To start off, I liked this book. It is pretty easy to poke holes in it, but overall it is a fun read. I grew up reading SF from the Golden Age, and this book isn’t just set in the 50s, it also has the feel of Heinlein, Asimov or Arthur C Clarke. This is upbeat, hard SF in which perky optimistic people can overcome challenges armed with shiny technology and a positive attitude. For me this has massive nostalgic appeal.
That said, the initial set up is anything but bright and shiny. This is an alternative history in which Dewey beat Truman in one of the elections they fought, and America entered the space race early, beating the Russians into orbit. Super perky mathematician and pilot, Elma Wexler, and her squeaky clean (and inevitably perky) husband Nathaniel (rocket scientist) are on holiday in a cabin in the woods when a meteorite strikes off America’s Atlantic Coast, wiping out large parts of the Eastern Seaboard, including Washington DC.
The meteorite demonstrates the fragility of the earth’s biosphere and prompts the US and other governments to accelerate their space programmes in order to colonise outer space.
The major thread of the book is then concerned with Elma’s struggle, confronted by institutional sexism, and personal animosity to become an astronaut. She fights with nothing other than her brilliant mathematical brain, her amazing piloting skills and, of course, her natural perkiness. On her journey she comes into contact with institutional racism as firstly the rescue effort after the disaster focusses entirely on Caucasians, and secondly as African Americans wanting to become astronauts face seemingly insurmountable barriers..
It is therefore true that the Calculating Stars raises issue of gender and race, but it does so in a very simple way. The message – sexism and racism bad, inclusion, diversity and equality of opportunity good – is one which is likely to be acceptable to all but the most unreconstructed Neanderthal Trumpian knuckle dragger. The closest it gets to any depth is when the Jewish Elma cannot avoid meeting Werner Von Braun.
The book concentrates so exclusively on Elma that the meteorite strike is reduced to little more than a plot device to stimulate the acceleration of space exploration. We only live in Elma’s bubble, while the disintegration of global society is referred to peripherally in passing.
And then we come to the sex scenes. Elma and Nathaniel enjoy a lively and regular sex life. The author doesn’t stop at the door of the bedroom, but only ventures a couple of steps in. Even so, Calculating Stars has got to be a front runner in the bad sex awards as Elma and Nathaniel use language which a 16 year old boy would find irredeemably naff.
I realise I’ve made fun of Calculating Stars, but I hope I’ve done so affectionately. In fact it is so relentlessly positive that I found it impossible to dislike.
In short, this is a cross between the Right Stuff and Hidden Figures with the tiniest bit of the Big Bang Theory thrown in. Elma becomes a star guest on a TV Science Show aimed at children, and while the presenter was Mr Wizard, I couldn’t help but see Bob Newhart as Professor Proton.