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This is a longish review, because I needed to document some things. However, I have posted a condensed version on Goodreads, and submitted a similarly small review on Amazon.
Greetings, Internet friends and neighbors, and a big hug and kiss to those who are following along with the month-long series of Dragon Awards book reviews: here is the SECOND review for today!
(Ummm, no, it isn't. This was supposed to go out last night. Sorry.)
And for my family who may have stumbled onto the site: every once in a while I re-learn why we only had dogs growing up, and not cats. Tonight is one of those times.
If my count is right, I have read 10 of the 2019 Dragon Award Finalists, and this is my 9th review. I have one I am holding in reserve, for a day when LTUE decides I don't get to read or write much for a bit. I am highly gratified to report that I finally have my daily average read required down below 300 pages per day, at least for the next 1 hour and 46 minutes. (Nope) One day real soon I'm gonna have to tackle the monster on the list (784 pages),
BUT IT WILL NOT BE THIS DAY!
Hmm. Viggo Mortensen got more mileage out of that line. Must be the costume.
“The Calculating Stars” is, if nothing else, a paean to the courage and strength of the women featured in “Hidden Figures,” although Dilly's Girls and the Debs at Bletchley Park in WWII could also accept some of the homage given to those women with amazing math and problem-solving skills. At the time, their contributions to their countries were largely anonymous, a status which has been partially rectified in recent years. Also receiving well-earned recognition are the women who served with the Women Airforce (or Army, or Auxiliary) Service Pilots (WASP), a cadre of over 1000 pilots who flew in various essential non-combat roles in WWII, replacing male pilots who were cleared for combat status. All of these groups are worth the time it would take to research them, and the author includes some additional information in an appendix.
Protagonist Elma Wexler York and her husband Nathaniel are taking a brief semi-honeymoon, prior to returning to jobs with the newly founded National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in Washington, DC. He is an engineer, she a mathematician, although that title is not used for her. Rather, she and her fellows are called computers. Both served during WWII, he as an Army captain, she as a WASP.
Although the catastrophic meteorite ocean strike offshore Washington DC, at 9:53 AM on March 3rd, 1952, is the foundation of the story, this story diverged from our timeline before that event. We are told that Dewey actually did defeat Truman, and also that NACA has launched three satellites. No additional background is provided, but the author explains that she made the changes so that Wernher von Braun and his crew could receive funding from a Dewey Administration.
The couple survive the blast effects from the strike, and are able to reach their private aircraft, parked some distance from the cabin. Along the way, they see wreckage and body parts, but no living humans. Elma pilots the plane to the nearest open airfield, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. There they meet with Air Force colonel Stetson Parker, who suggests that because of the casualties in the DC area, his command may extend well beyond the boundaries of Wright-Patterson. He is delighted to see Nathaniel, as he believes that the catastrophe may be a result of a Russian rocket attack, and wants to use his expertise to prepare a counter-attack. He is far from pleased to see Elma, though, as he believes she reported him for sexual harassment ('conduct unbecoming for an officer') when they happened to be serving in the same area during WWII.
NOTE: Throughout the book, he remains the Bad Guy. While his skills as a pilot are never in question, and his ability as a flight instructor is commended, his character strives to denigrate Elma and block her from advancement.
By virtue of family connections and her own expertise, Elma is able to gather data which predicts global extinction within 50 years. She is able to get the attention of the acting president, the former Secretary of Agriculture. And, what with one thing and another, the nascent American space program is funded to research immediate development of off-planet colonies. NACA is absorbed into the new International Aerospace Coalition, IAC.
Elma recruits a cadre of women to run the calculations necessary to develop the hardware for the space program. Former WASPs are heavily represented, and she is also preparing the women to participate fully in the operational aspects of the program, by the formation of a women's flying club. The woman who was her original hostess when she arrived at Wright-Patterson puts her in touch with some black aviators, and the group incorporates black aviators, as well as a Chinese woman.
Elma's contact with the black women opens her eyes to the segregation in the system. The refusal of the IAC administration to consider women for training as astronauts, as well as the exclusion of non-white candidates, and her efforts to overcome that choice, provides the text for the remainder of the book.
