I am linking this review to #Sci Fi Month 2020, as I absolutely loved the first book in this series, The Calculating Stars – see my review – so was thrilled when Himself went and promptly bought the second book in this series. Would I enjoy it as much?
BLURB: It is 1961, and the International Aerospace Coalition has established a colony on the moon. Elma York, the noted Lady Astronaut, is working on rotation, flying shuttles on the moon and returning regularly to Earth. But humanity must get a foothold on Mars. The first exploratory mission is being planned, and none of the women astronauts is on the crew list. The international Aerospace Coalition has grave reservations about sending their “Lady Astronauts” on such a dangerous mission…
REVIEW: I loved this one. Though it is essentially a continuation of the story started in The Calculating Stars so don’t pick up this one first. Or you will spend too much time trying to figure out exactly who is doing what to whom to be able to fully appreciate the scope and stakes involved.
We continue to follow maths genius Elma Wexler, as she completes a three-month stint on the Moon and looking forward to seeing her husband, again. If I have a niggle, it’s that their relationship seems improbably idyllic, given the stresses put on it. Nathaniel is just so understanding, kind and appreciative of Elma’s drive to excel that I think a modern husband would struggle to be able to match up to his enlightened attitude. Given he is a product of a very different time, when it was tacitly agreed by many right-thinking men and a fair number of women, that it was a risky business giving a woman any kind of major responsibility, it does strain credulity. Especially as most of the other men Elma encounters have their macho insensitivity on display. However, I’m aware it’s a minor niggle in the scheme of things, when so much about this book is so good.
I think the handling of the alternate historical timeline throughout has been skilful and inspired. As someone who recalls the launch of Telstar and the Race to the Moon, Kowal manages to capture the feeling of the time, even allowing for her huge ‘what if’ of a major meteor strike that accelerates Humanity’s interest in establishing a colony elsewhere. I also enjoyed the adventure and tension with the two ships travelling to Mars and the ongoing tensions caused by the prevailing racist and sexist attitudes. The influence of the ongoing political situation, where hanging onto the funding as the life on Earth becomes increasingly difficult to sustain, is also a factor.
This all adds up to a cracking story, with plenty of adventure and some pause for thought about the ingrained attitudes that lead to people being overlooked because of what they represent, rather than being judged more fairly on their abilities and individual merits. I found the ongoing character arc of Parker to be an interesting progression – and while he was still fairly obnoxious, I appreciated learning more about him and what drove him. But one of the things I liked about Elma was her reaction to being attacked – she didn’t come out all guns blazing. She retreated behind a façade of politeness and tried to propitiate those around her whenever possible – which is what women of her generation, and my generation were raised to do. We were taught to be ‘good’. And I really, really liked that Kowal didn’t ignore that aspect, which I think has probably hindered gender equality far more than is appreciated.
An exceptionally good space travel adventure.