Reading The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

Kowal drops a meteor on Washington, D.C. in the opening act of her novel. First, great way to generate some excitement (I also appreciate that she handles it with much more sensitivity than Independence Day handled the destruction of major American cities,) and second a great way to begin an alternate history story without resorting to the cliche of “this war turned out differently” that dominates the genre.

Pretty quickly Kowal pivots from the disaster (although the characters continue to see the after-effects of the Meteor and hold remembrances on Meteor Day) because that’s not what this book is about. The purpose behind the huge deviation from our timeline with a meteor impact taking out Washington, D.C.? To get the space program started earlier. The meteor hits in an alternate 1952 (Dewey is president instead of Truman,) and Elma York is a mathematician working for NACA (NASA’s precursor organization.) She survives the impact during a weekend in the Poconos with her husband, Nathaniel, an engineer who also works for NACA. Soon after the impact, Elma calculates a value for the massive amount of heat the kinetic energy from the meteor added to the Earth, and while the exact values are not revealed in the book, the expected results are startling.

Initially the soot output from uncontrollable wildfires and the impact cool the Earth’s climate for a couple years, much as volcanic eruptions have done in the recent past. After a few years though, the heat added to the Earth’s systems will tend to increase the temperature of the atmosphere, eventually to the point where life on Earth might not be possible (the numbers are a little vague here.)

People from Earth will need an escape route – and that route is into space. So the nascent space program is jump-started by a massive investment from the reformed government in Kansas City. Not only the United States, but many other nations take part in this new space program, and in the early years of its development, Elma York is a computer (the term used for mathematicians, mostly women, who did the hard work of calculation in the days before electronic and mechanical computers were reliable enough or inexpensive enough.)

The central tension of the novel comes when Elma realizes that she’d like to be an astronaut, and that the new situation, where everyone will eventually have to evacuate from Earth, demands that women are allowed to travel into space just as the men are.

Stetson Parker, the prototypical military-pilot-and-first-man-in-space, is a serious antagonist in this, as is the bureaucracy of the new U.N.-managed space agency.

A secondary struggle is Elma’s struggle with herself. Like many, she suffers from impostor syndrome, self-doubt, and a near-crippling anxiety. Her struggles with her own mind’s work to sabotage her efforts provide a running counterpoint to the successes she experiences during the story.

She also does (mostly) good work as an ally of black astronauts and pilots, whose valuable contributions are constantly devalued in the continuing Jim Crow Era of the 1950s, and while she means well, Elma finds it hard to understand and follow the struggles of those who face far more overt and violent oppression. The tone of some of these sections indicate some areas where Kowal has some difficulty successfully duplicating the voices of struggling minorities – it seems like she made it too easy on Elma.

In all, I would recommend this book – great story with great characters, and a good way of showing a more inclusive Space Race than we had in our own history. The biggest change I would make is to avoid too many puns in the private moments between Elma and her husband – it may be the relationship some people have, but it’s a little grinding on the reader after too many.

Southeast Alaska: Day 5, Lake Eva

We arose on the fifth day of our Alaska trip to a beautifully clear sunrise, lucking out with an absence of the overcasts and mists that characterized other mornings during this Alaska trip.

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We were lucky enough to see the sun on most of our days in Alaska, but on Day 5, the sun showed up bright and unusually early in a partly cloudy sky.

We continued our passage off Baranof Island, moving north through the Chatham Strait between Baranof and Admiralty Islands, and soon pulled into Hanus Bay for a morning excursion on land. After we disembarked, we immediately found evidence that we weren’t the only ones who had been to the beach that morning.

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Bear tracks on the beach in Hanus Bay

A large bear had passed by, leaving its prints in the sand as shown above. Our greatest precaution against bears in Alaska was staying in groups – bears in general, brown and black, will not attack groups of people, and are much more likely to be alerted to the presence of a group than an individual. This awareness on the part of the bear eliminates a likely cause of bad bear/human interactions – surprise when a bear realizes there’s a person all up in its business too quickly. Baranof Island, where this photo was taken, is only inhabited by brown bears (Ursus arctos,) black bears (Ursus americanus) do not live on Baranof or a couple of the neighboring islands. The expedition naturalists all carried large bottles of bear spray, but I got the impression that using the spray would have been an extremely unusual situation. Encountering a bear (as one of the other hiking groups did) was safe, and done from a safe distance. Far enough away from a bear, and it probably won’t care too much if you’re there and watching it. It’s when people get too close (or if bears get too close) that problems arise.

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Close-up of a stump in the forest on the Lake Eva trail, Baranof Island, AK

This is another situation where I’m underwhelmed by a color version of the photograph above, but a black & white version brings out a lot of detail and texture in the photo that can be lost to color. I like this one, even though I didn’t much like the same photo in color.

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The thriving forest floor supported a lot of banana slugs (Arilomax sp.)

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the invertebrate contingent – represented here by a humble banana slug. They consume detritus – all the dead plant material, fallen leaves, animal droppings on the forest floor – and break it down so their own droppings become an essential part of the soil recycling in a natural forest. They’re also really interesting in that they’re simultaneous hermaphrodites (each individual is both male and female at the same time) that can’t reproduce with themselves, but still must find a mate. When they do find a mate, the exchange of gametes is a two-way street and both individuals provide sperm and get their eggs fertilized. They also breathe air through a pore called a pneumostome, which is closed in this picture, but should be on the side of the slug opposite the thumb. The pneumostome opens to a lung, which is a somewhat uncommon feature among invertebrates in general, which often breathe through gills, spiracles, book lungs, or even their integuments, but the lung found in terrestrial slugs and snails, and provides one of those rare pieces of common ground between ourselves and the mollusks.

As the morning ended, we re-embarked on the ship. I’ll have to save Day 5’s afternoon for another post, because that’s when we found Orcas!

Southeast Alaska: Day 4, Chatham Strait

After leaving the Bay of Pillars, we crossed the Chatham Strait and found a narrow fjord for exploration:

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The M/V Sea Lion explores a narrow fjord off Chatham Strait. Eager passengers and crew keep an eye out for wildlife

The protected waters of the fjord allowed for a glassy surface where marine mammals or fish would show up easily, and this particular fjord was an excellent place to find sea jellies at or just below the wavelets.

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Sea jellies in Chatham Strait – I’m pretty sure both upper jellies are lion’s mane jellies, noting the eight-part symmetry of the bell. I’m not sure of the identity of the two lower jellies.

And, to wrap up, one more shot of the fjord:

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Bright sky, dark waters…

Just Going to Post a Few Shots Here

Some of these are older, but I thought I’d put them up anyway.

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A Humpback surfacing with downtown San Francisco and Mt. Diablo in the background.

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A nice fluke closeup, you can see the serrations on the trailing edge.

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This one was an early-morning surprise – I had gone out to take bird photos, but the first light of the dawn striking the tree got my attention.

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A humpback whale calf has a great way of trying to get noticed.

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When the light gets too dark for photos with great detail, at least there are still silhouettes to go for!

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And sunset itself when the silhouettes of birds don’t arrive.