Review: The Calculating Stars

It’s Women’s History Month in March. Cue a month of corporate appropriation of an originally socialist movement; a month of shallow virtue-signalling on the part of big businesses who won’t actually do the work to improve structural inequality within their organisations; a month of lean-in feminists talking about “strong women” while expecting everyone who isn’t a cis, straight, white woman to wait their turn in the diversity queue.

What does this have to do with The Calculating Stars, the first novel in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut duology, an alternate history in which a meteorite slams into Washington D.C. in 1952 and kicks off the space programme with a literal bang?

I liked this novel. I liked it enough to stay up till 2am finishing it. (It was Christmas. There was a cat. These seemed like good excuses.) I liked it enough to nominate it for a Hugo Award.

Our Heroine is Elma, a brilliant mathematician and former WASP pilot who’s desperate to get into space. The Calculating Stars is the story of her fight to do just this: to convince The Powers that Are to let women (and specifically her) join the astronaut programme, in the teeth of virulent sexism, both institutional and personal. I really like Kowal’s project here: rewriting women back into historical narratives where we’ve been conditioned not to expect them. We hear about the WASPs, the female American pilots who flew more than 60 million miles between them during WW2; the human computers at NACA (NASA’s predecessor) who used pencil and paper to work out flight paths and fuel consumption on the fly. It’s a project that reminds us that women have always been there, in the technical industries, doing the unglamorous but vital jobs, kept away from the front line. We have always been capable, we have always existed.

I like Elma’s relationship with her husband, Nathaniel, which is sweet, geeky and sex-positive (expect much space-based innuendo, though – ): they communicate, they argue, they support each other; a healthy, realistic relationship that doesn’t compromise Elma’s general badassery. I also like how the novel treats the climate collapse that Elma works out is just around the corner, thanks to the meteorite strike. Because the climate cools before entering its deadly runaway warming phase, and because the point when the planet is set to become actually uninhabitable is some decades away, the novel’s characters face some challenges with keeping the minds of policymakers, businesses and the public alike on the urgency of the situation; many people simply don’t believe the apocalypse is coming. Which clearly has some parallels with what’s going on now, in our timeline, with ecological collapse and climate disaster already well on their way: it’s hard to concentrate on a crisis that’s happening so slowly.

So: I liked The Calculating Stars. There was a lot I liked about it.

But, then there’s Adri Joy’s review of both books in the duology, from Strange Horizons, which points out that although Kowal does include women of colour, and has her heroine do some of the work of recognising and understanding her own white privilege, she doesn’t go far enough: the novels privilege Elma’s experience at a structural level, at the expense of the women of colour around her. (Elma is Jewish, but as Joy points out the novel mostly treats her as white.)

As long as we are purely inside Elma’s story, there is no way to square the circle of her own ambition, and a politics of inclusion that goes beyond the non-intersectional hierarchy of “least marginalized first”…Elma manages to get the space program opened up to women, but is powerless in the face of structures that prevent women of color from qualifying due to their lack of experience flying in World War II.

On the subject of intersectionality, there are as far as I remember also no queer characters in The Calculating Stars. Which is…interesting, given Kowal’s comments in this interview:

I made a conscious effort to populate the world with characters who reflect the world I live in, which means there are characters who are bi, trans, ace, gay, and even some straight folks. Because it’s the 1950s and the books are written in first person, my main character isn’t aware of most of this.

Uh-huh. Okay. So these characters are, in fact, so invisible to the novel’s heroine-narrator that they are invisible to us. Again, this is the structural effect of choosing to centre the novel on Elma, a character whose het privilege allows her not to see or consider queerness.

What these particular blindnesses produce is a text that echoes the violence that corporations do in honour of things like Women’s History Month. In a certain light, it looks progressive. Possibly there even is some valuable work being done: in the novel’s case, putting women back in the narrative. But it is a lean-in sort of progression, one which privileges the least marginalized, leaving behind queer people and people of colour. And it is not good enough. Feminism that isn’t intersectional is feminism that isn’t doing its job.

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