Mary Robinette Kowal color - c. Rod Searcey 2018
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Image credit: Rod Searcey

Space the Nation: Mary Robinette Kowal on astronauts, social justice and needing glasses

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Jan 1, 2019

Mary Robinette Kowal’s multi-award-winning “Lady Astronaut” series imagines what the 1950s space race would have been like if women weren’t just behind-the-scenes “calculators” (like the heroines of “Hidden Figures”) but center-stage mission members. If you’ve grown up in an era where female astronauts are not all that remarkable, maybe this doesn’t seem like much of a twist. But consider what Kowal has to do to make such an alternate history plausible: She smashes an asteroid into the East Coast of the United States, an extinction-level event that both transforms the space race into an attempt to colonize Mars and radically reduces the number of men available to work on this ambitious project — meaning that female astronauts are needed for both their bodies and their brains.

You don’t have to know that she destroys Washington D.C. in the first book to realize that Kowal had politics in mind when writing the series—and not just in the sense of policy changes one might enact. Kowal’s interest in everyday social justice extends to the spreadsheet she uses to make sure she’s writing a broad variety of characters. I talked to her about the parallels between the lady astronaut mission and the climate crisis, what the Trump presidency might mean for our plans for the stars, and how she incorporated her own allyship missteps into the character arc of her chief protagonist.

How explicitly are you thinking about modern-day politics when you're putting these stories together?

Pretty explicitly. These two books were odd because I wrote them before Trump. So, writing a book in which I slam an asteroid into Washington D.C. is very different before Trump than after Trump. I went on a book tour for the book before this, Ghost Talkers, and my first tour date was Election Day. And what I usually do is read a chapter out loud from the next book. So, Election Day. I read the first chapter...

The slamming asteroid chapter?

I read the slamming asteroid chapter. And it's fine. Because at this point, the results are not in yet. The day after that, I read it again, and the audience has a completely different reaction. It was just — it was so uncomfortable and different. And I just didn't read it for the rest of the tour.

The thing for me with writing in general, but science fiction and fantasy really specifically, is that everything that you put on the page is a political act. The things that you choose to put on the page and the things you choose to leave out. So what I mostly chose to do is to not ignore the politics. It's not so much that I'm writing a political book or that I'm writing a book about social injustices or that I'm writing a book about mental health, it's that I'm not ignoring those things, because they exist and they repeat things that people deal with all the time.

What do you think of Space Force?

[laughs]

[Kowal wants to note “she laughed for a full minute.”]

I mean, you know, I'm all for another reason to put people in uniforms if they're well-tailored.

The acceleration the space program in your books as a life-or-death mission reminded me of something you often hear from climate change activists: If only we could throw all resources we had at this problem, in the same way we did the space race, maybe we’d get somewhere. Was this a parallel you were actively thinking about?

Yeah. Absolutely. It was very much on my mind. Most people think of climate change as a 21st-century issue, but people were concerned about it in the '80s. They were concerned about it in the '50s. They were concerned about it in the 1880s. They have been concerned about it basically since we started belching smoke into the air, so it is — it is something that — most of the time we can just ignore, you know, it's a slow disaster. So, for the most part, people have been able to ignore it, but you know a hundred years ago, they knew that if we didn't turn the ship around, we were going to run into problems. The water strike allows me to have people talking about it in the 1950s and '60s as a much more active thing than just a group of scientists going, "Hey, you know, data says —."

I ask this question of creators a lot: Why do you think we, as Americans, love apocalyptic fiction but refuse to engage much with the apocalypse that’s unfolding in front of us?

People like to feel like they're heroes, right? When you're dealing with an apocalypse, there's an immediate problem that you can deal with and come up with solutions for. When you're dealing with a slow apocalypse like this one, the solutions — you don't see a payoff for those for decades. It's like needing reading glasses. For most of my life, I've been able to read without needing reading glasses, and then it slowly got a little bit worse and a little bit worse and I just squint a little bit and then suddenly — it felt like overnight — I suddenly couldn't read without reading glasses.

That reminds me a little bit of the process of change when it comes to social justice too. Things change so slowly until they change suddenly. And it reminds me of social justice because it’s one of those things where often people talk a good game about wanting change but don’t change themselves. Like, it’s great you want this thing to happen — what are you doing, personally, about it?

My husband and I got rid of our car.

Oh, wow.

Yeah. Golly. It's been six or seven years now. It was exactly that thinking: “What can I do? What are the small things that I can do?” And that is, I think, one of the things about the climate that people may not think about: It's a bunch of small actions by everyone. And that’s one of the ways in which the space program is a good parallel, because we think about the astronauts all the time, but there were hundreds and thousands of people supporting them, all having small specific jobs, tasks that they did, that built towards this one cumulative thing.

Speaking of small changes: I love that you make your protagonist imperfect when it comes to relationships, specifically around race and representation.

Basically, I gifted her with my mistakes. All of the stuff in there that — about her awakening, all of the stuff about the other people calling her on her crap, is basically the result of other people's hard emotional labor in educating me.

Wow. A lot of white people don't get the gift of that kind of feedback from people of color. How do you begin to have those kinds of conversations?

There's a measure of trust.

At some point [a few years ago] I realized that most of my friends were people like me because it's easy to make friends with people like me. And I decided that I was going to work harder at cultivating friendships with people who were not like me because, selfishly, it makes me a better person. There’s a currency of friendship: You know, you put money into the friendship bank, you take money out of the friendship bank, you loan each other things, you take out loans. And so I was looking for people with whom I could have this mutually beneficial relationship, thinking, “What can I bring to this relationship?” It had to be about more than just being able to say, "No, wait. I do have black friends.”

I read that you keep a spreadsheet of the genders, races, and orientations of characters while you’re writing.

Yeah. I started doing this as an exercise, looking at axes of power.

Everybody has an axis of power at which they are dominant and another one at which they're subordinate. Most of us have multiples of these, and it's a mix and match and you're somewhere on the spectrum of most of them. It's rare to have someone who's at the dominant end of all of the axes of power, but there are people out there. So, for me, I started doing this as an exercise and now do it with all of my books because it helps me with the areas in which I have a gap of awareness.

The first time I did it, I plugged everybody in, and I was like, "Look at that. All of my characters are cisgendered and straight. And able-bodied, huh?" And that’s just not the way the world works. I had a pretty good mix of gender and race, but everybody was wow, they were all very fit and they were all oh so straight, and like oh, yeah, that's — that's a problem. So now what I do is that I try to make sure that all of my characters have an axis — have two axes of power at which they are at the subordinate end. And then I scan through to make sure that I don't have a column that is all the same thing all the way down.

One of the things you’ve said these books illustrate is how people pull together in a crisis. Has any of the political upheaval in the last few years made you doubt some of the optimism that you had?

No, because we do see people pulling together. We do see people responding, and even if it's something that is just a statement like a march, we see people who are responding now to the way that ICE is dumping refugees by going out and finding shelter and bringing them food and responding as a community. So it is still something that we do. The problem with fear-mongering and hate-mongering is that it defines the crisis as other people.

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