Leap Year Science Fiction, 2020*


I adored The Calculating Stars, the first novel in Mary Robinette Kowal’s  Lady Astronaut series. (If you want to get a taste of the style of this series, there are a number of short stories available online – I’d suggest starting with ‘Articulated Restraint’, which indeed I would advise everyone to read before getting too deep into the series). The series is reminiscent of Michael Grant’s YA alternate WWII trilogy Front Lines, in that it takes a big event in modern American history and writes women back into the story not only by uncovering the hidden contributions of women at the time but by explicitly changing the facts so that women were equal participants. In The Calculating Stars, we’re offered an alternative version of the development of space exploration in the US; after a huge meteorite hits the earth in 1952, the space programme is accelerated to find new places for humans to live in the universe, and some women become serious contenders for astronaut training due to their flying experience in the Second World War. The novel is narrated by Elma Yorke, a brilliant mathematician who is keen to be one of the first women into space, and her voice is light, funny and so incredibly readable. I wrote on Twitter that I’d never read a post-apocalyptic novel that’s so comforting, and I stand by those comments.


The Fated Sky, the sequel to The Calculating Stars, was in some ways more of the same, but didn’t quite work as well for me, although I still very much enjoyed reading it. The Fated Sky jumps forward into the 1960s, and rightly makes issues of race much more prominent than they were in the first novel; however, I felt that Kowal struggled to know how to handle Elma’s interactions with her fellow astronauts of colour within the stylistic parameters she set for herself in the first novel. Kowal wants to show us that Elma, as a white woman in the post-war US, would likely be ignorant and insensitive on matters of race despite her good intentions, and in that she succeeds, but only through a series of repetitive scenes where Elma gets things wrong and black characters put her right (the novel also features significant Hispanic and Taiwanese characters, but it tends to be the African-American characters doing the heavy lifting in these conversations, especially the one prominent black woman, which is worrying in itself). The overall effect is that of a tick-box take on ‘diversity’ that makes Elma difficult to like – maybe we shouldn’t like her, but if we don’t, the books don’t work!

Kowal also missteps, quite badly, in her handling of gay and trans characters [highlight for spoiler] The book reproduces the Bury Your Gays trope, which is pretty unforgivable in 2019, especially as it also resorts to the cliched device of only having the other characters realise that the two men concerned were actually a couple after one of them is killed. It also technically features a trans man, but handles this in a very peculiar way. There is nothing to suggest the character is trans in the text – he is referred to as she throughout – but Kowal reveals in the author’s note that she has misgendered this character because Elma, our narrator, doesn’t know he is trans. To me, this is not really representation and is akin to JK Rowling proclaiming ‘Dumbledore is gay’ despite writing nothing about it in the actual texts. Also, I understand that Kowal was concerned about historical accuracy here, but this is an alternate history that is pretty light-touch – I didn’t think it would have felt jarring to have this character come out, even if he had used terms that are less familiar to a modern audience to describe his experience.[end spoiler] It all feels a bit like Kowal was trying and worrying about this too hard and didn’t have the courage of her convictions. However, I’m still a big fan of this series, and am looking forward to the third in the quartet, The Relentless Moon.


In a very different corner of the science fiction universe, I read Adrian Tchaikovsky’s hard SF sequel to Children of TimeChildren of Ruin. When I reviewed Children of Time last year, I wrote that ‘I couldn’t shake the sense that this was 600 pages of set-up for the next novel in the series’ and I’m pleased to say that I was right; Children of Ruin worked much better for me than Children of Time, although I think this could have been accomplished with much less preamble. To recap: Children of Time followed two plot threads. In the first, the remnants of humanity are using stasis machines to travel for centuries looking for habitable planets to terraform after the destruction of Earth; in the second, another group of now long-dead humans have introduced an evolutionary virus into a species of spider on a distant planet, which is now slowly developing towards sentience. I found the first novel frustrating because it seemed to take so long for the spider civilisation to get to a point where they could make contact with humanity on an equal level, and this inevitable confrontation only takes place at the very end of the novel. But because of this, Children of Ruin hits the ground running, showing us how humans and spiders have now allied in a search for new worlds. This book is also divided between two plotlines, one in the past and one in the present, but this time, I found both equally fascinating, and I loved how this sequel amped up the horror elements that were inchoate in the first book. Tchaikovsky returns to questions about inter-species communication by inventing a race of sentient octopuses, but evolutionary biology doesn’t dominate the book as it did in Children of Time, which means that the plot has a lot more direction and the ideas that Tchaikovsky is playing with have more immediate implications for his characters.

