Blogging the Nebulas: The Calculating Stars Thrillingly Reimagines the Space Race

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Editor’s note: The Nebula Awards are often described as the Academy Awards of SFF literature. Like the Oscar, the Nebula is voted on by the professional peers of the award nominees—members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There are six nominees in the best novel category this year; every two weeks between now and the awards ceremony on May 18, Ceridwen Christensen will be taking a look at each of them, and figuring their odds of taking home the prize.

The Pitch:

In 2014, Mary Robinette Kowal’s “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” was awarded the Hugo for Best Novelette. In that story, the titular lady astronaut, Dr. Elma York, is living on Mars with her husband when she’s confronted with a dilemma: she has a chance to undertake one last mission as an astronaut—she hasn’t flown in decades due to her age—or stay behind with her husband, who is dying of a wasting disease. We’re given some biographical information about Elma, her husband Nathaniel, and the alternate history they inhabit, but only in broad strokes. The genuinely heart-wrenching choice Elma must make is truly the center of the piece.

The Calculating Stars is a prequel to that novelette, and tells the incredible life story of the woman who will one day become the Lady Astronaut of Mars.

This is a book that starts with a bang, quite literally. Elma and her husband are vacationing in the Poconos when they’re hit with a flash so powerful that even behind closed eyelids, it is bright as day. Through their shocked conversation that follows, and then the subsequent earthquake, we begin to comprehend the suddenly changed shape of their world. Their first thought is of a nuclear attack by the Soviets, but when they start seeing ejecta from the impact site burning down from the sky, it quickly becomes clear that a meteorite has hit somewhere to the east of them (as scientists, they know nuclear weapons don’t kick up dust and debris). After a terrifying journey further inland to a military base in Ohio, Nathaniel is put right to work in his capacity as an engineer. (He was previously instrumental in a successful satellite launch that put an object in space before the Russians, so he’s known to the brass.) Though Elma was a pilot in World War II—a WASP—she’s sidelined by a fellow pilot (and grade-A jerk) she worked with during the War. It is 1952; President John Dewey and most of the government are dead; Washington DC and the several hundred miles surrounding it have been vaporized.

The scale of the disaster is staggering. Elma’s parents were in Charlotte, NC, in the affected area, and are presumed dead. She and Nathaniel, who lived in DC, only survived by happenstance. Things get much bleaker when, after Nathaniel asks her to perform some calculations for him, Elma figures out that the meteorite strike is probably an eventual extinction-level event. Because the meteorite stuck water, not land, the resulting vapor in the air will eventually cause a runaway greenhouse effect. (It is theorized that such a circumstance explains why Venus is a molten hellscape with sulfuric acid rain, despite being Earth’s twin in many other regards.)

The Space Race, nudged a little bit earlier in this timeline, is already in full swing. With global extinction looming, the imperative to get off Earth becomes that much more dire. The Calculating Stars details a Space Race not against the Soviets, but against time.

Elma pushes doggedly towards her goal of becoming an astronaut. Though she’s a strong and gifted woman, she is beset by doubts and healthy attacks of Impostor Syndrome. Though they are completely standalone, The Calculating Stars makes “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” that much more poignant, as we live through Elma and Nathaniel’s long years of marriage. Though their relationship is not the primary focus of the novel, it is its beating heart.

Why it will win:

I think The Calculating Stars is in a very strong position to win the Nebula this year. Alternate histories maybe don’t have the best odds, Michael Chabon’s win for Yiddish Policemen’s Union 11 years ago notwithstanding, but Kowal’s has so much more going for it than mere subgenre specialization.

Its alternate history is incredibly well-researched (so much so that there’s a bibliography and a dense historical note at the end of the novel that will stack several more books onto your to-read pile). This is hard science fiction in the vein of Kim Stanley Robinson, who has two best novel Nebulas (for Red Mars and 2312). Kowal has a detailed grasp of the science involved and never hand-waves, but neither does she bore you with trivia; the novel remains firmly grounded in Elma’s character. That Elma’s relationship with science is foundational makes Kowal’s care with scientific detail all the more vital.

The Calculating Stars is also both timely and sensitive to history. Though Kowal began the novel before Hidden Figures became an unexpected blockbuster film, the success of the movie was a stroke of luck. It exposed to the general public the important work performed by the black women who served as NASA’s human computers. Though the 1950s and 60s of the “Meteor Age” of Kowal’s novel look very different (here Elma would mutter “it was a meteorite”), even in this changed world the social movements of the post-War era still proceed apace.

The post-Meteor world is more open in some ways: the Soviet Union collapses in the nuclear winter, ending the Cold War, and the race to the stars becomes a truly international endeavor. That doesn’t mean that institutional sexism and racism cease to exist, however: Elma and Nathaniel are initially placed with a black couple, the Lindholms, after they’re displaced, a Major and another computer, and the pair end up becoming their close friends. Through their contrasting experiences, we see not only Elma’s struggles as a woman in a technological field, but the perspectives of people of color as well.

