I Love the Lady Astronauts: Mary Robinette Kowal – The Relentless Moon

Oh, Mary Robinette Kowal, you brilliant wonderful writer! With every instalment in the Lady Astronaut series, I am more and more convinced that Kowal has found her “thing”. Writing hard sci-fi about humanity exploring the solar system, but with a social angle and deeply human characters that one can’t help but root for. I am so happy that next year (hopefully) we’ll get the fourth volume titled The Martian Contingency. I really wouldn’t mind if this series kept going for a long, long time.

THE RELENTLESS MOON
by Mary Robinette Kowal

Published: Tor, 2020
eBook:
538 pages
Series:
Lady Astronaut #3
My rating:
8.25/10

Opening line: How many places do you call home?

Mary Robinette Kowal continues her award-winning Lady Astronaut series, which began with The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky, with The Relentless Moon.

The Earth is coming to the boiling point as the climate disaster of the Meteor strike becomes more and more clear, but the political situation is already overheated. Riots and sabotage plague the space program. The IAC’s goal of getting as many people as possible off Earth before it becomes uninhabitable is being threatened.

Elma York is on her way to Mars, but the Moon colony is still being established. Her friend and fellow Lady Astronaut Nicole Wargin is thrilled to be one of those pioneer settlers, using her considerable flight and political skills to keep the program on track. But she is less happy that her husband, the Governor of Kansas, is considering a run for President.

Did you ever wonder, while reading The Fated Sky and following Elma York and Stetson Parker on their way to Mars, what exactly has been going on on Earth and the Moon colony in the meantime? Well here’s your answer because Nicole Wargin, Lady Astronaut and wife of the governor of Kansas, lets us follow her during her everyday life which is… let’s just say slightly more exciting than the average person’s.

I admit I had a hard time adjusting to this new protagonist, the new voice, and the new circumstances presented in this book. I had really grown to like Elma and after two books, I felt like I knew her. Her work, her marriage, her anxiety, opening the book always felt like meeting an old friend. Now suddenly I’m supposed to care about one of Elma’s old friends and fellow astronette Nicole Wargin? Was she even that important in the first book? I barely remembered her at all. So although I swear I went into this book open-minded, I needed a while before I really found my way into this story and learned to enjoy Nicole’s narration.

The beginning is a tad slow and not just because Kowal has to set up Nicole as her new protagonist, but also because the book starts on Earth. But worry not, Nicole goes to the Moon soon enough, as is her job, and that’s when shit really starts hitting the fan. In The Relentless Moon, the plot revolves mostly around sabotage of the IAC and the mission to get humanity off Earth. You know, because the planet is dying and all that. What starts with riots by Earth Firsters soon turns even more dangerous as rockets misfire, various systems on the Moon colony have hiccups, and things go more and more wrong over time. Nicole’s job on this particular visit to the Moon is as much to do her usual job as working to find out who the saboteur(s) might be. While keeping what little she knows top secret, of course.

What follows is an exciting mix of everything that Kowal has done before, but still somehow new and interesting. We’ve spent time with Elma working hard for women’s rights to even be astronauts, we’ve accompanied her on the first ever mission to Mars and got to know the joys of toilets on space ships. We’ve actually been on the Moon in this series as well, but not like this. Nicole is a senior astronaut and really knows her way around both space ships and the Moon colony. And there is so much cool stuff to explore! Whether it’s the way every system has a safety net, there are redundancies for everything, sayings like “Slow is fast” (because doing anything in 1/6 Earth gravity takes practice), or how they’ve set up a little museum on the Moon to make it less about pure survival and more about living – it’s a joy simply walking around with Nicole as a guide.

Then again, we decidedly don’t just walk around because there is a saboteur on the loose and nobody knows when something so awful will happen that the 300 odd people currently on the Moon may not survive. Mary Robinette Kowal does such a great job at pacing her story, mixing more action-packed scenes with quieter ones, showing us the characters excelling at being sciency as well as their more vulnerable, emotional sides. It all comes together beautifully and in no time at all, I found myself not just rooting for but really caring about our brave and smart Moon residents.
Kowal also makes sure these people feel real by including discussions of mental health, in this case anorexia nervosa. The way it is talked about and presented in this book was incredibly refreshing. That sounds terrible – of course, the anorexia itself isn’t refreshing but it’s usually depicted as something that’s always triggered by the wish to look thinner for beauty reasons. And even though we know it has little to do with aesthetics and much more with control, pop culture still depicts anorexia in one particular way. Usually that’s a young girl wanting to be pretty. Nicole is a middle-aged woman and she really doesn’t care if other people think she’s skinny enough. I’m truly grateful for this nuanced depiction and Kowal even mentions in the afterword that she made sure not to include behaviours or triggers that people suffering from anorexia might use as “thinspiration”.

