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Publisher's Summary

Mary Robinette Kowal's science fiction debut, The Calculating Stars, explores the premise behind her award-winning Lady Astronaut of Mars

Den of Geek - Best Science Fiction Books of June 2018 

Omnivoracious - Fifteen Highly Anticipated SFF Reads for Summer 2018 

On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the East Coast of the US, including Washington, DC. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the Earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. 

This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space and requires a much-larger share of humanity to take part in the process. 

Elma York’s experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too. 

Elma’s drive to become the first lady astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.

©2018 Mary Robinette Kowal (P)2018 Audible, Inc.

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    5 out of 5 stars
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Close to perfect

I am a literary nit-picker. I can't really help it. When I read a historical novel, part of me is always hunting for inaccuracies, and when I read an alternate history novel, that same part is always hunting for premise-breaking implausibilities. For me to really, really enjoy an alternate history, it has to either be entirely free of such defects, or pretty damn amazing, so amazing that my nit-picking module shuts down. This book is pretty damn amazing.

The amazingness has many facets, of which I can only mention a few. The first is its timeliness, appearing as it does just two years after Margot Lee Shetterly's wonderful "Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race," along with the movie it inspired. Shetterly's book helped bring overdue attention to the contributions Black woman mathematicians, employed as computers, made to the American space program, when the electronic digital computing revolution was in its infancy. In our timeline, their efforts were supplemented by electronic computers as the technology improved, and a state-of-the-art electronic computer traveled to the moon with Armstrong and Aldrin. It may not have worked very well, but it was ready in time to make the trip.

In the timeline of this book, the American space program gets its start ten years earlier than in ours, and vast investment spurs most of the necessary technologies to advance more over the course of the 1950s than ours did over the 1960s. The one exception is electronic digital computing, which appears to be no further along in the 1955 of this book than it was in our own 1955. Suppose space program managers realize that astronauts may need to solve unforeseen problems in orbital mechanics on the fly. Suppose, further, that the best way to obtain a quick, accurate solution to such problems is to consult a skilled human with paper, pencil, and slide rule. Finally, suppose that the most skilled such humans are women. We have a recipe for a narrative in which, rather than lagging well behind the rest of 20th Century American Society in its lurching, uneven progress toward gender equality, the space program leads the way.

Our heroine and first-personal protagonist is, as we would expect, an extraordinary individual. But she is NOT a "steely-eyed missile man" in drag. She has payed a serious, even crippling price for having succeeded in a string of male-dominated fields, and her struggle to shoulder that baggage is perhaps the most compelling aspect of her more general struggle. She is also a woman of her time and place, one who has developed her strategies for selectively ignoring numerous small injustices, and for coping with those she cannot ignore. This is NOT an idealized crusader for women and minorities anachronistically written back into a society that no time for such people. She is a completely believable person who has learned how to pick her battles. She is surrounded by an equally believable supporting cast.

I won't sully this review by rehearsing any of the small number of nits I have picked. Read the book, or better yet listen to it in the author's expert narration.

21 of 24 people found this review helpful

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Super impressed

Wonderful attention to detail, phenomenal voice acting, and wonderful characters. My only quibble is that it does sag in the middle as the story turns from the meteor strike and space race to the main character dealing with her anxiety. It does pick up again and finishes with a bang. Highly recommended.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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Stunning alternate history

I’ve just finished the audiobook, and I have enjoyed it immensely. The sense of immersion and of subject and material mastery was really wonderful - I absolutely believed it all the way through. And I loved how it’s clear to the reader that Elma is a 3-dimensional character whose actions are not all exemplary, but who tries to do better. Can’t wait for the sequel!!!

9 of 11 people found this review helpful

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So happy I listened to this.

It's rare that a book comes along and I get so wrapped up in it that I don't want it to end. I am a big fan of things having a beginning, middle, and an end... but not so much here. I didn't want this story to end.

I had no idea this book existed or who Mary Robinette Kowal was until I went to a book signing in Cincinnati with Patrick Rothfuss. At the signing he said "If I can recommend one book to you - one book that you should absolutely be reading - it's this one." And I am so glad I listened to him.

Mary Robinette Kowal's The Calculating Stars was one of the first books I've read in years that when it ended - I was disappointed. Not because it was a bad book, but because I wanted another 100 pages or more.

The alternate history of the United States and the astronaut program was spot-on perfect. She has written a version of my own timeline that, with the exception of the meteorite impact, I wish and dream had come true...

