Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Relentless Moon and the Lady Astronaut Universe (Blogging the Hugos 2021)

If the history of Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut Universe were the same as the one that you and I share, I would be writing to you as a dead man.

I suppose, even in terms of timeline, I might be dead anyway. The 2019 winner of the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Locus awards for best novel, The Calculating Stars, opens in 1952, meaning that the stars of the show would be hitting 100 just about now.

But there is another reason I would be toast in the Lady Astronaut Universe. The Calculating Stars begins with the story of a married couple working for the IAC (International Aerospace Coalition). Drs Elma and Nathaniel York are enjoying a rare romantic weekend away from their desks, at a cabin in the mountains. They are suddenly unnerved by a rent in the sky and a faraway concussion. Most of us might dismiss it as an accident or earthquake–or a missile attack in Soviet-era US history. Elma, however, was a WWII pilot, and works as a physicist and mathematician, while Nathaniel is an engineer. Through a series of subtle clues and quick calculations, they determine that a meteorite has struck and that they are in imminent danger. With pluck and expertise and some luck, they survive the deadly explosive power of the global-killing meteorite and fly to safety.

As the entire Eastern seaboard succumbs to flame and flood, the United States reorganizes itself inland and the world struggles to deal with the world’s largest single-day catastrophe and the most significant migration of people ever. When Elma does the math on the event, they discover that it will be a catalyst for rapid global climate change–more rapid even than the Chicxulub impact that began the Paleocene. Beginning in the Atlantic region, a long nuclear winter will go global, followed within a few years of rapid warming, ultimately boiling the oceans (at about the time that we get Facebook in our timeline).

While we can be assured that life will find a way, the planet will soon be too toxic for human life–even for Jeff Goldblum. Elma and Nathaniel York find themselves at the centre of a global cooperative movement to get humans off the planet, including settlements on the Moon and on Mars. The trilogy of novels that follow features woman’s point of view stories about experts struggling to navigate sexist and racist bureaucracies of government, technology, and military.

And the “fate of mankind” is on the line.

Not lost in world-building details, the structures of catastrophe and the struggles for liberation in the Lady Astronaut Universe are the context for stories of personal growth, trial, and triumph. The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky (2018) are from Elma York’s viewpoint, a friendly and self-conscious intellectual working as an IAC (human) computer with an unusually adept and intuitive mathematical sense. Elma finds herself in a battle to be heard as the mathematician who predicted the first global winter and subsequent global warming, as well as a skilled pilot vying to be the first woman in the space program. Her real battle, however, is with a general anxiety disorder that is triggered by stress and tragedy and an intense fear of the media or interpersonal conflict. With a winsome sense of relational connection and a rugged commitment to the possible, Elma finds a way to become “the first Lady Astronaut” (insert an earnest and upbeat 1950s TV commentator voice here).

In The Relentless Moon (2020)—the first nominee in my Blogging the Hugos 2021 series—Elma York is on her way to Mars. Back at home, a Moon colony is steadily being established. Elma’s pilot-friend, politician’s wife Nicole Wargin, is a few steps from becoming one of the early settlers on the Moon after a number of successful supply flights and her early work as a pilot in setting up the infrastructure for the first Moonbase.

Nicole lacks the scientifically precise knowledge that Elma carries with her, but she has her own more eclectic set of skills that help her conquer against the odds. Beautiful, fit, poised, perfectly in control of her public face and uniquely and intimately connected to her husband in their private lives, Nicole also has the fierce and suicidal commitment to mission and personal strength that is characteristic of pilots in the IAC corps.

The generation of early ’50s-‘60s astronauts and public figures in The Relentless Moon (and at the background of The Fated Sky) are battling a public relations disaster of sagging popular support, intra-government conspiracy, and well-executed terrorist attacks. While the IAC and the US (and other) governments are sending strong, well-educated, well-connected white men—with a few women and black men—to “safety” in the skies, people are literally starving at home. In the midst of her own hidden personal struggle—combined with bodily injury and family tragedy—Nicole sets herself to the task of rooting out the terrorists who are quietly sabotaging the Moon colony—a base made of plastic and glass and duct-taped systems, where any singular system failure could result in hundreds of deaths.

With a capacity for building loyalty, solving problems, and pulling out talents and skillsets no one knows that she possesses—for a Governor’s wife and beauty school dilettante, she has a surprisingly strong ability to improvise weaponry—Nicole can set herself to work a problem even when her body is broken and her world is falling apart.