I was even more taken with the characters and their development overall. That’s right, the ones I wanted to get away from so I could be with Elma instead. It was lovely to watch Helen kick ass on the Moon, seeing as she got bumped off the Mars mission in order to make space for Elma. Myrtle and Eugene’s relationship, although they are side characters, truly shone and made me believe even more firmly that Mary Robinette Kowal must have a great marriage herself. Seriously, she writes the best married couples (Elma and Nathaniel’s embarrassing rocket metaphors aside). There’s also some development in terms of the blatant racism of the first book. It’s still there, to some degree, but you can see things changing. Slowly, oh so slowly, but still.

And then there’s Nicole, this brilliant astronaut and politician’s wife, who knows how to fly as well as how to manipulate a conversation in a desired direction, who loves her husband and their ancient cat but who also loves the Moon. Who almost forgets to take care of herself because she is spreading herself so thin and trying to solve every problem at once. It’s not often that I develop this kind of respect for a fictional character but, damn, do I want to shake Nicole’s hand. And then hug her really tight and cry on her shoulder because she is so amazing.

I cried during several occasions in this book, none of which I’m going to spoil here (and it’s not all sad occasions, mind you). The way grief is described, as this thing that you can almost push away only for it to hit you unexpectedly and even harder, felt incredibly real to me. But then, I also cry when humanity gets its act together in order to solve a problem, forgetting their differences and instead working as a unit. The ending of this book both made me cry and smile delightedly. So far, every book in this series has been brilliant, but the way it all comes together makes it clear that the series is so much more than the sum of its parts. I wholeheartedly recommend every science fiction fan pick it up!

MY RATING: 8.25/10 – Truly excellent!

The Long Way to the Red Planet: Mary Robinette Kowal – The Fated Sky

Mary Robinette Kowal took home a well-deserved Hugo Award for her novel The Calculating Stars which put humanity into the uncomfortable position of having to look to the stars for habitable places, because Earth wasn’t going to last much longer. I both loved and hated that book – I loved it because it was really, really good, but it was also damn uncomfortable to read. The amount of sexism and racism displayed by some characters was staggering and the protagonist suffers from an anxiety disorder and gets kind of addicted to a drug… so yeah, a great book, but not exactly a comfort read. This second one starts out similar, but was much more fun to read. Prepare for lots of love and admiration for Mary Robinette.

THE FATED SKY
by Mary Robinette Kowal

Published: Tor, 2018
eBook:
416 pages
Series:
The Lady Astronaut #2
My rating:
8.5/10

Opening line: Do you remember where you were when the Friendship probe reached Mars?

THE SECOND IN THE NEBULA AND LOCUS AWARD-WINNING SERIES

One large step for humankind…
It’s 1961, and the Earth’s gaze is turning to Mars. The Moon colony is well established, but tensions are rising on Earth—both from those who see themselves being left behind on a disaster-laden planet, and those who don’t believe in equality for all.
But even with personal sacrifices and political tensions, Elma York, the Lady Astronaut, dearly wants to go on the first mission to Mars—despite everything that stands in her way.

Elma York has reached a major goal. She has not only become an astronaut – the Lady Astronaut, in fact – but she actually spends part of her year living on the moon! Piloting a shuffle from space station to the moon and back is great and all, but Elma yearns for the stars. So when the opportunity arises for her to join the first manned Mars mission, she can’t believe her luck. Except it also means at least three years away from Earth, away from her family and her husband Nathaniel. But this strain on the relationship is only one difficulty. The Mars team has been training for months already when Elma gets asked to join them. And entering an established team of people as “the new one” is not good for Elma’s anxiety. The fact that the mission commander is none other than Stetson Parker doesn’t help either…

I adored this story! It goes through several phases, all of which have different layers to offer for readers. On the one hand, there is the very straight forward story of a woman joining the mission to Mars. She goes through training, she gets on the ship with the rest of her team, she lives on that ship with the team for a long, long time. There’s maintenance work, lots of mathematics, space ship mumbo jumbo, and of course interpersonal tensions when people are crammed into limited space for such a long period of time.
But this wouldn’t be a Lady Astronaut novel if it didn’t also have lots of social commentary. Kowal did such a fantastic job of showing how far humanity has come since the last book – women astronauts are almost not noteworthy anymore – but how much there is still to do. Here, this means mostly fighting against racism, both overt and more subtle in nature. It’s one thing for Mission Control to send the best people up into space and “the best people” happens to include men and women of color, but it’s quite another to also show these people in ads and to put them center stage when reporting on the IAC’s work. Nobody on the crew is unaware of these issues but they also don’t have an easy fix for it. Watching these people – who are all, in a way, good people who sometimes make mistakes – felt incredibly real to me.

