Impactful Science Fiction: Reading the "Lady Astronaut" series by Mary Robinette Kowal

The story begins in “The Calculating Stars,” the 2018 novel by Mary Robinette Kowal, when a huge meteor hits earth in 1952. It’s a massive strike, big enough, in fact, in this work of fiction, to threaten the very possibility of human life on this planet. Immediately after the hit, the race to space is accelerated, as scientists, mathematicians, WWII pilots and others hurry to establish an inhabitable home somewhere beyond earth. Both science fiction and alternate history, this novel is “a wonderful, scientifically accurate view of what might have been,” according to author Andy Weir (“The Martian”).

From start to finish, I enjoyed reading “The Calculating Stars,” the first of Kowal’s “Lady Astronaut” novels, and the 2019 winner of the Hugo Best Novel Award and the Nebula Best Novel Award. I don’t always read science fiction (or alternate histories), but when I do, I prefer novels with a compelling narrative populated with strong characters. Kowal delivers both here. The central figure in this book is Dr. Elma York, a determined and intelligent mathematician and WASP pilot, who joins the fight to reach space and eventually becomes the titular “lady astronaut.” Through Elma’s experiences, Kowal illustrates the technical difficulties of going to space, along with social issues of race, gender and nation, all while telling a good story. Cady Coleman, a former NASA astronaut, chemist and engineer, says that Kowal “imagines an alternate history of spaceflight that reminds me of everything I loved about ‘Hidden Figures’.”

Happily, for fans of Kowal’s work, the narrative started in “The Calculating Stars” continues in two more novels: “The Fated Sky” (2018) and “The Relentless Moon” (2020). As the story goes on, humans do manage to establish an off-earth settlement on the moon, while also working towards doing the same on Mars. For me, the story being told by Kowal only gets better with each book in the series. Not only does the plotline gain complexity, but also, and more importantly, recurring characters accrue additional depth and different characters move into the spotlight. It’s the human interactions and issues, after all, and not just the technical problems of space travel, that always are most vital in these novels. I also think the third novel is strongest on the whole, because Kowal interweaves considerable mystery with the science and history in this fiction. For someone who reads all three books, there is a special pleasure to be found in noticing how the first and last sentences of each book connect with each other, and with the opening and closing sentences of the other books, in meaningful ways.

Readers who enjoy Kowal’s science fiction might like to know that the author returns to space travel in her most recent novel, “The Spare Man,” published in 2022. This title is a standalone work – and yet another standout piece of work by Kowal. Here, the story is once again centered on humans traveling to Mars, but this time, Kowal brings in even more elements of mystery, and specifically, of mystery as a genre. The result is “a fast-paced thrill ride that places a traditional hard-boiled detective story in space,” and a book that will not disappoint “readers of traditional detective stories and science fiction alike” (“Booklist”).

Scientifically speaking, a sizeable meteor strike is known as an impact event, which is a collision between astronomical objects that causes measurable effects. Speaking as a reader, one particular part of the second “Lady Astronaut” book has been an impact event for me. Reading “The Fated Sky,” I was hit hard by what happens with the character Estevan Terrazas, one of the individuals sharing the long flight to Mars. Even though several years have passed since I read it, I still think about and feel moved by later scenes with Estevan, and this character’s part in the story still affects some of my thoughts about relationships and grief. I don’t always want to read fiction that breaks my heart, but when I do, I prefer stories and characters that offer meaning along with the sorrow – and Kowal’s work gave that to me. Author John Scalzi likes how Kowal writes “captivating stories with characters to care about” – and his words sum up neatly what I appreciate most about Kowal’s “Lady Astronaut” novels.