Friday, March 19, 2021

Book Reviews: The Lady Astronaut Series

 Mary Robinette’s Lady Astronaut Series: Three Novels and A Novella


The Lady Astronaut (novella)

This was the tale that began it all. The Lady Astronaut has the shape and emotional clarity of short fiction while evoking a larger story both in time and space. Thirty years ago, in the early 1950s, a meteorite strike on the Eastern United States ignited a space race. The central character, Elma York, was once a pioneering astronaut, world-famous as The Lady Astronaut of Mars. Now in her 60s, she still yearns to return to space, but the upcoming mission is a one-way trip and her beloved husband has only a short time left to live. Elma’s dilemma is the centerpiece of a beautifully crafted, perfectly balanced story.


The Calculating Stars

A concept like The Lady Astronaut cries out for development, and here we journey backward

in time to the origin story. In 1952, history took a different turn when a meteorite obliterated most of the East Coast of the United States. Elma and Nathanael York were among the survivors, eventually making their way to the new capitol and the newly formed International Aerospace Coalition. Here he becomes the lead engineer and she, a computer. They understand all too well the danger that the dust and water vapor thrown into the atmosphere will lead first to a prolonged drop in Earth’s temperatures, and then a runaway greenhouse effect. It’s entirely likely that the world will become uninhabitable. If humanity is to survive, it must be on another planet. They have time, but only if they devote all their resources to it. Thus, the Space Race of the 1960s begins a decade earlier, and with a very different mission.

Elma’s experience as a wartime pilot, along with her genius for mathematical computations, makes her a prime candidate for astronaut training. But this is the 1950s, when sexism as well as racism run rampant and the head of the program is determined to find any excuse to exclude women. A few white women might stand a chance but minorities are out of the running, which is a terrible loss because many of the superb women pilots trained in World War II are Black or Asian.

At this point, the story shifts focus from an alternate history disaster thriller to an examination of how an earlier space race would have run up against the social institutions and prejudices of the day. Racism, attitudes towards women, and antisemitism, are pervasive. Characters range from those, like Elma, who forge alliances and friendships, to rabidly pro-apartheid South African astronaut trainees. Elma’s personal experiences as a Jew and a woman in a male-dominated field make her not only sympathetic in herself but believable in her advocacy of equality. Elma witnesses the struggles of her Black colleagues and friends from the outside, never truly able to understand but willing to acknowledge her limitations. She is all too aware of when she blunders into thinking she understands the lives of her Black friends, even as she is willing to use her white privilege to open doors for them.

As a note: The alliance between Blacks and Jews dates back at least to the 1950s, when both were targets of white supremacist groups like the KKK. In 1958, the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple in Atlanta, Georgia, was bombed by a group calling itself the Confederate Underground. The bombing was in retaliation for the outspoken activism of the senior rabbi, who criticized segregation and advocated for racial equality.

Elma is anything but a cardboard soapbox character. She suffers from a crippling anxiety disorder. I love flawed characters and I cheer them on as they struggle to overcome their challenges. Elma’s social anxiety is severe enough that the physical symptoms threaten to overwhelm her, yet she never gives up. She uses mathematics as a mantra to calm herself. Despite her attempts to avoid being in the spotlight, she’s catapulted into fame with an appearance on “Ask Mr. Wizard” and subsequently became the public face of the space program as “The Lady Astronaut.” When the stresses of public appearances become too much, she seeks medical help and receives a prescription for Miltown (meprobamate), an early anxiolytic drug. The medication is of tremendous help, even though Elma feels obliged to keep it a secret or risk losing her chance at actually going into space.

Elma isn’t perfect, but she doesn’t need to be in order to be extraordinarily competent and inspiring. People with mental illness can and do achieve amazing things, and there is help. Even without the gripping plot, this message in itself lifts The Calculating Stars above the typical disaster science fiction tale.

I should also mention that although I could not follow the math, physics, and engineering details, I loved them. They offered a peek into the scientific literacy and skills of the generation that in our time send humans into orbit around the Earth and to the Moon.


The Fated Sky

While the mission to colonize other planets proceeds apace, conditions on Earth are deteriorating. Many believe that resources ought to be better spent in helping those who have been displaced by the meteorite strike and the subsequent social upheavals. The political climate is swinging against the exploration of space, with groups like “Earth First” gaining members. Their actions grow increasingly violent, from taking Elma and other astronauts hostage when their shuttle crashes to sabotaging facilities on the Moon. If The Calculating Stars was “how it all started,” The Fated Sky follows close on its heels in fine style with “how many things can go wrong.”

 The Relentless Moon

Elma York is now on her way to Mars, but the drama closer to home is anything but over. Fellow astronaut Nicole Wargin tries to balance her dreams of joining the colony on the Moon with her duties as the wife of Kansas governor, a likely candidate for president. Like Elma, Nicole wrestles with mental illness, in her case anorexia. She’s had it a long time and has solid coping strategies. But when sabotage cuts the Moon off from Earth and a polio epidemic rages through the colony, and she is one of the few members capable of discovering the saboteurs and stopping them, not to mention keeping everyone alive, she finds herself at risk of a serious relapse.

Like its predecessors, The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky, The Relentless Moon pairs hard-science thriller excitement with sensitive characters and a sweet, enduring love story.

That's far. I certainly hope there will be more "Lady Astronaut" stories!


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