So you can expect a story similar to The Calculating Stars but also something new. Everybody’s reading experience is different, of course, but for me TCS was a tough read, one that made me angry with all the injustice it showed, and even angrier for reminding me how realistic it all is. As brilliant as the novel may have been, it wasn’t a very enjoyable experience watching a protagonist you care for sliding deeper into anxiety, becoming dependent on a dangerous drug, facing sexism every single day, and all of that still made her one of the luckier ones in the book. The Fated Sky still shows plenty of sexism and racism, but with the mission crews being rather diverse and living together very closely, even the strongest biases start to crumble a little. Things aren’t perfect by any means but it warmed my heart to see how these people went toward each other, tried to empathize and take care of each other, appreciated the others’ work and abilities, and didn’t care all that much about race or gender. Even sexuality is a topic, albeit one that only comes up a little, but I also thought Kowal handled it really well. As much as we’d like to think of Elma as a super progressive woman, she is still living in the early 1960s and gay or transgender people aren’t all that visible. So even though it’s not a big plot point, I liked the inclusion of it and the reminder that there have always been gay people.

Mary Robinette Kowal does another pretty amazing thing in this book. She manages to take a character that I absolutely loathed and turn them into someone sympathetic, someone who may be far from perfect, with lots of ingrained sexism, but someone who feels like a human who is actually trying to better themselves. I wouldn’t have thought that I could ever end up liking this character but by the end of the book, I was really quite fond of them.
But as this development robs us of a sort of antagonist, Kowal steps up and delivers a character we can hate with a passion in DeBeers, the South African who is so overtly racist that it almost feels like a joke. The guy goes out of his way to be hurtful to his BIPOC colleagues, people he knows are just as capable as he is (if not more so) because otherwise they would not be on this mission. Maybe DeBeers is a bit overdrawn but I was perfectly fine hating him throughout this book and hoping the others would just lock him up somewhere during the trip…

I don’t want to spoil any of the plot, but it’s a nice mixture of character focused parts and action-y bits. They are traveling through space, after all, and let’s just say there are a lot of things that can go wrong with a space ship. Some may be more serious than others but that doesn’t make it any less exciting. Have you ever thought about a toilet misfunction in zero G? Neither have I but it was fascinating (and a little bit gross) to read about.
I loved the little Hunger Games reference the author managed to sneak into the book. 🙂 It has no impact on the plot whatsoever, it’s really just a tiny little aside, but it made me giggle and give the book an imaginary bonus point.

I’m a quite surprised that this “middle volume” of what is currently a trilogy didn’t get more love when it came out. The third book in the series, one that deals with a different protagonist in a different setting (the moon), is nominated for a Best Novel Hugo and the entire trilogy made it onto the Best Series shortlist but somehow, I didn’t see lots of mentions of The Fated Sky when it was new. I actually liked it more than the first book, even though the first one is probably objectively a better book. But while I don’t particularly want to revisit Elma’s struggles from The Calculating Stars, I can easily see myself re-reading this one. It definitely made my ranking of Best Series much harder. We’ll see how I like the doubly Hugo-nominated The Relentless Moon.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Excellent!

Mary Robinette Kowal – The Calculating Stars

I didn’t think I’d enjoy this book as much as I did. From the description, it sounded like a quiet kind of story, one that is more about the people in the background of cool science fictional stuff, rather than the heroes who actually go on adventures. What I learned is that “hero” is subjective and Elma and her friends turned out to be my personal beloved heroines by the time I was finished with this book. It’s also my favorite of Kowal’s books so far and I can’t wait to read the sequel.

THE CALCULATING STARS
by Mary Robinette Kowal

Published by: Tor, 2018
Ebook: 431 pages
Series: Lady Astronaut #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Do you remember where you were when the Meteor hit?

On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.
Elma York’s experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too.
Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.

When a meteor hits the planet, Elma and her husband don’t suspect just what an impact this event will have on their lives and the lives of every other human on Earth. They “only” think about the family members they have suddenly lost and wonder how their lives are supposed to continue after this. These first chapters were really hard to read, which is in large part due to Elma’s voice. Mary Robinette Kowal writes as if Elma were really talking to us, telling her story to a friend. There is an immediacy to the text that makes you like Elma from the first moment, so her losing almost her entire family at once hit me pretty hard even though they were characters we hand’t even met.

