Lady Astronauts Are Out of This World!

Every author is deserving of our gratitude for weaving a story that distracts, enchants or terrifies us. I’m always rooting for an author to have good health or someone to do their laundry so that they can have more time to write, because they should focus on the next book that will give us all so much joy.

Authors who write historical fiction seem to have a tougher job than most, as they are sifting through research to be certain that the facts accurately match up in their novels. They know that there will always be a reader who questions their use of a particular term in a character’s dialogue or their placement of an electric lamp in a home when electricity wasn’t yet commonly in use. Authors going a step further, writing books in the genre of alternate history, are a whole other ballgame. I’m sure that their story mapping ends up looking something like those scenes from TV police departments where they have maps, photographs, post-it notes and strings going back and forth between everything, but instead of tracking a killer the author is just trying to keep all of the years, details and characters straight!

Mary Robinette Kowal wrote Nebula Award-nominated fiction before she turned her attention to the Lady Astronaut series in 2018 so her research skills are strong. In moving to the world of space exploration there was an added level of technical detail which she credits to fellow authors, current astronauts and physicists who were always supportive of her series. Elma York, the main character in her first novel, The Calculating Stars, is a physicist and human calculator (like the women in Hidden Figures) and Kowal said in an interview that she would often write dialogue between characters leaving blank spaces for calculations or astronaut-specific jargon to be inserted. It has worked perfectly!

At the beginning of the first novel a massive meteor crashes into the eastern U.S., destroying Washington, D.C., several states and beginning a worldwide climate crisis. Elma and her husband, Nathaniel, both work for the organization that will become NASA, so they rush to the closest airbase to assist and, finding that the world has been turned upside down, become part of the group of people who believe that space exploration and colonization is an integral part of saving humanity. Their struggle to rebuild their lives after the horror of the meteor, their push for those in the administration to accept the urgency of the environmental catastrophe and the fight for NASA to accept Elma and the other women as astronaut candidates, could have made this book an exhausting read but the friendships that are built between the characters create a wonderful sense of family when so much of what they had depended on has been lost.

Her second book, The Fated Sky, continues on ten years after the first book. Some of the thrill of reading an alternate history is in seeing which pieces of history an author chooses to keep, which they will embellish, and which will be jettisoned entirely. In Kowal’s case many choices had to be made so that her timeline could be sped up and, of course, several states in the U.S. were obliterated by the meteor so the capital had to be moved and known politicians died in the disaster. She allowed several well-known astronauts to ‘survive’ and sprinkles their names throughout the novels. For example, astronaut Alan Bean (Apollo 12) is mentioned as one of the artists who has artwork in the gallery they establish on their eventual lunar colony. In some cases, she has created entirely new organizations, like the IAC (International Aerospace Coalition), to coordinate the efforts of colonizing space.

Her administrators follow the familiar path of launching into space, achieving orbit around Earth and landing on the moon but everything happens on a much faster timeline. Elma and her friends had been successful in becoming ‘lady astronauts’, serving as pilots on trips to the moon, and have now been chosen to join the crew that will journey to Mars. Elma’s choice to make this journey will have an impact on her family life, will prevent a close friend from taking the journey, and put her in close quarters for 3 years with a misogynistic crewmate. Her personal worries combined with the threat of a terrorist attack on their mission (a percentage of people calling themselves ‘Earth Firsters’ believe that spending on space exploration should be cut and are sabotaging their missions) and the conversations about lack of progress for the civil rights movement make this another sensational read. And, the little details about life in zero gravity are top-notch – she has made great use of her expert panel again.

The third novel in the series (Kowal initially saw this as a duology but found there were more stories to tell about life in her alternate world) begins on Earth but eventually moves to take place almost entirely on the lunar colony, raising the stakes and the tension. Two of Elma’s friends – Myrtle Lindholm and Nicole Wargin – from the first ‘lady astronauts’ candidate group have main roles in this whodunnit on the moon. The FBI believes those who have been trying to sabotage missions may now be in residence on the lunar colony and could be working to harm the settlers there and destroy confidence in the program. Both women are accomplished pilots and have important roles to play in developing life on the moon but Nicole, as the wife of current the governor of Kansas (with hopes of becoming a presidential candidate), has been given more information about the ‘investigation’ and begins to see small accidents as part of a larger problem. Their search for the saboteur is absolutely thrilling, filled with false clues and a constant dread that someone is going to die in this chapter.

No spoilers here, of course, but there are absolutely shocking moments in the last half of this story. If I were a person who wrote to authors to say “oh, did you have to?” Well, this would be that time. The Relentless Moon is another example of a book filled with infinitely capable, determined women who are trying to balance the work of being an astronaut with what is ‘expected’ of them. In all three books the author has her characters pushing up against blatant sexism and racism, making their stories seem very current despite being set in the 1950s and 1960s. The women who were scheduled to take the first ‘all female’ spacewalk in March of 2019 and had to delay this historical moment several months as the space station did not have sufficient suits in the appropriate size might find some of these conversations seem familiar.

Whether they are on a shuttle, on the lunar colony, on Earth or on a 3-year journey to Mars, I would be happy to spend time with this fictional group of astronauts at any time. Despite facing a climate crisis that will force them to leave their planet, a meteor that took their families, and ripple effects like anxiety and depression, they are determined, loyal and funny – there are moments of dialogue between friends and partners that are worth writing down so that you can return to them on a dark day. These are women who have exceptional careers who you would also want by your side during any moment of crisis. I can’t think of a more comforting read right now. Mary Robinette Kowal was interviewed about this series and said that her publisher has contracted her to write several more books in this series and its certainly good news to know that these lady astronauts and I are going to be friends for a long time.

— Penny M.