The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal
Synopsis: A meteor impact destroys most the east coast of the US in 1952, but no one notices because the real threat is global warming. Except no one notices that either, because the real threat is sexism and racism.
Book Review: The first section of Calculating Stars is fantastic. The meteor strike itself and the immediate aftermath isn’t just visceral and exciting… it’s a Matian-esque uber-science tour-de-force! The genius protag and her husband, in remote mountains at the time of the strike, are able to quickly deduce from physical clues what has happened. Based on knowledge of wave propagation through different substances they calculate roughly how large an impact it must have been, and how far away it was, and therefore how many minutes they have to flee before the blastwave hits them. It’s an absolute blast to see protagonists using science effectively to solve high-stakes problems under time pressure. Of course, surviving the initial blast is just the start. :)
Then the novel skips ahead X months, and all that stops. From this point on, it becomes a social justice drama. The first thing that suffers for this is the realism of the setting. Destroying the industrial and commercial base of the United States would have devastating consequences, a massive recession would be just the beginning. But Kowal clearly wanted to write a story set in our 1950s era, and so we get the cultural and societal reality of OUR 1950s, not a post-devastation one. I realize this is important for a story that wants to be about the racism and sexism of the 50s, but maybe don’t start by blasting away the eastern seaboard soon after WWII then?
There’s also very little actual feeling of racism or sexism in the novel. Like, some people are jerks to our female protag, and we hear about people of color being excluded from high-status jobs, but it’s rarely upsetting. To contrast, I was unable to watch past the first episode of Mad Men. The casual misogyny, the abject dismissal of anything a woman could possibly think, was so effective and enraging that I could not go back to the show. I felt my blood pressure spiking and my guts sickening and even one more episode of that was more than I could stomach. I could name dozens of similar works that enrage me by showing people mistreated, and fill me with righteous zeal to see justice served. Stars doesn’t do that.
Even as a climate-change warning it is ineffective. Bacigalupi writes good climate-change fiction. You want to make people feel, show them the people who are getting hurt. Maybe give us a scene from the PoV of the black families that are being passed over and ignored so white people can be evacuated. The closest we get is a mention of a food riot where no one even gets so much as a bad cut.
Everything that happens after that first time-skip is bloodless and boring. The protagonist is a well-off white woman married to a high-ranking government official. Her problems aren’t really problems. Her gaffes may offend her friends of color. Her interactions with stuffy old men are sometimes unpleasant. None of this matters much. What are the stakes? If she fails, what bad things happen as a result? She feels embarrassed and goes back to her comfortable life? Oh noes. It doesn’t matter though, because she never fails or even meets much opposition. Everything just kinda works out fine.
I think Kowal realized things were too easy and there wasn’t any conflict, so she gives her protag crippling stage fright. But, first, that’s not a very interesting problem. And second, it doesn’t actually change anything. There’s a few paragraphs describing nausea and sweats, and then the protag pulls over her presentation perfectly with great social grace and no one even notices.
Even the sex scenes are dull and awkward. I never thought a sex scene could be boring, but here we are.
Anyway, there’s a bunch of fretting about sexism and racism, some nausea and stage fright, and then things work out ok. This process then repeats itself three or four times, and then the book stops. There was no theme, no character development, no real challenge or stakes. It’s basically just a slice-of-life story of a super-woke white couple in the 50s.
As a novel, The Calculating Stars is a failure.
However I come not to bury The Calculating Stars, but to praise it.
For I have read this sort of work before, and I recognize that anyone who reads this like a novel is reading it wrong. This is not a novel. This is a web-serial. I’ve read a few of these before, and I know people who LOVE them. I know someone who said they don’t really get into a story until it reaches a million words. They basically want to be with a character as they go through their life. Calculating Stars is almost a coffeeshop AU in structure, although without all the relationships. Kowal has basically taken the web serial style of story and is trying to see if it can be monetized by releasing it as books rather than posted weekly online. If it works it’ll be really profitable, and it’s cool that it’s being tried.
I’m not really interested in reading this myself. I like the novel structure, it’s why I read novels, so I was disappointed that I got a woke 50s web serial instead. If you’re into that, you’ll like this. But if you’re like me, Not Recommended.
Book Club Review: Whether this works for your book club depends on how sensitive your group is to culture war stuff. We had some discomfort talking about this book, because everyone had lingering guilt that they were being sexist or racist for finding this to be weak sauce. We did get to talking about how it could have been done better, and how we shouldn’t judge people for liking things we don’t like, and so forth. And it’s not like anyone really disliked the book. It was just kinda there. Honestly it’s possible this could spark some interesting conversation… but I wouldn’t really count on it, because it’s just not very forceful in anything it says. Maybe that’s a good thing, it kept us all pretty sedate and polite. But you’re probably better off discussing something with more oomph. Mildly Not Recommended.