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Literature / Lady Astronaut

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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.

This is the setting of Mary Robinette Kowal's Lady Astronaut series, written as prequels to her 2012 novelette The Lady Astronaut of Mars.

In 2018, she released the first two books as a duology. The first book, The Calculating Stars, begins with our heroine Elma York and her husband narrowly surviving the meteorite impact thanks to a fortunate camping trip, and chronicles the discovery that the resulting climate change will render Earth uninhabitable, kicking the space race into overdrive as colonization of other planets becomes humanity's only hope for survival. The next book, The Fated Sky, deals with the effort to colonize Mars.

Book three, The Relentless Moon, was released July 14 of 2020, to be followed by The Martian Contingency in 2023 or 2024.

This series provides examples of:

  • Ace Pilot: Elma was a WASPnote  during World War II. When we first meet her, she flies her and her husband to a nearby airbase while flaming meteorite debris is falling from the sky.
  • All Jews Are Ashkenazi:
    • Elma, she mentions her grandparents speaking Yiddish as a Second Language (although with a southern twang.) She wouldn't describe herself as fluent but Word of God says that's due to a lack of confidence not ability.
    • Implied with Nathaniel. We know he is also Jewish and has blonde hair and blue eyes. Elma never mentions them having cultural differences.
    • However, Parker's wife, Miriam, is sephardic and he assumes Elma to be likewise as she is from Charleston, SC, which has a high sephardic population.
  • Alternate History: The biggest change is obviously the meteorite that obliterates Washington in 1952, but the timeline had already diverged prior to that. At the beginning of The Calculating Stars, the president in Washington is Dewey, not Truman.
  • Amoral Afrikaner: De Beer in The Fated Sky. He comes from Apartheid Era South Africa and is the reason why one of the crews in the manned mission to Mars is all-white.
  • Apocalypse How: Class 5: A meteorite impacts off the east coast of the United States, causing global devastation and increasing temperatures that will eventually boil the sea.
  • Asian Speekee Engrish: Averted with Helen Liu, a Taiwanese computer, whose English as a second language is portrayed realistically. She is completely fluent but occasionally makes minor grammatical mistakes (e.g. "I call Nathaniel" instead of "I'll call Nathaniel") in moments of chaos.
  • Behind Every Great Man: Elma is a physicist and mathematician in her own right, but is sometimes forced to have Nathaniel present her conclusions in order to get politicians and military leaders to take them seriously.
  • Blackmail: Parker attempts to blackmail Elma into helping him hide his visits to the doctor by telling her that he'll leak to the press that she has anxiety and is taking Miltown to combat it. It doesn't work - Elma tells Nathaniel right away, and later freely admits to the program leaders that she takes it, and they support her over Parker's objections.
  • Bungled Suicide: Or possibly Interrupted Suicide. Elma attempted to hang herself when she was at college. Only her brother knows.
  • Cunning Linguist: Parker is obsessed with learning languages.
  • Double Standard:
    • Women are kept out of the astronaut program, even those who flew missions into enemy territory during World War II.
    • For almost the entire first month following the impact, none of the rescue flights to the east coast picked up black survivors.
    • When women are finally let into the astronaut program, it's very clear that only white women are being considered.
  • Endless Winter: Played With. There's an impact winter for the first five or so years after the meteorite hit, to the extent that the Soviet Union dissolves under the instability. However, the fact that the meteorite hit the ocean means huge quantities of water vapor entered the atmosphere, so a runaway greenhouse effect will kick in soon. ...But it's hard to convince people of that when it's snowing in Los Angeles.
  • Genius Cripple: Elma's brother, Hershel, is a brilliant meteorologist who walks using crutches after childhood polio.
  • Genre Shift: The Calculating Stars and The Fates Sky are both alt-history sci-fi novels about humanity rushing to escape Earth ahead of an extinction event. The Relentless Moon moves away from this to become an espionage thriller set in a moon base.
  • Global Warming: The meteorite hitting the ocean will result in a runaway greenhouse effect that will make the Earth uninhabitable.
  • Happily Married: The Yorks and the Lindholms. Elma and Nathaniel still frequently get it on.
