Consisting of three books so far, Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series imagines a world different to ours, but still retaining a sense of place and history that resonates with anyone who reads them.
Alternate or alternative history fiction is also known as What If, in that it takes a fixed point in human history and then imagines what might happen if something else occured. You will find plenty of “What if Hitler won WWll” scenarios in print and on screen, the most popular example being Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. The Grandmaster of alternative history, Harry Turtledove, went one better. His two trilogies, Worldwar and Colonization, imagined what would happen if instead of fighting each other, Allied and Axis forces united as one to fight an alien invasion in 1941. It’s a fun concept, one that Turtledove ran with, leaving no stone uncovered.
Mary Robinette’s trilogy is similar in scope but much more focused on themes rather than action-packed set-pieces (though there are many, trust me). It began life as a novelette published in 2012, The Lady Astronaut of Mars, ultimately winning a Hugo Award a couple of years later. It told of Elma York, the lady astronaut of the title and the author’s pivotal character, and her time on Mars, 30 years after a successful expedition to the red planet and humanity’s eventual settlement. Mary Robinette then went back in time to how it all began.
The Calculating Stars explains how history diverted from the path we’re currently in the midst of. Instead of Harry S.Truman winning the US presidency in 1948, his opponent Thomas Dewey takes the White House and casts his eyes upwards into space. The first satellite is in place by 1952, beating the USSR in this historical setting. Then calamity strikes, literally. A meteorite obliterates the east coast of the United States, setting off a catastrophic change of events that will, in a matter of decades, leave Planet Earth uninhabitable. It’s imperative that humanity finds a new home. And so, to make this happen, the International Aerospace Coalition is created. Think NASA, but with everyone invited.
Elma York is a mathematics genius, capable of working out complex theorems and equations in her head. Well before the creation of supercomputers that can do the same thing, Elma and her colleagues are vital to the IAC. But because she’s a woman, she struggles to make her voice heard in a male-dominated profession. Not only is she a whizz with figures, Elma is an accomplished pilot, and it is this talent as much as anything else that leads her to become a media darling, the Lady Astronaut. The administration trots Elma out because her looks and personality are acceptable to her bosses. That’s sexism with a capital S right there. Elma knows this, her husband Nathaniel knows this, even the president knows this. But over time, despite enduring cippling bouts of anxiety, Elma’s quick-thinking eventually leads to, in the following book The Fated Sky, becoming an integral part of humanity’s first manned mission to Mars.
The third book, The Relentless Moon, runs concurrent to The Fated Sky, and featured Elma’s friend Nicole Wargin, a governor’s wife and not without influence herself despite the deep-rooted sexism pervading US politics. Whereas Elma deals with the problems of living in deep space, Nicole’s focus is divided between the Moon and Earth. Saboteurs are desperate to bring to an end humanity’s planned evacuation, maintaining that Earth’s governments will leave the poorest members of human society behind. They launch a campaign of violence and chaos that ends with the assasination of a high-profile government official.
Racism runs deep in these books, too. The 1950s and 60s is no different in Kowal’s history than it is in ours. Black female pilots endure constant side-lining ahead of their white collagues, despite having the greater skills and experience. Black astronauts are treated with suspicion because one of the groups of saboteurs is linked to a Black civil rights group. It doesn’t help that on both the Moon and on the Mars expedition, apartheid supporting South Africans have powerful positions. This creates a lot of tension in the books, and while individual incidents are handled as well as they can be by people with sense, racism never goes away.
Ultimately, though, Kowal’s series is one of hope for humanity, and there is the thrill of exploring the unknown however dangerous and unpredictable it will be. Kowal brings her knowledge, personal experience, and extensive research to everyone of the series fast-moving pages. Her characters, female and male, are deeply human, and endure a lot in their roles as saviours of humanity. Not everyone is likeable, but there are very much relatable. You will root for them, because in the end you want us to survive. You want us to be better.