The Calculating Stars by Marie Robinette Kowal is a book I enjoyed tremendously, and I have started recommending it to a bunch of friends. It is set in the US in the 50s, just shortly after a meteorite drops into the sea next to Washington, kills millions, and starts what might be an extinction level event. Our protagonist is a woman with a PhD in maths, who flew planes in WW2 for WASP (officially never saw combat, but, y’know …), and whose husband is lead engineer for the NACA/IAC.
Now that the earth might become uninhabitable within decades, the space programme kicks off in earnest and our protagonist works as a computer for the IAC. Then she realizes that she is perfectly qualified to go to space, but as you can imagine, in the US in the 50s, going to space as a woman is more-or-less unthinkable.
This book shows a lot of important things. Life as a religious minority (the protagonist is Jewish). Life for black people (the protagonist slowly starts recognizing her own racial biases when confronted with them). Sexism, naturally. Some politicking, fake news, all that jazz. The book also unashamedly geeks out over space. Spaaaace! It’s very well researched, and there were only three or four places when the geek-enthusiasm reached cringy levels.
Despite my love for the book, a couple of warnings are in order. First off, this book is the first part of a two-book series. Secondly, the characters tend to be somewhat one-dimensional, and the protagonist has some issues that in my opinion were not handled well. It’s as if she was created as a Mary Sue, then got slapped with a major crippling flaw to make up for it, and then the flaw was only clumsily integrated in the story. These are things I only noticed a couple of days after finishing the book, though – while reading it I was spellbound. If space or planes or alternate history or general geeky enthusiasm is your thing, this will be for you!