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The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal  

Kowal tackles an alternate history of the space race, in which a catastrophe necessitates an earlier reach for the stars--and the confrontation of gender barriers. In the 1950s, the world nearly ends, first due to a strike from what Elma York will always remind people was a meteorite and then through the resulting climate change.

Elma is a physicist, pilot and human computer; she and her engineer husband, Nathaniel, both work for NASA's predecessor agency. The Meteor, as it comes to be known, destroys Washington, D.C., and most of the East Coast, leaving the survivors to scramble to fill leadership gaps and address the sudden winter brought on by the impact and the devastating greenhouse effect that will follow. Earth may have just decades to live, and both men and women will need to go into space for humanity to survive. Elma fights the sexism and racism of the era as well as her own personal anxieties. The Apollo-era technology is well-researched and well-presented and always feels organic--more organic than the characters.

Elma is an obvious genius, ethical to a fault, and sets records at everything she attempts. Her supposed flaw of discomfort with public speaking is apparently not too obvious to anyone but her, as she's lauded by other characters for how well she does it. She advocates for feminism and for women of colour with admirable...admirableness, but Elma never really addresses her own privilege. (Nathaniel is even more exemplary--understanding, supportive, hot and perfectly progressive.) With the exception of a misogynist antagonist, the supporting cast is never too deeply developed--a shame, given their supposed diversity. The plot hits all its beats dutifully, but don't expect surprises. While there's a fascinating alternate history here of humanity's quest for the stars, it could stand to be told with characters who are a little more human.

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