Audiobook Review: The Fated Sky (Lady Astronaut, #2) by Mary Robinette Kowal

Title: The Fated Sky (Lady Astronaut, #2)
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Narrator: Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: August 21, 2018
Print length: 384 pages
Audio length: 10 hours, 14 minutes
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The Fated Sky continued the grand sweep of alternate history begun in The Calculating Stars. It is 1961, and the International Aerospace Coalition has established a colony on the moon. Elma York, the noted Lady Astronaut, is working on rotation, flying shuttles on the moon and returning regularly to Earth.

But humanity must get a foothold on Mars. The first exploratory mission is being planned, and none of the women astronauts is on the crew list. The International Aerospace Coalition has grave reservations about sending their “Lady Astronauts” on such a dangerous mission. The problem with that is the need for midjourney navigation calculations. The new electronic computation machines are not reliable and not easily programmed. It might be okay for a backup, but there will have to be a human computer on board. And all the computers are women.

I read The Fated Sky a year ago, but apparently didn’t write a review at the time. Don’t ask me why! But in any case, I’ve just completed a re-read via audiobook, and loved it all over again… so I think it’s about time to share my thoughts.

The Fated Sky is the follow-up to The Calculating Stars, which I love, love, love, love, love. A second book in a series is never quite as breathtaking as the first, in my humble opinion, because there’s already a familiarity with the world presented in the book. And so, while The Fated Sky didn’t blow me away the way The Calculating Stars did, it did keep me engaged in new and different ways, and was an altogether satisfying return to the world of the Lady Astronaut.

To get anyone new to this series caught up, here’s what you really need to know: It’s been about 10 years since a devastating meteor struck Earth, resulting in global catastrophe. The planet faces accelerating climate change, which will eventually become so extreme that human life on Earth will no longer be possible. In these dire circumstances, the international community comes together to pursue space exploration. After all, if people can’t live on Earth, they’ll have to live off Earth.

In book 1, we met Dr. Elma York, brilliant mathemetician and physicist, as well as a top-notch pilot who flew with the WASPs during WWII. Elma is married to Dr. Nathaniel York, an equally brilliant engineer. As the space program gets underway, Nathaniel becomes one of the lead engineers, while Elma pursues her dream of becoming an astronaut. It’s simply fascinating, and I urge you to read the book if you haven’t yet!

In The Fated Sky, we pick up in the early 1960s. Humans have established a colony on the moon, and the next target is Mars. The first Mars mission is about 18 months away — but not all on Earth are happy about the space program.

Earth Firsters are angry — they believe that space travel and colonization will end up being a privilege for the elite. How are the people left behind supposed to survive? With poorer areas still suffering the aftermath of the meteor’s destruction, with food, housing, and medical shortages, they feel that the country’s resources are being unfairly allocated to the space program. The protesters are becoming more outspoken, to the point of violence, in expressing their dissatisfaction.

Elma gained fame in book #1 as “the Lady Astronaut”, and when the IAC (International Aerospace Coalition) assigns her to the Mars mission, it’s clearly with an eye on public relations. But with this assignment, Elma replaces a dear friend who’d already been training for the mission, so she’s not only behind in her training but also facing resentment and hostility from the other crew members who see her as an interloper taking someone else’s place.

The Fated Sky takes place during the preparation for the Mars expedition, as well as the months of the actual journey to Mars. And while the science is absolutely fascinating, it’s Elma’s personal struggles and challenges that make it all so real and so deeply affecting.

Elma is a brilliant scientist. She’s also a devoted wife, a Southern Jew, a woman in a man’s world, and a white woman who’s not always as aware of her privilege as she should be. In the world of the Lady Astronaut books, the social unrest and upheavals of the real-world 1960s has largely been moved forward a decade along with the scientific advancements. We see women struggling for opportunity, even while being expected to maintain traditional standards of femininity (like always having their hair and makeup done before public appearances and deferring to their male counterparts even when they have superior knowledge or technical expertise. Not to mention that the female astronauts seem to be the only ones assigned laundry duty on their space mission. Argh.)

Racial inequality and civil rights feature much more prominently in The Fated Sky than they did in The Calculating Stars. There’s suspicion of the Black astronauts and whether they’re conspiring with Earth Firsters. Mission Control assigns them less prestigious assignments during the Mars expedition than their white colleagues, even when they’re clearly the better choice, which leads to disastrous results. And in myriad other, more subtle ways, the matter of race permeates the crew relations, so that even someone as well-intentioned as Elma ends up causing offense, until she’s finally told point-blank:

“One thing: Don’t explain my experience to me. It’s annoying as hell.”

On top of all this, one of the expedition crew members is a white South African, and remember, this is the early 1960’s — he’s so full of apartheid-era hate that it’s incredible that he was actually allowed to participate in the mission, and if not for international pressure related to South Africa’s financial backing of the IAC, he probably would not have been. By showing the Earth protests, the more subtle racial profiling and preferences on board the ship, and the blatant racism of this one particular astronaut. the author evokes a time of change and volatility — and sadly, exposes issues that still permeate society today.

Elma struggles too with her mental health. She’s suffered from anxiety for most of her life, which she’s worked hard to control. Her coping mechanisms are put to the test during the mission in response to the ongoing hostility she experiences from her fellow astronauts early on, especially as she realizes that she’s the only crew member who doesn’t really fit in and isn’t completely trusted.

I think maybe one of the reasons I had time loving this book the first time I read it had to do with how entangled my feelings were with Elma’s experiences. I felt so awful reading about Elma’s struggles and personal pain and how terrible she often felt. So it’s not that the book isn’t excellent — just maybe that I become overly invested in Elma as a person and didn’t like seeing her feel bad!

Anyhoo… the audiobook is such a treat! Author Mary Robinette Kowal is the narrator, and she’s a total pro. (She also narrates Seanan McGuire’s October Daye audiobooks, and does an amazing job with them.) She clearly knows these characters and what makes them tick, and I could feel Elma’s personality, as well as many of the other characters’, coming through so clearly. Fabulous.

I love the world of the Lady Astronaut, which the author first introduced in her short story, The Lady Astronaut of Mars (which actually takes place many years after the events of the books, but provides some additional context — you can read the story for free here.)

Listening to the audiobook was a perfect way for me to revisit the story of The Fated Sky. The 3rd book in the series, The Relentless Moon, will be released in July, and I absolutely can’t wait to read it!

The Earth is coming to the boiling point as the climate disaster of the Meteor strike becomes more and more clear, but the political situation is already overheated. Riots and sabotage plague the space program. The IAC’s goal of getting as many people as possible off Earth before it becomes uninhabitable is being threatened.

Elma York is on her way to Mars, but the Moon colony is still being established. Her friend and fellow Lady Astronaut Nicole Wargin is thrilled to be one of those pioneer settlers, using her considerable flight and political skills to keep the program on track. But she is less happy that her husband, the Governor of Kansas, is considering a run for President.

Book Review: Hella by David Gerrold

Title: Hella
Author: David Gerrold
Publisher: DAW
Publication date: June 16, 2020
Print length: 448 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A master of science fiction introduces a world where everything is large and the problems of survival even larger in this exciting new novel.

Hella is a planet where everything is oversized—especially the ambitions of the colonists.

The trees are mile-high, the dinosaur herds are huge, and the weather is extreme—so extreme, the colonists have to migrate twice a year to escape the blistering heat of summer and the atmosphere-freezing cold of winter.

Kyle is a neuro-atypical young man, emotionally challenged, but with an implant that gives him real-time access to the colony’s computer network, making him a very misunderstood savant. When an overburdened starship arrives, he becomes the link between the established colonists and the refugees from a ravaged Earth.

The Hella colony is barely self-sufficient. Can it stand the strain of a thousand new arrivals, bringing with them the same kinds of problems they thought they were fleeing?

Despite the dangers to himself and his family, Kyle is in the middle of everything—in possession of the most dangerous secret of all. Will he be caught in a growing political conspiracy? Will his reawakened emotions overwhelm his rationality? Or will he be able to use his unique ability to prevent disaster?

Hella is a hella big place. It’s a large planet where, due to lower gravity as compared to Earth, living things grow to crazy huge size. And there are dinosaurs. And they’re HELLA gigantic. Herbivorous leviathans migrate across the plains, slowly stomping over everything in their path, and hungry carnosaurs attack them in groups, feasting for days on the huge carcasses that they manage to bring down.

Hella is not the most hospitable environment for humans, but these few thousand colonists are there to make it home. It’s already been a hundred years since the First Hundred made landfall, and since then, additional migrations of humans have helped the colony to grow and expand.

Caution is the highest priority. Everything is studied and planned for, because it’s crucial that the human population avoid cross-contamination with the Hella natural world. All food is grown within the enclosed colonies, and care is taken never to allow human-produced microbes or plants out into the planet’s own natural environment.

We get to know the world of Hella through main character Kyle, a neuro-atypical teen (roughly 13 years old in Earth years, or 5 years old in Hella years). Kyle is smart and detail-oriented, devoted to his family, but has challenges understanding nuance and reading other people’s emotions, doesn’t like to be touched, and is unable to leave a topic until he’s shared everything (and I do mean EVERYTHING) he knows about it. He’s gifted and his talents can benefit the colony, but there are some who view Kyle as a freak and treat him that way.

While the colony seems to function on the principle of communal service toward the greater good, there are those who thirst for power, just like in any human society. When the chief power-hungry representative gets an opportunity to seize control, he takes it.

Hella is an interesting book, although I have some issues with it. At the beginning, the focus is on getting to know the planet and the colony. Kyle goes out on an expedition for the first time, and through his experiences, we get to see the plants, trees, strange creatures, and huge dinosaurs that roam the land.

We’re also introduced to the daily routines, the concept of work that’s at the foundation of this human society, and the myriad factors that go into maintaining safety and self-sufficiency.

We learn more about how human society has changed and evolved over the years since our own time as well. For example, gender is fluid and easily changeable. Kyle’s mother was born biologically male, but changed to female so she could experience pregnancy (which is in itself a fairly unusually choice, as many people prefer to have their babies bottle-grown rather than womb-grown). Kyle himself was born biologically female, but decided to change when his older brother did, largely because he too wanted to be able to pee standing up. Changing doesn’t have to be permanent; later in the book, Kyle has cause to rethink his decision and considers changing again in order to please his boyfriend (which is a frustrating reason to change, but fortunately, his boyfriend sees it that way too.)

By the second half of the book, the emphasis is less on the natural world outside the human habitats and much more on the political maneuvering within the human colony. There’s a conspiracy afoot, and Kyle and his friends may be in the best position to try to stop it. There’s plenty of danger and excitement as they chase through tunnels, hack networks, and try to avoid or defeat the bad guys.

My feelings about Hella are mixed. First off — cool planet! I really liked learning about this world, its dangers and its beauty, and what it takes for humans to adapt and survive there.

But, there’s just so much time spent with Kyle on the details! Granted, this is a piece of who Kyle is, but his need to go down the rabbit hole chasing every detail doesn’t always make for great reading, and I felt that the plot tended to bog down in detours.

At almost 450 pages, this book is longer than it needs to be. I think if 50-75 pages had been trimmed, the pacing might have improved, keeping the plot more on track and letting momentum build. As is, I didn’t truly feel caught up or swept along by the story until the 2nd half, and that’s too bad, as there are elements of a great story here.

As I said, I did really enjoy the (literal) world-building the author accomplishes in introducing us to the human society in this large and frightening world, and explaining how they find ways to improve their resources bit by bit, even while always protecting themselves from the dangers just outside their fences.

I was a bit startled looking at the author’s Goodreads profile when I realized that some of the characters in Hella appear in his earlier works. This made me wonder how much I was missing and whether a familiarity with other books would enhance the reading experience.

This is me being persnickety, but the author’s writing style got on my nerve in places. He has a tendency to throw commas into sentences to connect clauses. Random example:

Outside, the northeast slope was a rumpled landscape, hundreds of layers of lava flows had hardened here.

Just a little pet peeve of mine. Use a period! Separate your sentences! Or, you know, give semicolons a try!

Hella has a conclusion that ties up the major action of the story, but there’s certainly room for more storytelling about the colony, its people, and its politics — plus, it would be fun to get to see what happens next for Kyle, his family, and his friends.

I do recommend Hella, but wished that it was just a little tighter and faster overall. Still, it’s a fun and engaging story set in a really fascinating world, and I’m glad I read it.