A female physicist journeys further into space in Kowal’s (The Calculating Stars, 2018, etc.) sequel, set in an alternate version of the 1960s.
In 1961, Dr. Elma York is about to finish her three-month stint on the moon. In Kowal’s last book, set a decade earlier, a meteor smashed into the East Coast, destroying many cities, including Washington, D.C. The U.S. government believed that this was the beginning of the end for our planet, so an international effort to colonize space began with pilot and physicist Elma at the forefront. Now, having reached the moon, the space program sets its sights on Mars. Elma desperately wants to go there, but the round trip will take three years, taking her away from her infallibly supportive husband, Nathaniel, and any possibility of starting a family. The story is loaded with historically accurate science, and while Kowal is striving toward hard sci-fi, the analytical readers that this genre attracts are likely to have questions. For example, would an international coalition really need South Africa’s support so desperately they would agree to include a virulent racist on a racially integrated mission? Why is there not even a single mention of the Soviet Union or its cosmonauts? And the biggest question: Are we supposed to like Elma York? She’s irritatingly quirky, repeatedly using rocket metaphors as euphemisms for sex (“I slid my hand down to his trousers to see if launch conditions had been met”). She’s also morally reprehensible in one key scene. FBI agents ask her about two of her colleagues, and she realizes that they’re doing so because those fellow astronauts are black. She’s about to do the right thing and walk out—but when the feds threaten her program’s funding, she sits right back down and tells them everything they want to know. Later, when Elma is finally castigated for her racial cluelessness by an astronaut of color (“For the love of God, stop talking….I cannot take the protestations of a well-meaning white woman”), readers will find themselves nodding in agreement.
The worst tendencies of white feminism—in space.