Stories classed as science fiction absolutely get to take liberty with facts. That's NOT a negative. I'm thinking specifically about Heinlein's “Waldo” and “Magic, Incorporated,” and how much I've enjoyed re-reading those over the years. Even so, I am permitted to point out points in which the narrative seems stretched.
I doubt seriously that there was a data base available that would have permitted such specificity of climate predictions in 1952, and even if some relevant records were available, the number crunching power of methods available at the time simply couldn't make anything like a reliable prediction. While the author does gain some leeway here, by establishing that early results weren't consistent with the original prediction, that isn't quite the point; the point is not coming up with an accurate forecast; the point is coming up with a forecast that policy-makers will accept. It simply couldn't be done. It's not a deal-breaker, though; this IS, after all, science fiction.
The massive number of innovations needed to achieve a space colonization effort large enough to guarantee the survival of the human race, within the 50-year time limit imposed, is more than unrealistic. It's not a deal-breaker, though; this IS, after all, science fiction.
One of the main supporters of the space program is said, in August of 1956. to have been a vocal supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King. That's not likely to be the case, for several reasons. At that time, King had essentially NO national reputation; he did not start to gain notice until the Birmingham Bus boycott. In addition, the possibility of the economy recovering enough by August of 1956 for a non-violent sustained civil rights demonstration along the order of the Birmingham action to take place is small, particularly since the headquarters of the NAACP is in Baltimore, which was destroyed. Finally, King was likely dead. When the meteorite hit, King was a doctoral student in Boston, and Boston streets flood during routine weather. With coastal areas being obliterated from the wave surge, it's not likely that anyone in that area survived. It's not a deal-breaker, though; this IS, after all, science fiction.
I think the author is wildly optimistic about implementing race- and gender-free recruiting for military programs in a post-meteor US. In our own timeline, President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 AFTER he received his party's nomination for the 1948 election, and even so, the last military segregated unit wasn't eliminated until late 1954. In the chaos following the decapitation of the military in 1952, the military would revert to tradition, not accept innovation. It's not a deal-breaker, though; this IS, after all, science fiction; bit it's CLOSE.
There are two items, which taken together, DO amount to a deal-breaker for me, and they are related, via one particular scene.
Three of the Lady Astronaut trainees participate in an exercise which simulates an aircraft crashing in water. The “Dilbert Dunker” is a real device used in training, but in this scene, the women are given bikinis to wear, instead of a flight suit, and are photographed by a horde of reporters as they go through the process.
This is absolutely implausible. At the time, the bikini was a new and risque item of swimwear, banned from many public beaches. A conversation with a retired NASA scientist affirmed that the intensely conservative space administration would NEVER have exposed trainees to what amounts to a wet T-shirt contest. They might have suicided before permitting women to participate in the training program, but they would NEVER have permitted such a violation of standard dress codes in such fashion.
Besides being implausible, it was the scene that convinced me that the book was less about science fiction and alternate history, than it was about polemics. We are given many examples, prior to this, of the wicked treatment the women are subject to, without any negative consequences to those who block their advancement, or even actively persecute them. There is no disputing the historic fact of systematic segregation and discrimination based on gender and race, which are the two factors presented in the book. However, the author made the point a LONG time before this scene. I found the bikini scene to be clownish and grotesque, and it utterly took me out of the narrative.
And then we come to the question: Is this book a likely candidate to win the 2019 Dragon Award for Best Alternate History Novel?
The answer to THAT question is largely going to depend on who you ask. The Science Fiction Writers Association gave it the 2019 Award for Best Novel. It also won the 2019 Locus Award, which is determined by an online vote, with votes from subscribers to the magazine given twice the weight of non-subscribers. It also won the 2019 Hugo for Best Novel; those are determined by WorldCon members voting. And so on. So, there is plenty of support for the win.
There are just too many impossible things for me to believe, and I truly was disturbed by the bikini scene.
It is, however, guaranteed not to put a live octopus on your face.
Peace be on your household.