Hugo Spotlight: Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars Takes Giant Leaps

In the lead-up to the 2019 Hugo Awards, we’re taking time to appreciate this year’s novel and short fiction Finalists, and what makes each of them great.

I have nothing to do with the immense talent that my friend Mary Robinette Kowal has as a writer, nor can I say that I had anything to do with the content of her Hugo-nominated (and Nebula-winning) novel The Calculating Stars, other than offering her friendly encouragement as she was writing it. But I can say that in a small way I was there at the very beginning of a journey that led to the writing of The Calculating Stars. As such I’m especially delighted about the path The Calculating Stars has taken to success.

You see, a number of years ago I was the president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (better known by its abbreviation SFWA). One of the things that I authorized during my tenure was an anthology project with audiobook studio Audible called Rip-Off! The hook was that each of the stories in the anthology started with the first line of a famous piece of literature, and then veered off from there into its own story. My story’s opening line, for example, borrowed from Shakespeare. Mary Robinette’s story, “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” took its inspiration from the opening line of The Wizard of Oz. The anthology came out in audio and was well-regarded critically, the listeners also seemed to like it well enough, and that seemed to be that.

Until the next year, when immediately after the Hugos it was discovered that “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” had garnered enough nominations to be on the Hugo Novelette ballot for that year, but had been disqualified, on the grounds that being published only in audio did not count. This caused a more-than-minor contretempts, and two things happened as a result: One, “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” was published in print at Tor.com and was given a second chance at eligibility for the Hugo—and won, the following year—and two, moving forward, audio publication was treated the same as any other publication for the purposes of Hugo eligibility. Mary Robinette’s story literally first broke and then changed the rules in science fiction, which is a neat trick.

Now, again, I was only tangentially involved here—I was not the editor of Rip-Off! (the late Gardner Dozois was) and it was Mary Robinette who chose to write what she did; I had no part in that. All I did was sign off on the idea as SFWA president. But still! I will take that tiny sliver of credit.

With the notoriety, and also, the high quality of “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” it was not entirely surprising that Mary Robinette and Tor decided that a novel-length tale in the universe of that story would be a good idea: a prequel to events in the novelette, that would become The Calculating Stars. As Mary Robinette wrote the novel, I was aware how intensely she threw herself into the research of her book’s alternate history, not only of space flight, but of the entire history of the world from the 1950s onward. I knew it because every once in a while I would get a text or Twitter DM from her:

“In Houston. Talking to astronauts.”

“Watching as the astronauts do a simulated spacewalk. This pool is really large.”

“Hey, did I mention I’m hanging out with astronauts?”

Mary Robinette wasn’t texting me about this just to rub my face in the fact that she had astronaut friends and I didn’t (well, not just because of that), but because she was genuinely geeking out that her research—her desire to do right by her story and by association do right by her readers—had brought her in contact with people who really did work in space, and who appreciated the work she was doing to honor their real-world experience in her science fiction.

And she did honor it; the simulated spacewalk she observed in Houston shows up in The Calculating Stars, as do several other moments and events that I know are taken from her direct experience observing and talking to NASA astronauts. Astronauts are not only charged with working in space, but also communicating about their work here on Earth. With their involvement, a book like The Calculating Stars can help immensely with that, even as a fictional, alternate version of the space program.

There was another bit of communication Mary Robinette did in The Calculating Stars that I think is worth pointing out. In the course of the novel, her protagonist Elma York struggles with depression, not only because of her circumstances but just because it’s what her brain does—she struggles with it and then addresses it so that she can do the work that can make her one of “The Lady Astronauts”.

Mary Robinette has talked publicly about her own struggles with depression and mental health; her experience with it informs Elma’s in her novel. In both cases, it took a certain amount of courage to step forward. I was proud of Mary Robinette when she addressed this in her life and encouraged others to seek the help she sought; I was proud of her when she made it part of the character she had placed in the center of her novel.

As her friend and peer, I’m happy to have played a very small role in Mary Robinette’s journey to this particular Hugo nomination. What I’m even happier about as a reader is that The Calculating Stars is only a small step into the “Lady Astronaut” universe. The book’s direct sequel The Fated Sky is already out, and more books in the series are on their way. There are giant leaps ahead, and I can’t wait for them.

John Scalzi is the author of several SF novels including the bestselling Old Man’s War sequence, comprising Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, The Last Colony, Zoe’s Tale, The Human Division, and The End of All Things. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Fuzzy Nation and Redshirts; the latter novel won science fiction’s Hugo Award in 2013. He also won a Hugo Award for Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, a collection of essays from his popular blog The Whatever. He lives in Ohio with his wife and daughter.

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