Plus, the book is just cool. Mars is cool. Astronauts are awesome. Though the plot is often more political jockeying than breathless action after that initial section, it never feels slow. Partially because of the debilitating anxiety Elma experiences when speaking to groups (especially groups of men), even simple meetings are braced with tension. And while it is but the first in a duology—The Fated Sky was released only a few months later—it follows a clear trajectory right through to a transcendent conclusion, one that made me tear up—not out of sadness but in wonder.

Why it won’t win: 

I’m at a bit of a loss here. The Calculating Stars does face some stiff competition this year, though I think its most direct comes by way of Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver. They are both books by well established writers (whose first series, curiously, were both alt-Regency) who have serious chops. But even then, in historical terms, science fiction tends to beat out fantasy for best novel honors at the Nebulas. Honestly, The Calculating Stars has about the best chance to win of the nominees, based on the precedents and tendencies of Nebula voters in past years. But people are not statistics, and they may break for fairy tales over alt-history this year. Nebula voters have been tending more to fantasy than they did 30 years ago, so it’s not as strong an indicator as it once was.

Either way, you better believe that the next book on my to-read pile is The Fated Sky. I wouldn’t miss it. You shouldn’t either.

We’ll have one more entry in this year’s Blogging the Nebulas series, making our final prediction as to who will win. Look for that on Friday, May 17. In the meantime, find reviews of this year’s other nominees here. Previous years’ Blogging the Nebulas entries are here.

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The Nominees for the 2018 Nebula Awards Are Simply Fantastical

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Today, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America announced the nominees for the 2018 Nebula awards, honoring science fiction and fantasy works—novels, novellas, novelettes, and short stories—published during the prior calendar year. If the Hugo Awards, voted on by fans, are the SFF version of the People’s Choice Awards, the Nebulas are the Oscars, voted on by industry pros. This year’s ceremony includes a new award, being given out for the first time: Best Game Writing, honoring work in interactive mediums, as well as the not-officially-Nebula-awards for dramatic presentation and best novel for younger readers.

This blog has made it annual tradition to analyze and dissect the list of nominees for the Nebula for Best Novel—always a great snapshot of the year’s best in sci-fi and fantasy literature (certainly as we see it: all six of this year’s nominees for Best Novel made our lists of the year’s best books).

We can’t wait to get started: this year’s ballot is another fantastic one. We truly are in a golden age of SFF.

Here are the nominees for the 2018 Nebula Awards.

Best Novel

The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
The first of a pair of prequel novels to Kowal’s award-winning novelette The Lady Astronaut of MarsThe Calculating Stars delves into the alternate history that resulted in humanity establishing a colony on Mars in the middle of the 20th century. In the spring of 1952, a huge meteor hits Chesapeake Bay, taking out most of the Eastern United States. Mathematician and former military pilot Elma York and her scientist husband Nate are there to witness the destruction, and Elma knows immediately that this is an ELE—an extinction-level event—and that humanity must look to the stars if it has any hope of survival. Although her experience as a pilot and her math skills earn Elma a place in the International Aerospace Coalition as a calculator, she begins to wonder why women can’t be astronauts as well—and she’s more than willing to confront racism, sexism, and more personal enemies on her quest to become the first lady astronaut. This is one of those books that seems to have come along at just the right moment, bringing together fascinating, inspiring characters; compelling, plausible worldbuilding; and a message that resonates—especially today. Read our review.

The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang (Harper Voyager US)
In a world inspired by the recent history and culture of China, the Nikan Empire defeated the Federation of Mugen in the Second Poppy War, and the two countries have since coexisted in a fragile state of peace. Orphaned peasant girl Rin lives a life of misery in Nikan, but when she sits for the Keju, the empire-wide examination designed to find talented youth and assign them to serve where they will be most useful, she scores in the highest percentile and is shocked to be assigned to the prestigious Sinegard military school, home to the children of the Empire’s elite. At Sinegard, Rin is bullied for her dark skin and low social status—but with the help of an insane teacher, she also discovers she is a shaman, able to wield powers long thought lost to the world. As she grows into her power and communicates with living gods, Rin sees clearly that a third Poppy War is coming—and she may be the only one who can stop it. Kuang is Chinese-American, and the book’s worldbuilding is informed by her study of twentieth century Chinese history, but this is no mere academic exercise—the characters are flawed and true, and the choices they face are impossibly compelling. The “year’s best debut” buzz around this one was warranted; it really is that good. Read our review.

Blackfish City, by Sam J. Miller (Ecco)
Set in the floating city of Qaanaaq, built in the arctic circle in the wake of the terrible climate wars that saw ground-level cities burned and razed, Miller’s adult debut (his lightly fantastical YA The Art of Starving won the Andre Norton Award) is an intricate jewel box of ideas. The floating city is a marvel of engineering, but is starting to show the strain: poverty is rising, and crime and unrest along with it. A new disease known as the Breaks—which throws the infected into the midst of other people’s memories—is sweeping the population. When a woman arrives in Blackfish City riding on an Orca and accompanied by a polar bear, she’s an instant celebrity, dubbed the Orcamancer. She takes advantage of her fame to draw together the citizens Qaanaaq and set in motion acts of resistance and rebellion that will have incredible impact, leading four people them in particular to see through the corruption, lies, and marvels of the city to the shocking truths beneath. This is the kind of swirling, original sci-fi we live for. Read our review.

Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik (Del Rey)
Drawing on Eastern European folklore and the classic fairy tale of Rumplestiltskin, Novik tells the story of Miryem, daughter in a family of Jewish moneylenders led by her incompetent father. With their fortunes on the wane due to his poor business sense, Miryem must step in and turn the family business around. Inspired by a mixture of desperation and genius, she responds by spinning debts into gold—gold that attracts the attention of the Staryk, emotionless fairies who bring winter with them. The Staryk give Miryem Fairy Silver and demand she transform it, too. Miryem does so by turning the beautiful metal into jewelry that attracts the attention of the rich and powerful—but her success brings her more Staryk attention, and thus more problems. Novik’s first standalone novel to come along in the wake of the Nebula Award-winning Uprooted had a tough act to follow, but Spinning Silver—expanded from a short story included in anthology The Starlit Wood—is every bit as enchanting. Read our review.

Witchmark, by C.L. Polk (Tor.com Publishing)
Polk’s debut is set in a universe resembling Edwardian England, except for the fact that in this reality, the elite families that sit atop government and the social order have magical powers as well as political ones. Miles Singer is from just such a family, but when he flees the lap of luxury to join the war effort, he grows disillusioned with the trappings of power, and takes the opportunity to fake his own death and assume a new identity. Posing as a doctor at a failing veterans’ hospital, he sees firsthand how war changes people, never for the good—soldiers are returning from the front plagued by terrible versions, and shortly thereafter, committing terrible acts of violence. When one of his patients is poisoned, Miles not only accidentally reveals his healing powers, he is thrust into a mystery that involves an aloof, beautiful man who is more than human—and who may hold the secret to stopping a brewing inter-dimensional war. This bewitching story of political maneuverings, dangerous magic, sweet romance, and bicycle chases is never less than addictive. Read our review.

Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga Press)
Roanhorse’s buzzy debut is set in a post-apocalyptic world comparable to Mad Max: Fury Road in intensity, with worldbuilding drawn from the author’s Indigenous American heritage. In an America devastated by rising sea levels, the Navajo Nation has been reborn as Dinétah—and with it have come the old gods and monsters of Native American legend. Maggie Hoskie is a monster-hunter, gifted with the power to fight and defeat these beasts. Hired by a small town to locate a missing girl, she teams up with a misfit medicine man named Kai Arviso, and the two dive into a mystery that takes them deeper into the dark side of Dinétah than they could have imagined—a world of tricksters, dark magic, and creatures more frightening than any story. Trail of Lightning is an audacious take on the conventions of both urban fantasy and the post-apocalyptic novel, binding them together in a way that could only and ever happen in Dinétah. Read our review.

And here is the rest of the fantastic ballot:

Best Novella

Best Novelette

Best Short Story

  • “Interview for the End of the World”, by Rhett C. Bruno (Bridge Across the Stars)
  • “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington”, by Phenderson Djèlí Clark (Fireside, February 2018)
  • “Going Dark”, by Richard Fox (Backblast Area Clear)
  • “And Yet”, by A.T. Greenblatt (Uncanny, March/April 2018)
  • “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies”, by Alix E. Harrow (Apex, February 2018)
  • “The Court Magician”, by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed, January 2018)

Best Game Writing

  • Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, by Charlie Brooker (House of Tomorrow & Netflix)
  • The Road to Canterbury, by Kate Heartfield (Choice of Games)
  • God of War, by Matt Sophos, Richard Zangrande Gaubert, Cory Barlog, Orion Walker, and Adam Dolin (Santa Monica Studio/Sony/Interactive Entertainment)
  • Rent-A-Vice, by Natalia Theodoridou (Choice of Games)
  • The Martian Job, by M. Darusha Wehm (Choice of Games)

The Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation

  • The Good Place: “Jeremy Bearimy” (Written by Megan Amram, directed by Trent O’Donnell)
  • Black Panther (Written by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, directed by Ryan Coogler)
  • A Quiet Place (Screenplay by John Krasinski, Bryan Woods, and Scott Beck, directed by John Krasinski)
  • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Screenplay by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman, directed by Peter Ramsey, Bob Persichetti, Rodney Rothman)
  • Dirty Computer (Written by Janelle Monáe and Chuck Lightning)
  • Sorry to Bother You (Written and directed by Boots Riley)

The Andre Norton Award for Outstanding Young Adult Science Fiction or Fantasy Book

The Nebula Awards will be given out during the Nebula Awards Conference, held May 16-19, 2019.

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