The theme for this month’s TBR Challenge was “Something Different”, an unusual setting, sub genre you don’t read all the time, etc. I chose The Calculating Stars because I haven’t read a lot of science fiction lately, it had a lot of positive buzz, and I had bought it during an ebook sale but had yet to read it.
I wanted to like this book more than I did. It had a lot of positive buzz and it felt right up my alley. I enjoy alternate histories and I also enjoy science fiction, and this book involved both, focusing on the development of a space program in the 1950s after a meteorite strikes the earth. This event causes a shift in climate that will eventually lead to the obliteration of life on earth, hence the need to be prepared to launch colonies elsewhere. I read a fair bit of romance, and this book also has romantic elements, which was kind of fun. After the first chapter I felt really excited with that “great book” feeling you sometimes get. However, I found that about halfway into the book, it just started to drag. I began to be uninterested in the plot, which seemed to just involve more of the same negative things happening to Elma, the lead character. As well, none of the characters change much from the beginning of the book to the end, and what turned out to be a pivotal scene between Elma and her antagonist just felt like more of the same, until I realized the book was almost over.
The story involves Elma, a WASP pilot during WW2 and currently a computer (like the women described in Hidden Figures) for the rocket (soon to be space program), and her husband Nathaniel, who is an engineer in the same program. It is narrated in the first person by Elma, obviously a particularly gifted mathematician, who when she gets nervous recites as many decimals of pi or the Fibonacci sequence, to help calm herself. She wants to be an astronaut in a program that some feel should only employ white men, or perhaps not exist at all. As part of the new world after the meteorite, when due to a changed living situation, she slowly sees things she had never noticed before, such as discrimination against black people. She is Jewish, and the story touches on her feelings of faith and family, particularly after the meteorite destruction involves the death of some family members. I found the scene where she also briefly meets rocket scientist Werner von Braun, who had previously worked for Nazi Germany, and her feelings of forcing herself to be civil to him, but not actually stand next to him to be particularly affecting. It made me think about how real-life NASA people, particularly Jewish NASA people, felt about working with someone who had used Jewish slave labor to build rockets during World War 2.
I really loved the alternate history parts of the book, especially where things were obviously more scientifically advanced in the 1950s than they were in our real 1950s, but also how things like racism and sexism were the same in both timelines. You can also tell that it was well researched, even before I read the Author’s Note at the end of the book. There was a lot of detail that felt true to science, even if I didn’t always understand the physics of it. I just wished that Elma showed more growth over the course of the book. The characters all felt static, until the very end, when it felt like the author decided this would be the end of the book (although not the end of the story, as there are more books in the series).
This is a wildly popular book on Goodreads, but it didn’t really work for me. It was worth reading, I’m just not sure I will continue with the series.