The Calculating Stars
Written by: Mary Robinette Kowal
Reviewed by: Brad Williamson
“The Calculating Stars” was a 2018 novel by Mary Robinette Kowal that won almost every major 2019 science-fiction literary award. In it, Kowal re-imagines the space race in a world changed by a meteorite’s destruction of Washington D.C. and the surrounding region.
I enjoyed the book’s perspective regarding how the space race would have gone drastically different if the overall perception of it had been altered. If people had considered space exploration necessary, as opposed to competitive or scientific, where might we be now? Would the moon already be colonized? Would Mars be inhabited?
This is when the book is at its most powerful, when it questions not what’s possible, but how we could have accomplished so much more than we have. It begins by using a natural disaster as mankind’s catalyst, but then it delves into how we can do better by ourselves. What positivity might we create by bringing about more gender, race, and cultural equality? These are the questions at the heart of “Calculating Stars.”
While I enjoyed the novel’s premise and values, and despite my excitement to read such a lauded book, I was very disappointed for two main reasons.
I strongly disliked the pace of the book. It opens with the meteorite, setting the scene for the alternate historical timeline, then stalls for a long time. I felt like more happened in the first 60 pages than the entire rest of the story. With the chapter headings and plot, space exploration is established as a primary driving force of the novel, but I felt like it was mostly forgotten, or at least pushed to the side, as the story continued.
I also disliked the characters. They all felt very one-dimensional, created for the purpose of fulfilling a specific role and making a point. None of them does anything unexpected. Once the plot gets going and the characters are introduced, it is simple to predict what each of them will do in each situation. There is no nuance in their personalities. Probably worst of all is their dialogue. I cringed more than once reading the conversations between multiple pairs of characters.
I liked aspects of the book, but the shallowness of its characters and slowness of its plot really took me out of the story and setting multiple times. Despite wanting to like it, and not strongly disliking it as a whole while reading it, I was unimpressed.
Recommended for hardcore fans of science-fiction so that you might keep up on current publications, but not for anyone else.