If you're here looking for reviews, you don't need me to recap the book. You just want to know if you should read it - and the answer is YES. Why are you waiting? It's an amazing story with strong, rich characters. And, thankfully for me, the sequel is already out. And I started reading it this morning.

This book will enter my "re-read" pile. And I could not be happier about it.

The audible version is read by the author and, wow, she does a great job at it. 5 Stars all around.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Wanted to love it

There is a difference between reading and narrating. The author is OK at reading, but a complete amateur as a narrator. Her attempts at accents are painful - and distracting.

The characters, with the exception of the protagonist, are stereotypical and one dimensional. The protagonist is also a stereotype. She is what medicine used to described as a female hysteric. And yet, she is supposed to be a brilliant mathematician with 2 advanced degrees from Stanford, a child prodigy, and an accomplished pilot. Finally, she comes across as helpless, whiny and immature.

I suspect that the author may be trying to set her main character up for growth and change in the next book in the series, if so she overplayed her hand.

This book might be better if you read it rather than listen. Between the amateurish delivery and the whiny, pathetic marin character, the audio version is just annoying.

8 of 10 people found this review helpful

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Refreshingly good story

I thought the author reading would be an issue but she did great. The romance bits are a bit dorky but don’t detract from a really good story. Worth the credit.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Excellent!

Well written, superb narration. Left me wanting a second book. Very interesting twist on an alternative history.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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An Amazing Story From Start to Finish

The Calculating Stars is not only Mary Robinette Kowal's best book, but one of the best science fiction novels of the year.

This alternate history re-imagines the US Space Program not as a cold-war arms race but as a response to a planetary disaster in the early 1950s. As the world shakes off the horror of the second World War, they must now face the very real possibility of global catastrophe in the form of a meteorite strike akin to that which killed off the dinosaurs. The answer? To unite humanity in a mission to reach the stars and colonize outer space.

Uniting humanity is a mission that seems daunting enough in modern America, but Kowal's heroines and heros must deal with not just scientific struggles but also issues of social, racial, religious, and gender inequalities on their path to the stars.

What most amazes about this book, and was unexpected, is this emotional depth. Scene after scene will have you grinning ear-to-ear with the triumphs of Kowal's richly-realized characters or choking down your emotions in tense scenes of heartbreak. These emotional scenes are handled expertly, with a light touch; allowing the reader to bring the full force of the emotional beats into the story from their own experiences.

This novel is a masterwork and Kowal has shown that her place is in the stratosphere of science fiction writers. Read "The Calculating Stars" today.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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If you've ever dreamed of space, this is for you

I loved this book. Elma is a wonderful character, and I was completely in the story with her the whole way. I loved her successes and swore at the dudes who got in her way - quite literally, so I'm glad I listened to this mostly alone in the car. Mary Robinette Kowal's narration is wonderful here, which is no surprise. I've bought books before simply because she's the narrator, and hearing her read her own work is always a joy.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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it's a nice story

"The calculating stars" is a nice story about an alternate history Space Program. The author does an excellent job of bringing life to the story, which is a good thing, because I think if I were to just read it, it would have been a little flat. This would be a fantastic story for a preteen or even a child, but it lacks drama. Now, not all stories need to be a daring space drama with horrible monsters and and heroic leaps of... heroism, but i kept eaiting for the other shoe to drop, and it never did. I see this story as the way the Space Program would have proceeded if everyone in the world were Canadian. A good read, but don't expect action.

5 of 6 people found this review helpful

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  • M. Atkinson
  • 09-08-18

Uplifting (pun intended)

Following Dr Elma York from the day she escapes the impact of an extinction-level meteorite, through her time as a computer at the now-international NASA, and her fight to allow women and POC to become astronauts. I normally like my heroines to be infallible, but Dr York is humanised by Southern-feminine style self-effacement (we only find out halfway through the book that she holds two doctorates) and a crippling social anxiety. A very enjoyable and uplifting listen.

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  • JiSe
  • 08-17-18

Sublime!

This work of Art is the best piece of sci-fi I have read in long time.

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  • Vicki Watson
  • 09-05-18

Disappointing

The story had promise but the whimpering main character and cringeworthy attempts at romantic/sex scenes almost laughable.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Jeremy
  • 10-23-18

Well paced but too hard on the messaging

An enjoyable story that set a cracking pace, with good character development. The author's narration is excellent too. However, I did feel that every 5 minutes I was being reminded of the main character's religion and that she was working really hard to overcome her anxiety. Yep, I understood the third time - don't need it a dozen more.