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Author Q&A: Mary Robinette Kowal on her Lady Astronaut novels

14 July 2020

The sci-fi writer talks about her latest installment, The Relentless Moon.

Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series opens with an apocalyptic event: a massive meteor strike in 1952 that covers Earth in a thick cloud of dust and debris. The effects of the impact will make the planet uninhabitable, so humanity has only one option: finding a way to settle on the Moon and Mars. Even in that catastrophic scenario, women have to fight to be considered as candidates in the early astronaut program—and despite the grim prognosis for Earth, not everyone wants to build a future for humanity in space. The first Lady Astronaut novels, The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky, came out in 2018 to wide acclaim; The Calculating Stars won the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Novel and the 2019 Nebula Award for Best Novel.

Mary Robinette Kowal.
Credit: Mary Robinette Kowal

The third and latest installment in the Lady Astronaut series, The Relentless Moon, is available on 14 July. It is set in an alternate version of 1963. The story follows astronaut Nicole Wargin as she works on humanity’s Moon base while supporting her husband’s political career back on Earth. But the Moon settlement faces major challenges, including a campaign of sabotage that quickly turns deadly.

Kowal recently talked to Physics Today about the “punch-card punk” inspiration for the series, the real women of the early space program, and launching a book in a pandemic.

PT: How did you become a novelist, and what drew you to science fiction?

KOWAL: I come out of a theater background. I had a career in puppetry before I went into writing, but I had a severe injury and had to stop performing. The thing that puppetry and science fiction or fantasy writing have in common is problem solving, world building, and looking at the way things connect. They offer a way to step back from the real world just a little bit and look at it on its side, which allows you to think about interesting questions in a different way.

PT: I think the Lady Astronaut series is a great example of that—you imagined a world where women were a major part of the early astronaut program. What was the inspiration for the books?

KOWAL: My dad worked for IBM, and some of my early childhood memories are of going to visit him at work and going into the big mainframe rooms. I programmed a punch card to get the computer to type my name. Those memories inspire more of a sense of wonder for me than my smart phone. So I began imagining something I jokingly called my punch-card-punk universe. What would have happened if we had continued to throw resources at the Moon program through the 1970s and ’80s and ’90s, funding the space program at the rate we did in the Apollo era? What would the world look like? That idea inspired my novelette “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” where we are on Mars with punch cards still in use.

When I sat down to write the Lady Astronaut novels, I had to think about how we got to this future I had written. What would it have taken to get women into space in the 1960s? Basically, dropping a giant meteor on the planet—a global trauma that causes people to reevaluate everything.

PT: In the books, leaving Earth is crucial to humanity’s survival. But a major player in The Relentless Moon is the Earth First movement, whose members are trying to stop the space program. What’s their reasoning?

KOWAL: Well, the real Apollo program was not universally beloved; large sections of the American public did not get excited about it until we actually put people on the Moon. And in the books, not everyone is going to be able to get off the planet. In both the real world and in the Lady Astronaut world, the qualifications you need to become an astronaut mean that you need to have gone to specific schools, which means you had the money or the background to go to those schools. You also have to be healthy because there are no medical facilities in space—what does that mean for people who have illnesses or disabilities? It was clear to me that there would be people who opposed putting so many resources into the space program when not everyone was going to benefit.

PT: Your novels contain a lot of detail about early spaceflight and the technologies that powered it. How did you approach researching the early space program?

KOWAL: I had a lot of wonderful people who helped me. I also did a lot of reading on women in the space program. A couple of books that were specifically helpful were Breaking the Chains of Gravity by Amy Shira Teitel and Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt. I also read Promised the Moon by Stephanie Nolen, which was about the Mercury 13.

From there I read a bunch of astronaut autobiographies and talked to astronauts. Kjell Lindgren, an active astronaut, gave me notes on a key sequence in The Fated Sky. Cady Coleman, a retired shuttle astronaut, told me about some of the things women have had to deal with, like having to put extra padding in your spacesuit. Cady said that extra air bubbles would form in her suit because it was too big. But there weren’t enough women to be able to complain—the response would be “Well, no one else has problems; it must just be you,” and then you wouldn’t get to do a spacewalk. I ended up putting that line in [The Fated Sky] almost verbatim.

PT: In the first two books, your protagonist was Elma York, who was also the subject of “The Lady Astronaut of Mars.” The Relentless Moon shifts to a new character, Nicole Wargin, an astronaut stationed on a Moon base. Tell us a bit about Nicole. Did she have any real-life inspirations?

KOWAL: Nicole is a character from the first two Lady Astronaut books—she’s driven and smart, and she’s a pilot who loves flying. She’s also the wife of a senator who later becomes the governor of Kansas. I knew for the third book that I wanted to show what was happening on Earth, and Nicole’s connection to her husband and to his political career allowed me to do that.

She’s a collage of several real women. Some aspects of her are loosely based on Jackie Cochran, who was the founder of the WASPs, the Women Airforce Service Pilots. She’s also partly inspired by Jane Hart, one of the first women astronaut trainees. Hart was the wife of a senator and was one of the two women who featured prominently in the congressional hearings about the Mercury 13. There are other pieces of Nicole based on Clara Brucker, who was married to the governor of Michigan and who wrote a memoir called To Have Your Cake and Eat It.

PT: What has it been like launching a book in the pandemic? My review copy mentions a book tour and appearances at Comic-Con. I assume most, if not all, of that is on hold.

KOWAL: Right, none of that is happening. But we have a full schedule of online events. A friend of mine told me something their rabbi said: “This is not a virtual ceremony. This is a real ceremony that is happening in a digital space.” I thought that made so much sense. So this isn’t a virtual book tour, it’s a digital book tour.

Because I come out of a theater background, I look at a problem and I try to solve it with theater. So what we’re doing for the launch itself is creating an astronaut training center. We’ve figured out a way to create Zoom breakout rooms that allow people to move freely between rooms on their own. There will be actors in costume in each room, and you’ll get to have an immersive theater experience in which you are attempting to be selected to join the astronaut corps. We’re partnering with Parnassus Books, my local bookstore in Nashville.

PT: What are you working on now?

KOWAL: I’m working on The Spare Man, a stand-alone science fiction novel. It’s a locked-room murder mystery on an interplanetary cruise ship with a happily married couple and their charming dog, Gimlet. There are cocktail recipes at the beginning of each chapter.

PT: What are you reading?

KOWAL: I just finished reading Docile by K. M. Szpara. It was hard to put it down. It looks at a future in which credit and debt have gotten so out of hand that people are willing to sell themselves into servitude. It’s beautifully written and extremely disturbing.

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