While The Fated Sky drifts a bit, The Relentless Moon is longer than necessary, and the first-person narrative is (to my taste) far too restrictive, these are pretty fun books that have an important social contribution. Commentators will no doubt want to highlight the strong women and people of colour who find ways to effect change against all odds and in the face of layers of oppositions. The Lady Astronaut Universe books are certainly provocative in rewriting the 1950s and 1960s so that the world requires more than a tepid and slow-moving response to segregation and sexism. Our cultural revolutions have never really feared the Sword of Damocles, so the social equality possibilities in these books erupt with satisfying intensity, while much (frustratingly, especially in terms of class and privilege) remains the same.

I think, though, that the contributions run much more deeply than these of-the-moment concerns, and that Kowal’s writing provides a depth of character beyond societal tropes that still speak to our weaknesses as a culture.

In particular, these three novels feature the stories of scientists, working together logically and reasonably to creatively navigate impossible social pressures and showing the imaginative capacity needed to get the job done.

The novels portray people with mental illnesses, working in environments (the military, the public eye, scientific teams) where such weaknesses are not permitted.

And, perhaps most surprising of all in such a hard-science wired series, the Lady Astronaut books feature characters trying to make authentic religious connections.

You can see Elma York’s Jewish faith deepen in significance for her (and others), even when keeping kosher is challenging when you are a refugee in the midst of a global disaster or an astronaut in a tiny ship for years on end with six other (gentile) scientists. Socialite-pilot-spy catcher Nicole Wargin makes no pretense to a living faith, and plays the role of the perfect Methodist politician’s wife well. But as we have her interior point of view, we can see appreciation for her husband’s faith deepen as her respect grows for the faith-life of the highly skilled and powerful black couple, Eugene and Myrtle Lindholm. Eugene and Myrtle are earnest Christian believers–Eugene was headed to seminary when he got the bug to fly–and yet they are real people. Indeed, these three core couples—the Wargins, the Yorks, and the Lindholms—have strong marriages with healthy sex lives, mutual respect, and loving intimacy. And yet, the characters are living, stumbling, struggling, human beings—not tiresome cardboard cut-out figures as so many religious or scientific characters end up being in so many stories today.

I don’t read a novel for its “contributions,” but for its story—the characters, the world, the poetry, the imagery, the journey before and within me. If these novels failed in story, they would have little to say about the social moment. And it is the storytelling, overall, that makes the subtle transformations of cultural expectations shine in this trilogy.

There are gaps in the writing for me. Elma York’s sex dialogue is about the most awkward thing I have ever read. I suppose that’s cute, but it becomes wearisome over two novels. I wish The Relentless Moon had pressed in more on the motifs of the spy novel—talk about a man out in the cold!—or the horror story. I admire Kowal’s commitment to technical scientific accuracy. This approach really pays off in this third novel, where Nicole and her friends have to stay ahead of an equally creative and scientific set of saboteurs who have access to the same challenges and opportunities that the space colony offer. However, Kowal does not always capitalize on the emotional intensity of some of these moments of terror and threat–at least not with the skill that she shows in making that connection for readers in moments of relational loss, scientific breakthrough, or personal victory.

Overall, Mary Robinette Kowal gives us a good science fiction story that is immersive in surprising ways. Writing a series like this is not rocket science, but it is still pretty hard to do well. Kowal’s commitment to scientific verisimilitude in the iconic alternate histories of the ‘50s and ‘60s is compelling. These books are more beach reads than Hugo-level books for me, but I look forward to what could be a great TV adaptation. Imagine the visual design possibilities of a moon colony in the 50s!

Blogging the Hugos 2021 (Tentative Schedule)

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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8 Responses to Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Relentless Moon and the Lady Astronaut Universe (Blogging the Hugos 2021)

  1. louloureads says:

    I’ve read the first two of these and enjoyed them very much, the second more than the first. I love the way it depicts scientific work as a combination of logic, collaboration, and imagination – as you have picked up here. The romance was too cloyingly sweet for my tastes and took up too much of the first novel especially – but if the third book moves away from Elma and Nathaniel, and includes more of a focus on technical and scientific accuracy, I think I will probably enjoy it even more than the first two! I don’t remember the themes about faith very much, except for the Yorkes being Jewish, so I will keep an eye out for that in the third book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the note! I’m glad you liked the Mars-travel book better than I did. I think you will enjoy this new one. In all cases, the faith notes are pretty light–which makes them all the more effective, I think. Elma’s Hebrew prayers are like a litany of cosmic steadiness, much like her numerical recitation. There is a tendency in America to romanticize Black spirituality, but the Lindholms were pretty great, for me.

      Liked by 1 person

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  3. Dawn says:

    These books sound AMAZING! Elma intrigues me as many scientist characters do, I love space. I love apocalyptic natural events that cause all humanity to question its existence. I’m in for the whole series.

    But, first. I have to finish “The Left Hand of Darkness” which was on my list after your Goodreads review and then I founda copy rather bent and discarded in my lobby. It is so rich! Thank you . 😊

    Liked by 1 person

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