In this alternative history of space flight, a meteorite strikes in 1952 just off the east coast of the United States, destroying Washington D.C. and forcing the New White House inland. It also spawns a “meteor winter” and future global warming that threaten humanity’s survival, fomenting the development of rockets a full decade earlier than in real life. But historical reality retains its grip in this novel that spans most of the 1950s – racism abounds, as does a chauvinist perspective that limits women to the role of computers as they perform the mathematical calculations that will launch rockets and eventually put (male) astronauts in space.
Elma York is an experienced pilot with military experience from the Second World War, a PhD in physics, and a supportive husband. Both she and Nathaniel work for the International Space Coalition, and Elma is advocating hard for women in the astronaut corps, though the publicity she is raising only exacerbates her severe anxiety. But her love of math gives her comfort – she recites prime numbers and Fibonacci sequences to calm herself. I love this character! She is determined, honest, authentic, and real – deeply attuned to sexism, she is blind to other forms of otherness, and ashamed of herself as she slowly realizes how women of colour face a double ‘ism. Her relationships with husband Nathaniel and other family members are touching and realistic, and the science is solid. This is a real gem of a novel. Hands down the best book I’ve read in the past year, this is the first in “The Lady Astronaut” duology; Book 2 is The Fated Sky; both are currently available from Tor. Expect awards and movie rights on this one soon! Kowal includes a fascinating historical note explaining how she came to install Dewey as president while otherwise generally adhering to history, and acknowledging the advice of experts that make the science in this book so authentic. There’s also an excellent bibliography that includes Hidden Figures and An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. My thanks to the Grand Forks & District Public Library for adding this great title to its collection. There’s probably a waitlist; you can get a taste of Kowal’s writing with the Lady Astronaut short story that led to this book, available online at https://www.tor.com/2018/07/02/read-mary-robinette-kowals-the-lady-astronaut-of-mars/
More discussion and reviews of this novel: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/33080122