The Big Idea: Mary Robinette Kowal
Elsewhere online I’ve been talking about how The Calculating Stars is one of my favorite science fiction novels of the year, and how I expect it’s likely to be remembered when “best of” lists and award nominations crop up. But here, today, author Mary Robinette Kowal is here to tell you about her book, and the Big Idea behind it… which may involve a very large rock.
MARY ROBINETTE KOWAL:
The Big Idea for The Calculating Stars is pretty simple. Apollo-era science-fiction with women astronauts.
But the real Big Idea actually starts before I wrote the duology, with a story called “Lady Astronaut of Mars.” In that story, I wanted to capture the sheer wonder of what we accomplished during the Apollo era. This is a time when Bradbury was putting civilizations on Mars, and my dad was programming with punch cards. I mean, we put people on the moon in a craft that looked like a jiffy-pop container when the entire mechanical computing power of the world was less than in your cell phone.
The Calculating Stars is set in that world and begins about 30 seconds before a meteorite slams into the Earth in 1952.
This is before mechanical computers are prevalent or reliable. The word computer still meant “a person who computes” and those people were predominately women. Computers came up with equations, the algorithms, calculated trajectories, and shaped the early days of space travel. But…men with equivalent degrees and experience became engineers with higher rates of pay and status. The more things change, and all that….
My main character, Dr. Elma York, is a computer. She’s also a pilot, which isn’t a combination that I needed to make up.
You probably know about Hidden Figures, so let me tell you about the Mercury 13. These were a group of women who were put through the same tests as the original astronauts. All of them were pilots, and many were also computers, chemists, or business owners. The people running the program were interested in the fact that women were lighter than men.
At a time when weight factors were a big consideration in the space program, this was very appealing. After WW2 there were over a 1000 Women Airforce Service Pilots, who typically had more logged flight time than their male counterparts. So they called up some of the WASPs to see what they could withstand. When they got into the actual testing, they discovered that women could handle g-forces better, and generally performed better on stress testing. (Since one of them was a mother of eight, I imagine that stress testing was like a vacation.)
But, the testing was shut down by Lyndon B. Johnson because he didn’t think women should go into space. What would have happened if he hadn’t shut that down? What if, say, I dropped a giant rock on D.C.?
Now, if you’ll notice there are actually two big ideas in this book. The first is women astronauts. The second is an accelerated space program.
Here’s the thing… Wernher von Braun, widely regarded as the father of modern rocketry, had a plan to go to Mars in 1947. A viable plan. The principal barrier was funding. To be clear, if executed exactly as written, everyone would have died because he based it on a flawed understanding of Mars’s atmosphere. But if the plan had gone ahead, they would have sent orbiters and probes to the planet and revised it.
He wrote this plan in an era before we’d even gotten a satellite off the planet, much less a person. He wrote this before punchcards. He wrote it when all the math was done by hand.
What would have happened if we had continued to throw money at the space program at the rate we did during the space race? What could we have accomplished if it was an international cooperative effort? What if there was a strong imperative to get off the planet?
What if I dropped a giant rock on D.C.?
So that’s the big idea. Drop a giant rock and get off the planet in jiffy pop-container spaceships guided by smart women with sliderules.