The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal


Mad Mountain Man
Jun 29, 2010
Scottish Highlands
I bought this off the back of all the good reviews it seems to have acquired along with the slightly more dubious awards it has won. But not without some trepidation; it is an alternate history which is something I’m generally not keen on and it sounded like it has sexism and racism very much front and centre and, whilst I’m very much in favour of equality in both of those areas, I don’t really like books where that is the central focus. So the starting background was a little inauspicious but for the most part this book delivered better than I expected.

In 1952 a meteorite strikes the Earth with devastating consequences but when it is figured that it is likely to create a runaway greenhouse effect it raises the pressing need to get into space fast and avoid having all humanity’s eggs in the one basket. Qualified people to support this effort are a scarce resource and eventually they will have to consider both woman and people of colour.

This book presents a good hard science fiction description of its alternate history and it does it without swamping the reader with an excess of science detail; a good balance is maintained throughout. I was particularly pleased to see, for possibly the first time in my science fiction reading, the realities of orbital manoeuvring explained and applied correctly. Spaceships can’t just whizz around a star system as if there are no significant gravity wells around. Any object in such a system will be orbiting something, whether that be a moon, a planet or the sun itself (which is, of course, orbiting the galaxy). This is a fundamental and inescapable fact of space travel and is more often than not quietly ignored. All credit to Kowal for not dodging it.

Not so good is the way I frequently wondered whether this was meant to be a science fiction book about an alternate history against a background of sexism and racism or a book about sexism and racism set against a background of an alternate science fiction history. I wanted the former but frequently felt I was getting the latter. Which is, for me, a shame though may of course be very much to other readers’ tastes. Also, for a book that is presenting a strong (if anxious) woman battling against the rampant sexism of the day, she does an awful lot of hiding in the oh-so-strong shoulder of her oh-so-perfect husband. But maybe I’m being picky there. On the other hand, Kowal has a fluid writing style that is easy to sink into and that smoothly carries you through the story, and this very much saves the book for me. Even if it does sometimes get rather too schmaltzy for my preference on occasion.

Overall, despite my misgivings about the sometimes-excessive moralistic aspects of the story, I found this book a very good and very engrossing hard science fiction tale. Especially considering Kowal does not appear to have a particularly scientific or engineering background as I had assumed from the accurate science throughout. She does however list an impressive array of such people in her acknowledgements along with a bibliography of sources. Whatever else anyone might say Kowal does appear to have conducted some impressive levels of research for this book. And I shall certainly continue with the other books in the series.

4/5 stars

Similar threads