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The Calculating Stars: A Lady Astronaut Novel (2018)
Mary Robinette Kowal

This novel, which is the first in a series of prequels by the author for her Hugo Award-winning story "The Lady Astronaut of Mars", is a sort of alternate history version of Hidden Figures.

In the world where this story takes place, Washington DC is destroyed by a meteorite impact in 1952 (during President Dewey's administration). NACA mathematician Elma York survives only because she happens to be vacationing in the mountains with her husband (and because they take quick action when they see the flash, thinking that it was a nuclear bomb). The tragedy heightens the space race in this alternate universe so that they are quickly talking about manned missions to the moon and Mars. However, Elma (an accomplished WW II pilot) becomes the public face of a political movement arguing that women should be allowed to be astronauts themselves rather than being relegated to working as "computers". Little girls begin to view her as a hero and calling her "The Lady Astronaut".

Although it is supposed to take place in 1952, all of the sources of conflict and interest in this book are things that happen to be hot topics now in 2018:

  • Based on Elma's calculations, it is determined that the water vapor from the meteorite impact is going to cause a "greenhouse effect" which will leave the Earth entirely uninhabitable in only 50 years.
  • Prescription psychoactive drugs become relevant (and a potential obstacle to her career as an "astronette", as they are sometimes called in this novel) when a doctor prescribes sedatives to help Elma with her "nerves".
  • There are widely-believed conspiracy theories that the Russians caused the disaster and that the climate change that is predicted as its consequence is a complete hoax.
  • Because the pilot who invites Elma and her husband to live with him is black, racism also is a frequent topic in the book. In fact, a young Martin Luther King Jr. appears frequently in the book, not as a character but as a political figure mentioned in the news clips that start each chapter.
  • Interest in the human "computers" (especially the African-American ones) at NASA is itself a hot topic today because of Hidden Figures. (Intriguingly, the author claims she wrote it before either the non-fiction book or the film of Hidden Figures came out.)
  • Both because of international efforts to save humanity and because the Secretary of Agriculture (the only survivor) who takes over the presidency is a Quaker, diversity increases much more quickly than it did in our universe, with many more people of different religions, skin colors and nationalities appearing as main characters in this book than one would expect for America in 1952.
  • But, by far, the main issues of interest all revolve around gender. Not only is the culture of sexism that keeps women from being astronauts explicitly discussed, but the differences in the way men and women (stereotypically) approach problems is also an unspoken focal point. For example, we see how uncomfortable Elma is when she is the center of attention (in contrast to the egotistical jerk who is the head of the Air Force Base), how quick she is to give up her political activity when it seems to threaten her husband's job, and how collegially the women get along and work towards a common goal.

Let me say a bit about the math. At several points, Elma is called upon to do computations to determine how large the impactor was, when a recently launched ship reaches orbit, etc. This is cool to me as a fan of "mathematical fiction". I always like to see math as being useful.

There are a couple of scenes, reminiscent of Hidden Figures, in which other people insist on Elma's hand calculations rather than (or to verify) computations done on a digital electronic computer.

Another notable scene, from both a mathematical and a feminist perspective, is one in which Elma and other astronaut candidates are taking an "orbital mechanics" exam. The person giving the test complains that Elma wrote just the answers to the questions without showing her work. (Aside: As a math professor, I believe that such a request is reasonable. But, in this case we are probably intended to think that he is just giving her a hard time.) He even suggests that she may have gotten the answers from her husband. But, the "punchline" of this story comes when he is informed that she not only knows all of the equations necessary to answer the question, but she was the mathematician who originally derived many of them in her job as a computer for the space program.

Now, this may sound unlikely, but I actually have a lot in common with Elma Young. She is supposed to be originally from Charleston, SC, to be a relatively non-observant Jew, a mathematician and a physicist. Well, I am a non-religious Jew who has lived in Charleston for almost two decades. Moreover, I am a mathematician and about half of my research papers are in physics journals. See, very similar! IMHO, the author gets the Jewish part right. (Unlike some other books I've reviewed on this site, this one uses all of the Yiddish and Hebrew terminology correctly.) The Charleston part also seems about right. (She says "y'all" and "bless your heart"...perhaps a bit too often, but that's correct. I guess she does seem surprisingly non-racist for someone from Charleston at that time, but maybe we are supposed to appreciate that as an unusual positive character trait.) Presumably, that is because the author has some personal experience with Charleston and Judaism. But, I am left wondering if the only mathematicians she actually knows are the fictional ones she has read about and seen in movies. For example, even though mathematicians do "solve for" variables when using algebra, I don't know any who metaphorically talk about "solving for" other things in non-mathematical contexts. And, although I think many mathematicians do appreciate the relative certainty and clarity of mathematics, I don't know any real mathematicians who use it as a shield the way Elma does. For example, like so many other fictional characters I have seen, she recites the digits of π or the sequence of primes as a sort of mantra in times of stress.

Alright, I know that most people are not as concerned about the way mathematicians are represented in fiction as I am. So, I'll just leave it at that. But, let me move on to some concerns of a more scientific nature:

  • The immediate consequences of the meteor impact are an 18 mile crater, tsunamis, and a "winter" in July caused by the dust in the atmosphere. That all sounds plausible. I also believe that the water vapor could lead to an eventual increase in temperature because of a greenhouse effect. However, I really find it hard to believe that the temperature would increase to the point that the oceans were boiling in only 50 years. I understand that this sort of disaster is necessary for the plot, there has to be a reason for people to colonize Mars as in Kowal's award-winning short story. However, since the more catastrophic impact that caused the Chicxulub crater does not seem to have had such an effect, I don't see how this one could have.
  • Even if I believe that such an outcome is plausible, I do not see how one mathematician in 1952 (even with the help of her brother, a meteorologist) could have predicted it. The tools and theory that we now bring to bear on questions of climate change simply were not around!
  • Finally, again, even if we believe that the Earth's temperature was going to rise dramatically and that they were able to predict it, I don't believe that colonizing Mars would be a sensible solution to the problem. Of course, it would be hard to figure out either how to live on Earth when the temperature is so high or how to engineer the environment to prevent that climate change. But, however difficult that would be, making Mars habitable would be even harder. Her brother does talk about efforts to prevent the climate disaster on the Earth which might work, but there is no discussion of the difficulties of making Mars habitable, as if the only difficulty would be getting there. (As I said, the subjects covered in this book are topics of great current interest as I write this. In fact, a serious and rather convincing article just appeared in Nature which says "we conclude that terraforming Mars is not possible using present-day technology". In 1952, it would then really have been quite impossible.)
Despite all of my criticisms above, The Calculating Stars is a book I can recommend as enjoyable reading that touches on many important issues and which also presents mathematics as being useful.

More information about this work can be found at
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Works Similar to The Calculating Stars: A Lady Astronaut Novel
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Singer Distance by Ethan Chatagnier
  2. They'll Say It Was the Communists by Sarah Lazarz
  3. Hidden Figures by Allison Schroeder (writer) / Theodore Melfi (director and writer)
  4. When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill
  5. Atomic Anna by Rachel Barenbaum
  6. Gentzen oder: Betrunken aufräumen [Gentzen or Cleaning Up Drunk] by Dietmar Dath
  7. Instantiation by Greg Egan
  8. Doctor Who: The Turing Test by Paul Leonard
  9. Eifelheim by Michael Flynn
  10. Cap and Gown by Eric Flint
Ratings for The Calculating Stars: A Lady Astronaut Novel:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
3/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
3/5 (1 votes)

GenreHistorical Fiction, Science Fiction,
MotifFemale Mathematicians,
TopicMathematical Physics,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)