It doesn’t take long, however, for Elma to figure out just what devastating effects the meteor will have on the Earth as a whole. Apart from waves of refugees, people who have lost everything, food shortages and devastation along the coast, the future doesn’t look much brighter. The threat of climate change in this novel feels all too familiar. Elma explains beautifully how, in the next few years, things may look okay, but the Earth is going to be uninhabitable within decades. The voices of “What global warming? It’s snowing today” made me just as angry in this book as they do in real life.

But Elma and her husband Nathaniel pick up the pieces of their lives and make the best of it with the skills they have. They both happen to have PhDs, so they can both do their part to pave the way to space for all mankind. And this is where the setting really shines – if you can say that. The book starts in the 50ies and although it is made clear from the start that women have been pilots in the war, and that there are numerous competent women mathematicians (as well as other professions), they are treated anything but equal. Don’t even mention black people!

This unfair treatment made me so angry while I read but it also made one hell of a story! Elma faces a ton of situations in which things are presumed about her because she is a woman, in which she deals with stereotypes about Jews, in which her competence is questioned based on nothing but her gender. She herself messes up lots of times with her black friends. She makes mistakes, assuming things because of their skin color or simply forgetting that – hey, black people are also around! This actually made Elma even more likeable. She never has bad intentions, she is simply learning something that is new to her and that means making mistakes. I have been in situations where my own ignorance made me say something stupid, as I suspect many other readers have. You may not intend to be mean but words have consequences, whether you meant well or not. Making mistakes is part of it and we can all count ourselves lucky if we have friends like Elma’s who let us know when we said something idiotic.  Watching Elma learn these things, watching how her world and circle of friends grew richer through it, was almost as beautiful as seeing how humanity first ventures into space.

There were so many more things I loved about this book. Elma’s relationship with Nathaniel was simply beautiful. Here are two people with understanding for each other and each other’s flaws. Elma deals with crippling anxiety whenever she has to speak in front of a crowd or reporters or generally is the center of attention. I can relate so well! And so, it appears, can her husband although he doesn’t suffer from anxiety. It was just so lovely to see this married couple be there for each other, give each other space when needed, and talk things over without any drama. Also, it’s just refreshing to have a protagonist with a solid, loving relationship rather than adding some forced tension by throwing in a love triangle/divorce/cheating husband/whatever. Nathaniel is Elma’s safe haven and that’s something I suspect many people aspire to so it was really nice reading about it.

But not all people respect Elma and the other women the way Nathaniel does. They way the women in this story are treated when they want to join the male astronauts made me furious (yet again). Proven facts are simply ignored – such as women having an easier time dealing with G-forces – and instead it is taken as a universal truth that women are weaker and space “just isn’t for them”. They’re good enough to do all the calculations for the big boy astronauts but actually give them a chance to go into space themselves? What would people think? A lot of this book shows the narrow bridge women have to walk if they want to achieve anything. Be too demanding, you’re hysterical. Stay quiet in the background and let your work shine for you, you’ll be ignored or erased. So finding the right balance between making yourself heard but not so loudly that powerful men can call you hysterical is what Elma had to learn. It means staying quiet when you know how to solve a problem, it means being five times as good as a man when applying for a job, it means letting others ridicule you and smiling about it. As angry as this book made me, it also made me really happy to watch Elma persist and never give up on her dream.

This is also a book that shows female friendships, not in some way where everything is always peachy and nobody ever fights, but in a realistic way. These diverse women are kind of in the same spot – although one has to mention that Elma’s black and Asian friends are even more excluded than the others – so they stick together. Not all women in this book are perfect angels, they each have a personality and some of them are not nice people at all. But the general message that women can be friends, even when they’re competition (like for a spot on a space ship, say) is one I wholeheartedly agree with.

Mary Robinette Kowal has managed to write a book that works really well on so many layers. It explores women’s roles in what to this day is stereotypically “a man’s job”, it explores racism and antisemitism, grief and love, mental illness and dealing with pressure. It is peopled with excellent characters whom I grew to love without even noticing. The story is riveting although this is by no means what I’d call an action story. I have very little to nitpick, except maybe that I found Elma and Nathaniel’s dialogue that lead up to them having sex a bit cringeworthy (rocket ready to launch… ahem). But that’s a super minor complaint and also a question of taste rather than writing quality. I loved this book and will definitely check out the sequel to see what heppens with Elma, Helen, Ida, and all the others.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent