- The good: Humanity working together for survival; fight for women’s rights and diversity; mental health discussions
- The bad: Reluctant and often timid protagonist; minimal science fiction ideas; low tension
- The literary: Well-researched alternate history
In an alternate reality version of 1952, a meteorite destroys Washington D.C and much of the east coast. Elma York, a pilot and mathematician discovers the meteorite aftermath will also render the earth inhospitable for humanity, propelling an accelerated effort to colonize space. Elma earns a position at the International Aerospace Coalition as a calculator. But with so many skilled women pilots and scientists, she begins a campaign to add women to the space program.
Take the film Hidden Figures, replace the protagonist with a white Jewish pilot and mathematician, and think alternate accelerated history instead of real events.
- Issue 1 – Sexism. The rampant sexism rings true, especially from the one or two men who think the women are there to challenge them. Add in the 1950’s era societal standards, and the assumptions of what women are good at or what they interests them is cringe worthy. They even use the sexism to their advantage at one point. Elma explains the complicated series of equations to the Presidents’ council to convince them of the impending climate change. The men who don’t want to look dumber than the women in the room will pretend they understand the math and accept the findings. I also find the interactions with inspired little girls who see Elma as their role model very touching.
- Issue 2 – Racism. Unlike Hidden Figures, race is not at the forefront but is addressed. Elma doesn’t notice the absence of black faces until she befriends some black women pilots, but she becomes angry once she begins to notice. But she also doesn’t actively fight against the racism built into the structure of the space program until she’s feeling overwhelmed and lets a key piece of information slip that will allow Mr. King’s lawsuit to have a real foothold. (Yes, that’s Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s an alternate history, remember?)
- Issue 3 – Mental health. Elma struggles with crippling anxiety whenever she’s the center of attention, particularly with the media. After a month of constant vomiting, her husband asks her if she is pregnant. She seeks help from a therapist, but at first refuses medication until she finds out a friend also takes it. She keeps it a secret, afraid it will propagate the stereotype of women as the weaker sex and impact her chances of going into space.
Above all, it’s an optimistic book, both for equality and humanity’s survival, which is good. But it’s not a science fiction novel; it’s a social issue novel, and often a heavy-handed one.
“There is nothing to see but that vast blackness. Intellectually, I know that we’ve passed into the dark side of the Earth. We slide into her shadow and then magic fills the sky. The stars come out. Millions of them in crisp, vivid splendor. These are not the stars that I remember from before the Meteor. These are clear and steady, without an atmosphere to make them twinkle. Do you remember the first time you saw the stars again? I am sitting in a capsule, on way my to the moon.”