Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut, #1)

Genre: Science Fiction

Publisher: Tor Books

Date Published: July 3, 2018

My Rating: ★☆☆☆☆

Normally, I don’t like having to defend my opinions on books. After all, there’s no accounting for personal taste. But, I do feel like I have to defend my position here a little bit. First, there’s a couple things you should know about me before reading my review of this book. First, I’m a feminist. Second, I have a degree in physics. Also, Hidden Figures is one of my favorite movies of all time.

So I’m fairly sure that this book was written for someone like me. I was convinced before starting this book that it was going to be a 5-star read, maybe 4-stars if there was some flaws or it didn’t emotionally connect because how could a book about women in a space program eventually living in space possibly disappoint me that badly?

Well, it managed to disappoint me that badly. And I’ll tell you how.

Per usual I’ll start with writing style. The writing of this book isn’t bad per se, but I also wouldn’t call it good. It’s fairly mediocre. On top of that it’s written in first person which generally isn’t my cup of tea to begin with. I do understand why the first person choice was made though, so I’m not going to dock points for that. Anyway, the writing style never really shines anywhere, but it really flounders during the sex scenes between the main character and her husband. Like, those were so bad I had to pretty much skip over them because I wouldn’t have been able to keep going… luckily they were mostly short and fade to black.

Overall, it’s readable as a writing style, but in my opinion it borders on too simplistic. And that’s coming from someone who generally likes more straightforward styles over poetic and flowery ones.

I also had trouble connecting to the characters, including the main character which shouldn’t at all be an issue in a first person narrative. Writing in first person can often be a crutch for novice writers who don’t know how to portray a character’s thoughts or experiences without using the word ‘I’ but that wasn’t the issue here. The issue was that I straight-up didn’t like Elma. I couldn’t find her relatable- which, as a woman with a physics degree is probably the last thing the author was aiming for- and in fact I found her selfish, annoying, and too fucking perfect.

The least relatable thing about Elma is that she’s so smart that no one else can match her. She went to college at 14. She does math in her head. Oh, you have to solve differential equations with a piece of paper and a pencil? You’re actually a dumbass in comparison. This annoyed me to no end because even the smartest people I knew in my own physics program worked through the math on paper. Maybe there are people out there who can do linear algebra no problem in their head, but they’re few and far between, and they’re far from the average woman in physics, I’ll tell you that.

In fairness, I generally hate stories about exceptional main characters. I have this problem with fantasy novels, too, where the MC has to put in essentially no work to master things others have put years and years into practicing. I just find it really hard to root for characters who have it easy. Which, when we’re talking about a woman physicist in the 1950s, even a genius like Elma shouldn’t have it easy, right? I think Hidden Figures did a much better job of portraying this, and I actually liked all the main characters in that movie. This book, though, had me rolling my eyes.

The biggest obstacle that Elma faces throughout this novel has nothing to do with her gender at all. It’s her anxiety. Honestly the amount of time spent talking about how she has such bad anxiety in front of reporters and cameras and how it makes her throw up really came at the expense of the actual plot of the novel and the feminist narrative. Elma is a woman physicist in the 1950s and this is the biggest obstacle we could come up with for her to face?

Then there’s her husband Nathaniel. I was hoping we’d get a realistic look at marriage in the 1950s, but instead Nathaniel’s traits boil down to he’s an engineer and he’s Jewish. Other than that he has no personality, no motivations outside of supporting everything his wife does including when she forgets to pay the electric bill, and he has absolutely no agency. Their relationship is so unrealistic. Even the most supportive of couples will argue once in a while. Even the healthiest of couples don’t agree on everything. Yet, Elma forgets to pay the electric bill (which she always does because she can do math in her head and Nathaniel can’t) and Nathaniel barely bats an eyelash about it.

The other supporting characters honestly aren’t even worth mentioning, except for Parker. I found him genuinely interesting, but we’re supposed to hate him because he’s trying to keep Elma on the ground and out of outer-space. The only male character in the whole book with agency is, of course, the antagonist.

Writing a feminist book doesn’t mean that the only male characters with agency should be antagonists and that male significant others or romantic interests should be some robot-like unquestioning domestic servant following you around like a puppy-dog.

This is the second book I’ve picked up in less than a month where the feminism part of the story was something I was excited about and then disappointed me greatly. I am a feminist. This does not mean I think only female characters should have any type of agency, or that the only male characters with agency should be on the side of the patriarchy. Ideally, men and women characters should be equally well-developed. In my own experiences, sure men were the causes of some of my biggest problems in my undergrad career in physics. But there were other men who were some of my best friends, some of my biggest allies, and even one I considered to be a mentor. This lack of nuance in “feminist” stories is starting to get on my nerves. Granted, if you can’t develop your main female character, expecting a well-developed cast of supporting characters male and female is probably expecting too much.

Additionally, there’s such a heavy-handed attempt to show Elma off as super woke. This would be fine if it felt natural, but it doesn’t. It’s forced and it’s a weird insertion of our current climate of progressive social values being projected onto a character living in the 1950s. Either way, it should have certainly been executed in a way that didn’t just amount to Dr. Martin Luther King’s name being dropped every other page. It was just as heavy-handed and lacking in nuance as the attempt at feminism.

Frankly, the author’s mediocre writing ability was just not good enough to pull off taking on these important topics.

Now there’s the plot. The plot, in this case, comes as less important than the heavy-handed feminism and Elma’s severe anxiety. Which is interesting, seeing as the plot is that’s it the end of the world and they have a limited amount of time to colonize other planets before the ocean starts to literally boil.

After the first section of the book when the meteorite strikes, which is high-action and actually intriguing, there’s a time-skip. After the time-skip it’s back to business as usual. There’s no sense of urgency, really, and that made it really hard for me to continue turning the pages. The pacing was so uncomfortably slow, but by the time I realized just how bad it was I only had 100 pages left in the damn book so I pushed through it.

We spend so much time on Elma’s anxiety and her problems with Stetson Parker that it’s almost like the fact that the habitable world is literally ending has been all but forgotten by the author. Which is unfortunate, because that’s the book I signed up to read, not a book about a woman with crippling stage-fright (but who also happens to be a natural on camera?)

I’ll save you some time. We don’t get to space until the last line of the book. What was the point of the 300-ish pages between that and the beginning of the time-skip? We don’t even spend a lot of time focusing on preparing for colonization of space in those pages.

I was going to give this book a generous 2 stars. But after writing all this I just realize that I’m so disappointed that I can’t bring myself to do it. This is a one-star read for me, and I wish it were the 5-stars I was expecting. If you’re looking for a story that empowers women in STEM and has important themes of equality, just watch Hidden Figures. If you’re looking for a story about going to space or the end of the world, find some other sci-fi novel.

This ain’t it.

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