Skip to main content

'An Optimistic Book About Disaster': Chatting With Mary Robinette Kowal

The author (and puppeteer) discusses climate change, discrimination, and how to write science fiction with a happy ending.
The Moon

The meteorite strikes Washington, D.C., on March 3rd, 1952, killing President Thomas Dewey, most of his cabinet, and hundreds of thousands of others. In the aftermath, after the brilliant mathematician Elma York and her husband Nathaniel (one of America's foremost rocket scientists) make it to safety thanks to her skill as an airplane pilot, Elma starts doing what she does best: math.

Within a day or two, she has the grim figures: The meteorite was so big that it's generating an extinction event. When Elma presents her numbers to Nathaniel, he says, "We have to get off this fucking planet." But as the whole world gears up to colonize Mars and the Moon, deeply troubling questions emerge: Will anyone other than white men get to fly rockets? Will only white people be saved from the dying Earth?

These questions are at the heart of Mary Robinette Kowal's new alternative-history novel The Calculating Stars, as Elma, the protagonist, struggles with a secret anxiety disorder that she can't confess even to her husband. As Elma becomes a public figure, advocating for integrating the astronaut corps across lines of gender and race, her own internal ableism and shame soon becomes her biggest foes. It's a fascinating novel that also serves as a prequel to Kowal's 2013 novelette about Elma, Lady Astronaut of Mars.

Beyond her writing, Kowal is well known to fans of speculative fiction as a prolific voice actor on audiobooks and as a participant in the governance of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. She's also recently been involved in helping Worldcon reorganize its panels after the organizers of the science-fiction convention were widely criticized for the lack of diversity in Worldcon's programming, and for the festival's alleged disrespect toward certain authors.

Kowal spoke to Pacific Standard about latest novel and her career as a narrator. It turns out, her writing career began thanks to the physical hazards of professional puppetry.


How did you get started as a writer?

The transition for me from my day job, which was professional puppetry, into writing happened because of a severe puppetry-related injury—a collection of syllables not said very often. I was doing a production of Little Shop of Horrors, and a stunt went slightly wrong, and something in my wrist went snap. I was out of puppetry for about two years. During that time, my brother was in China with his kids, so I started writing a serial and sending it to them. That got me back into it. And I run these careers sort of in parallel tracks; writing is taking more time and focus than puppetry but I ... still keep my hand in.

You've made that joke before.

I haven't! But I could feel it coming, so, "Lean into it, Mary, because that's a bad joke."

The Calculating Stars.

The Calculating Stars.

Is puppetry inherently painful?

Basically. There's a saying, "If it doesn't hurt, you aren't doing it right." Conversely, just because it hurts doesn't mean you are doing it right. [It's like if you] grab a soup can and hold it over your head, and you're just going to keep it there for the duration of the conversation. Shows are 45 minutes long, at minimum. When I was doing television it's an eight-hour day. It's like acting, while doing yoga, in a game of Twister, while holding weights.

Can you tell me a bit about the process of going from a novelette, the Lady Astronaut of Mars, to a fully fleshed-out prequel novel? For example, a lot of the character drama in the novel revolves around Elma's Jewishness and her struggle with an anxiety disorder, but neither trait shows up in the shorter work. How did Elma develop as you began the new work?

It's something I added when it was developing the novel. It sounds very mechanical. In the novelette they're both older, and that gives them a weakness. All of us exist on a range of axes, and on each axis, at one end we're dominant and at the other end we're subordinate. When I take Elma and Nathaniel and go to the beginning of their story, they're young, they're smart, they're pretty. They were set to the dominant end of all the spectrums, so I looked to what I could do to shift that. In America in the 1950s, and still today, being Jewish is quite difficult for people. And of my choices, Judaism was the one that I had the most personal connection to.

Elma's anxiety disorder manifests following harassment from male colleagues, especially around her skill as a mathematician. You’ve also been outspoken about harassment at writers' conventions. Can you talk a bit about the connections between your real-world experiences and Elma's experience in the book?

I do not have social anxiety disorder. I deal with depression. I have a family member who has a social anxiety disorder pretty badly. I spent three years being sexually harassed on a daily basis at a theater company. I read my journals from that period [and] I just want to scream at myself to get out. I'm having classic panic attack symptoms and didn't recognize anything that was happening to me. Elma's relationship with Parker [the sexual harasser] is based very specifically on someone that I worked with. All of the things that Parker does to undercut her or backstab are directly extrapolated from an experience I have had. I'd walk off the floor, go into the bathroom, sob, make sure my eyes weren't red, and then walk back out and try to act like nothing happened. I've talked to people since, and they had no idea what was going on. People with anxiety disorder are really good at masking, at hiding what's going on. People who don't have experience of it read Elma and see this as unbelievable. [She's] so upset talking to people but OK with an airplane crashing. That's totally how it works.

Is this book a parable about climate change in the world today?

Science fiction—really all fiction—tends to reflect the zeitgeist, but we act as though concerns about the climate, that this is a new thing. It is something people have been talking about for decades. All the newspaper articles that start the chapters [in The Calculating Stars] are pulled from the New York Times. Alexander Graham Bell was talking about the greenhouse effect. People have been aware of this as a problem basically since the Industrial Revolution. The climate started changing, and people could see it.

In the novel, most people, at least the people in power, basically believe in the science and take steps to respond to the threat. Did you know you were writing such an optimistic book about massive climate disaster? Are you optimistic?

Yes, I did set out an optimistic book about disaster. Am I optimistic? Unfortunately no. That part is wish fulfillment. What we see, or what I see, is that when a disaster happens, people pitch in and pull together, and there's this beautiful period of time when we're all cooperating and lifting each other up. And then someone will become afraid that they aren't going to have enough, start worrying about scarcity, power, and safety, and they will start trying to protect themselves, and that moment goes away. It doesn't have to be every man for himself. It doesn't have to be, "I'm going to get mine." There are other choices.

Science fiction is all about "what if." What if we help each other?

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.