several passive aggressive remarks down the road), and neither did the teachers. For Elma, and surely for most women of her time, this was not the case. But these women broached the way for me. And I’m incredibly thankful. Even if in the end I didn’t choose to become a scientist or work in the field of my major, it is good to know I had the freedom to.

Racism Discussion And Other Diversity Talk

Racism also gets a lot of attention in this book. It’s illustrated by the little things – the little things which probably hurt the most. Like how the black communities aren’t banned from getting on the same rescue flights as the white people, but they are simply just not notified WHERE to get on the places, so they always miss the evacuations. Or how a black friend will always find you a decent airplane mechanic despite every single one you find in the yellow pages turning you down. Why? Because black mechanics are not listed in the yellow pages. This and many other similar examples of the small (or not so small) unkindnesses paid to people of color paints a vivid picture of how things worked in the 50’s. It also raises awareness of the way things SHOULDN’T be and what we still need to get better at.

The International Cast

Okay, so it’s hard to find a GIF for that. This is a GIF of the International Space Station.

Which brings me to the next thing. It’s not just about people of color. It’s also about various internationals, some of them not even being Americans, but just scientists who joined forces to work on the spaceflight projects together with the US. What I liked about this the most is how much respect people of other religions and cultures are paid – I don’t really know whether this would have been the case in the real 50’s USA. For example, I was very touched when reading the sequence of one of the rocket launches – the countdown being delayed, and the team trying to reschedule it, respecting the time one of the pilots will need to say his prayers (the pilot was a Muslim). It was very respectful and beautiful.

Great Anxiety Rep

A GIF animation of a person’s heart falling from their chest to the floor while they’re calmly sitting

The main character, Elma, suffers from pretty intense anxiety. She wasn’t always like this. But the university experiences of men putting her down made her really afraid to speak out, to be an authority, to be a voice in front of people. Which is tough, cause she inadvertently becomes one – she’s seen on TV, in newspapers. And it’s a fame she absolutely deserves, although she does not think so. Elma also deals with her anxiety incredibly well. Which is also realistic, because part of the people with anxiety never show it. They masterfully disguise it, perform even better than expected, but at the expense of their well-being later on (I am speaking from my own experience). I could relate so well to Elma and I loved it.

A Good, Loving Marriage

A GIF of two people joining their hands, most likely in bed

Being a lady astronaut, furthering women’s stance on society in this book doesn’t mean the end of a family life. Being a smart woman doesn’t mean she can not be loved my a man. Elma is displayed as having a lovely husband (who even cooks for their family a lot), who is both loving and understanding, and YES – they have a healthy sexual life! He is also kind and attentive, and understanding of the struggles Elma faces as a woman in her job and professional life. It’s really good to see it represented like that. A woman having a career does not mean the end of her personal life, or vice versa.


It’s a wonderful book! Although you should keep in mind that it is not upbeat because of what the women faced in their work. I can’t think of any particular triggers to warn you about, but the main character does suffer severe anxiety and fears crowds, so keep in mind there will be descriptions of that. And, of course, as the book starts out, there will be descriptions of destruction and death as the meteor falls.

Other Books You Might Like

I can only think of one good comparison which was A LOT like this book in many ways – Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. That book is great about women – although it starts out in our time, so they don’t have to put in so much fight to get recognized. It also is about an extinction event and of humanity’s attempts to survive despite it, by moving into space at quite a short notice. It’s realistic about space too! I absolutely loved Seveneves and can totally recommend it.


I thank Tor Books for giving me a free copy of the book in exchange to my honest opinion. Receiving the book for free does not affect my opinion. You can buy the book here at Book Depository and buying using this link supports the blog.

Have you read The Calculating Stars or any other scifi where the focus is on women? Or scifi books where the spaceflight is described more realistically?