I also read the sixth book in James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series, Babylon’s Ashesthis month, but the last few books of this series have blended together for me – I’m HOPING this was the one where they finally solved the race for the Iron Throne interplanetary political conflict so they can get on with facing the much more horrific threat from the Others protomolecule.

Finally, this is not science fiction, but I loved Jean McNeil’s intricate and contemplative memoir Ice Diaries, which recounts the four months she spent as a writer-in-residence in Antarctica, and found that it echoed the themes of these novels in its consideration of how humans seek out empty places only to find either that those places don’t want us or that we are already there.

Have you read any science fiction or speculative fiction recently?

*I obviously didn’t read all of these from start to finish on the 29th February, but the leap year gave me extra reading time to finish several of them off!


24 thoughts on “Leap Year Science Fiction, 2020*

  1. “Kowal was trying and worrying about this too hard and didn’t have the courage of her convictions.” – This is an excellent point. It’s so frustrating when an author is clearly well intentioned in their diversity representation, but so afraid of getting something ‘wrong’ or angering conservative readers that they essentially chicken out. It’s its own brand of problematic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree, though I was kind of getting at the opposite – I think Kowal was worrying too much about how her representation would be received by ‘woke’ readers, and the consequence is that it doesn’t feel like she’s fully inhabiting her characters. I didn’t get the sense that the trans representation was messed up because she was worried about a conservative backlash, although I could be wrong here. I’ll be interested to see how she handles this character in subsequent books in the series.

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  2. I am currently reading The Unspoken Name which is more fantasy than sci-fi but has elements of both (fantasy world but sci-fi technology and portals which basically function as space travel). I am super enjoying it even though I got kind of distracted by the Women’s Prize longlist.

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  3. Finished Caliban’s War (the second of the Expanse series) while in the US. The problematic elements (sexism, mostly) from the first book are still present, maybe even harder to overlook, but the incredible popcorn-chomping page-turning quality is still there!

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    • I loved the first three Expanse novels but I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on the series as it progresses. I’ve found the books increasingly difficult to engage with and follow. I loved the horrific protomolecule plot that dominated originally and the turn to space politics is less compelling. I’m hoping book seven will move back more towards the more uncanny/mysterious elements of this universe.


      • ARGH the protomolecule plot is by far the thing that has me most interested! (And by far the most interesting concept – it’s frustrating to hear that Alastair Reynolds managed to follow through the implications of a similar plot device in a 600-page book, and Corey has taken seven books of the same size to… not do that.)

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        • Yeah, I hadn’t thought of that comparison but you’re completely right. (Also, to return to my other comparison, GRRM pulls off the two-plots trick better in A Song of Ice and Fire partly because he’s a better writer and partly because the Others just aren’t that interesting!) I will report back on the progress of the protomolecule after I read the remaining two books.

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  4. I plan to read the Lady Astronaut series myself and will keep an eye out for how she handles characters who are not straight white people. I’m getting worried because I work in a library and absolutely do not believe in censorship of any kind, but I also understand how readers are worried about the impact of characters written poorly having a negative affect on a community. I think that with a group of logical, reasonable sensitivity readers, we should give authors a chance. Social media is a big platform and can get shouty fast. However, if an author doesn’t elect to engage with a community made up of people unlike themselves, then they can expect backlash without any evidence of good will.

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    • While I’m obviously a white person so don’t have the lived experience here, I felt that the characterisation was clunky and awkward rather than outright offensive. The LGBT material is trickier, but depressingly, I don’t think this book’s missteps really make it stand out – lots of books make the same errors.


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