The Lady Astronaut of Mars

lady astronautI used to hate short stories.

This is the kind of all-encompassing, generalized sentiment that True Readers would never express, but I want you to understand how unqualified I am to review a short story. In middle school I read them only when cornered—when a favorite author was involved, or when I was on vacation and had nothing left but a Bradbury collection. They all left me cold, or confused, or frustrated, like a kid peering through a frosted window onto a scene she doesn’t understand. How could I care about these people? I just met them. Or worse, now I care about these people and it’s over.

Time softened my dislike of short stories, as my childhood absolutism gave way to the rich ambiguity of adulthood. At some point in my post-college wanderings, my partner gave me Salinger’s Nine Stories, and their sheer marrow-deep emotion laid me flat.[1] I tried harder, after that, to find those gems of stories that weren’t blurry windows, but were perfect, crystalline glimpses of other people’s hearts.

That’s what Mary Robinette Kowal’s Hugo-nominated novelette, “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” is. It’s the story of Elma York, an aging astronaut who helped colonize Mars in her youth. Now she lives on Mars with her husband Nathaniel, and waits in vain to be called back into space. She’s a lady astronaut, and she misses the stars.

But when the offer comes—a sacrificial mission to a distant habitable planet, too costly for a younger astronaut to attempt, a final voyage into the black for a woman whose whole life is defined by such voyages—Elma refuses it. Because her husband is dying. The rest of the story is a painful, loving conversation between husband and wife, and a young woman named Dorothy who was inspired by the Lady Astronaut when she was very young. It’s a soaring, hurting kind of story.

Part of its charm is that it isn’t futuristic—it’s science fiction as though the early space age had taken us far beyond the moon and on to the red-dusk domes of life on Mars. It’s difficult to communicate a precise sense of time and culture in a short space, but Kowal does it in the first line:

“Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife. She met me, she went on to say, when I was working next door to their farm under the shadow of the rocket gantry for the First Mars Expedition.”

Which is also, quite brilliantly, the first line of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz:

“Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife.”

It’s as though 1950s Kansas was struck by a plague of rockets and astronauts, rather than tornadoes, and Oz turned out to be a distant planet swirling with red dust.

But the best part of the story is simply Elma herself, frank and open and in love with space. There’s just something about her voice that feels awfully real, and simultaneously heroic. She’s the kind of lady astronaut that little girls might aspire to be—dedicated and big-hearted beyond the narrow domestic domain usually assigned to female characters over the age of thirty.[2] Elma never had children, because “every child born on Mars” is there because of her.

It’s a lovely story, and you should read it. It’s available for download DRM-free at Tor.com, or may be read online.

 

[1] It’s worth noting that my partner is some kind of genetic anomaly, born with perfect and unstudied literary instincts that many an English grad student would sell their soul to obtain. I met him in a damp tent in Maine, piling his Dostoyevsky and Rimbaud in the corners away from the puddles.

[2] Actually, there usually aren’t any female characters over thirty. Main characters who are women over sixty qualify as Endangered Species.

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