    Elma: "Nathaniel and I were a healthy young married couple, so most of the stars I saw were painted across the inside of my eyelids."
  • Hate Sink: Parker. The worst part, as Elma notes, is that he has his good qualities - even though he disagrees with the female astronaut program, he's a decent teacher, and even though it galls him he refuses to jeopardize the moon landing by trying to hide his health problems. Which makes it so much more infuriating every time he's horrible to Elma.
    • As Parker goes through some Character Development in The Fated Sky, this trope gets switched to Vanderbilt De Beer, a bigoted Afrikaner who displays exactly zero redeeming qualities over the book. He becomes enough of a problem for Elma to question how he was green-lit for the mission in the first place.
  • Historical Domain Character:
    • Edward R. Murrow, Ray Bradbury, and Martin Luther King Jr. all receive mentions.
    • Don Herbert, host of Science Show Watch Mr. Wizard, is a friend of Elma's from the war, and he repeatedly invites her onto his show.
    • Elma has to briefly interact with Wernher Von Braun at one point. She's chilled by how pleasant he is.
  • Insistent Terminology: Elma is always precise that what destroyed the east coast was a meteor-ite.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Stetson Parker remains an antagonistic force throughout The Calculating Stars but as he and Elma reconcile over the latter half of The Fated Sky, she comes to appreciate that, while he does have many faults, he is a good man underneath.
  • Jewish and Nerdy: Elma is both a practicing Jew and an extremely intelligent math wiz.
  • Long-Lost Relative: Five years after the meteorite hit, Elma receives a letter informing her that her great-aunt Esther survived the tsunami in Charleston and is living alone in a nursing home after the death of her sister, who had also survived. Made very bittersweet when Elma realizes that the sister who survived was her grandmother.
  • Nervous Wreck: Elma has a near-crippling anxiety about being the center of attention or having to speak in public. It is often detrimental to her efforts to promote the cause of female astronauts, or get her scientific work recognized.
  • No Antagonist: While Parker is an obstacle for Elma to overcome, the true conflict of the series is the driving need to escape Earth before the planet becomes uninhabitable.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Turns out Elma is short for Anselma, but that's only used by her great aunt.
  • Our Presidents Are Different: President Brannan - formerly the Secretary of Agriculture, and the only surviving cabinet member after the meteorite hit — is President Reasonable. He avoids knee-jerk retaliation against the USSR in the immediate aftermath of the impact. Then he listens and acts on the discovery that the meteorite will cause climate change and eventually mass extinction, supporting the formation of the IAC and colonization efforts.
  • Red Scare: Parker continues to suggest that the destruction of Washington was somehow the fault of the Soviet Union, even after directly confronted with scientific evidence to the contrary.
    • At the end of The Fated Sky, the IAC has their communication satellites temporarily knocked out of commission by an Earth First terrorist group, with vidence suggesting they were backed by Soviet Russia.
  • Shown Their Work: Kowal consulted with actual pilots and NASA employees to, including taking a ride in the T-83 that Elma flies in the first book. There's a list of citations after the acknowledgments.
  • Smug Snake: Parker, to an infuriating degree.
  • Southern-Fried Genius: Elma's from Charleston, South Carolina. She has made an effort to tone down her accent, in order to be taken more seriously.
  • Stay in the Kitchen: Elma is initially forced to do this, despite her scientific expertise, and the IAC program leaders do their best to keep women out of the astronaut program.
  • Stress Vomit: Elma is prone to this, as a result of her anxiety.
  • Suddenly Significant City: After the destruction of Washington D.C. and most of the eastern seaboard, Kansas City, KS becomes the new capital due to its central location. The space program also moves there.
  • Teen Genius: Elma went to Stanford at 14.
  • Western Terrorists:
    • In The Calculating Stars: one of the lunar launches is stopped by a bomber strapping himself to the rocket, while three astronauts are in the command module. He wanted to stop the plans to "abandon God's creation."
    • In The Fated Sky, we're introduced to the Earth First movement, who don't think that America's poor and minorities will ever get a ticket to space. The opening scene includes a desperate group of East Coast refugees opportunistically holding a returning shuttle hostage. Elma convinces them to let most of the hostages go, and they're shot and captured when she takes a bathroom break.