"Mars is beautiful. In very different ways from Earth. We always call it the Red Planet, but its more of a soft salmon, with smoky greys and the occasional patch of umber. I'm fairly certain that when we send pictures back it will become the new spring palette."
Mary Robinette Kowal is my absolute hero. And I'm not the only one - she's fan-girled by astronauts! And for good reason: she has single-handedly re-written the history of Space Travel - with a woman firmly at the helm.
I've been reading the last two in the Lady Astronaut series, which is up against a host of incredible competitors for Best Series at this year's Hugo Awards – the last SciFi/Fantasy battle of the year.
The Fated Sky picks up the adventures of Lady Astronaut Elma York (Navigation Computer) (doctor, physicist, computer, pilot) and her colleagues as they bravely attempt to go where no man - or woman - has gone before: Mars.
Beginning in 1961, the story follows their journey while reflecting events on Earth in news clippings and letters from home. After a meteor strike, the Earth is in crisis, forcing the drive to seek alternative homes in space. Kowal ties these events in cleverly, giving the climate change caused by the fictional event relevance to the real challenges we are facing today. Such is the function of true science fiction.
With the Lady Astronaut series Mary Robinette Kowal illustrates a much different universe: one where crew members of the Mars mission are able to rise above their own, and society's prejudices, begging the questions of understanding, and tokenism.
Set in an age when men still held doors for women, The Fated Sky raises issues of sexism, equalism and racial discrimination in the context of mankind's search for a home in space. In this instalment, two ships of astronauts are on their way to the Red Planet. Its enthralling!
Her characters must value each other's skills and their humanity, as the only living beings out alone in the universe.
To achieve this they must overcome racial and sexual inequality within the IAC (International Aerospace Coalition) : the kind of discrimination that can marginalise a colleague who 'literally wrote the book on Martian geology and landing sites' into performing cleaning duties aboard ship. Our heroes Elma York and Stetson Parker kick back against this, sometimes stumbling over their good intentions.
Earth Firsters are trying to sabotage the attempt to establish human colonies in space, seeing this as a waste of valuable resources, and an act of discrimination that will marginalise those who won't qualify to leave the planet, for reasons of age, health or skill set. Some of these are members of the NAACP (The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People). The IAC begins to suspect infiltration in the Mars and Moon projects. As some of the astronauts are members of the same political group, suspicion immediately falls on the two members of the Mars mission – Florence and Leonard.
Kowal also addresses the complications of a very full working life on married couples, while extolling the virtues of 'home' - peoples' origins being a 'thing we don't talk about' after the meteor destroyed so many peoples' home towns and families.
Our Lady Astronaut has a very handsome and clever husband, Nathaniel, the aeronautical engineer in charge of the Mars mission. In an entertaining role reversal, Kowal objectifies him as the sexiest geek in Kansas; every geek girl's dreamboat. There are a few sexy scenes with these two, but remember we are still in the early sixties!
Kowal's characters face challenges like near-death explosions and hijacking, then share a tender moment with their spouse at the end of the day. These had me clutching at my heart.
There's some really cool sciencey stuff in this story, things like gravity sickness – how the body is affected by returning to Earth's gravity, space sickness – how the body is affected by weightlessness in space, the Coriolis effect – how weightlessness exaggerates movements – methodical life-saving procedures like double checking airlock pressure, how orbits and landings work and the nitty-gritty of life in space – dry 'showers' with no water and tinned food.
'This man gave me so much grief that a little bit of kindness made me tear up.'
In close quarters, the crew are likely to bang heads. Shut in a tin can with her arch-nemesis Stetson Parker, Elma tries to school him out of his discrimination: calling a female astronaut 'a delicate flower' may be meant as a joke, but its derogatory - Elma is a woman who has shuttled fighter planes during the war, and proven herself in space flight.
'There's nothing funny about telling a woman that she's too delicate to handle something. We get told that all the time - by people - by men - who are trying to keep us in our place. Its offensive.'
And Parker gets it. He uses the same argument on the aggressively racist DeBeer.
"Only when everything was secure and double-checked did I stop to look out. All the tight grief and anger in my chest unpacked a little as I floated in space. There is a part of me that expects it to be blue, because of the hours spent in the NBL pool, with the mock-ups of the Niña. But space was a rich black. If the lights were off inside the ship, and we were pointed nightward, you could see the stars, but there was always a barrier. ...It doesn't matter how many space walks I do, the stars will never lose their wonder. Against that limitless black, they blazed. Our ship defined only the edge, etched in gold and silver by the sun.
Life in space is full of risks and this story is no exception. There is loss of life in this story and its heartbreaking. No spoilers, but the way death is handled in space is uniquely shattering.
One of the astronauts' greatest threats, however, is public opinion. There are those who discriminate against astronauts who aren't white, and this is the reason Elma has made this mission.
After a hostage situation which Elma handled well, her great friend Helen has been bumped from the Mars mission in her favour. Sending the 'Lady Astronaut' is seen as an opportunity to improve public opinion about the mission's necessity to human survival in the universe.
But when comms go down between the Mars mission and Earth, the astronauts must survive on their own. Increasingly becoming their own nation, they make decisions on team roles based on the astronauts' known skills, rather than the arbitrary, prejudice based allocations from Earth.
I sure as heck don't want to give away the ending of this wonderful story, except to say that it was awesome! And I teared up a little bit.
Make sure you check out Mary Robinette Kowal's bibliographies. They're jam-packed with books about space and Mars.
- Nebula Award-winner: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
- More stories from the Red Planet
- Check out our Fiction Reading Guides
- Request a custom reading list
- National Geographic: Mars 101