Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Review: The Lady Astronaut of Mars


Note: You can read this story online here. The other Hugo nominations for this year are here.

“Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, contemptible, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.” — J. R. R. Tolkien in the Foreward to the Lord of the Rings

The story begins with the confused ramblings of an elderly woman. We know there’s something about Mars and Kansas… but we’re left collating hints and scraps of information given to us by what is possibly an unreliable narrator. If this actually is serious science fiction… then it must be some sort of alternate history because we are shown some kind Mars Mission from the fifties that was engineered with punch card programs. And yet, the doctor from Kansas is named Dorothy and has an Aunt Em and Uncle Henry… and this is so outrageous I can’t tell if this is satire or a some kind of a joke.

If you keep reading, you soon discover that it isn’t some kind of drug addled hallucination. There is a bit of science folded into the story: a domed colony on mars, an asteroid impact on earth, an inhabitable extrasolar planet…. It’s not a bad little premise there, really… but it is entirely smothered in the details of particularly uninspiring elderly couple. The images and situations are as far from those depicted in Frank Frazetta covers as can possibly get. Instead Dejah Thoris, you get a sixty year old woman’s flabby arms. Instead of gruesome sword fights and pulse pounding action… you have a couple of bureaucrats coaxing a former astronaut to come out of retirement.

The tone of the work is very even… almost elevated. It’s hard not to read it in the cadence of an open mic slam poetry routine. Sometime like this could be on NPR– it seems to hit all the right notes with a bit of panache– but the story ends up grinding on into more and more graphic and disheartening details. There’s nothing warm and familiar like the time that Teller did a Summer Sounds segment. There’s nothing hip or snarky like the stories that Ira Glass would run. You never get to that uplifting moment where you can think of yourself as being smarter and more noble than the average red neck.

There is not one hint of irony in the work, but the strong female character™ that we are presented with here is little more than glorified cargo. Her career is just a convenience for other people that can benefit from the publicity value she brings them. She doesn’t actually do anything to display strength or competence or courage or character. In fact she is shown to be strong only in contrast to her husband who can barely walk and whose bones are so brittle, they can break at the slightest pressure. Early on in her marriage, she  chose to sacrifice the chance to have children in the interests of furthering her made up career and that decision haunts her.

Everything about this couple is barren. They argue about whether or not she should take one last mission like a couple of old ladies arguing over who should pay for the bill at a restaurant. She feels guilty about going on a suicide mission before her husband has died from his worsening terminal illness. He insists that she take it because he knows it’s what she wants. He puts his foot down and she responds by showing him mild contempt– she walks out on him in the middle of a spat. I honestly can’t see what he gets out of this relationship and can only wish for him to have a chance to die alone somehow– away from this woman’s condescending pity.

All the plot threads come together neatly in the end. Dorothy will look after the old guy in his last days… and he’ll even write the punch card program that will send the Lady Astronaut to the habitable exoplanet. This reminds me of the movie Gattaca where the guy finally gets to live his dream of going into space… but it’s just a macguffin; it’s no more than people boarding some kind of fancy airplane, really. Why they’re going into space is irrelevant and the calculations that the guy makes for orbital paths at his desk job are as patently ridiculous as the punch card programs of this story. If Gattaca was ultimately a movie about a guy that crosses the street without his contact lenses, then this story is about a woman that cleans up a mess after her husband has an involuntary bowel movement in the kitchen.

The author appears to be extremely aggressive in her attempt to counter female stereotypes in science fiction, but she doesn’t seem to have anything compelling to offer in their place. There is no power here, no virility, no beauty, no passion, and no meaning here. There’s just a woman that strikes me as being an inadvertent reductio ad absurdum to our culture’s dominant views on women and women’s roles. Sure, she gets to be the hero and the astronaut in the end… but her sacrifice is more about her and how it makes her feel than anything else. She’s so myopic… and yet, she really would have been happier if she’d just been a mom and stayed at home. (Everyone else would have been happier, too. She’s strikes me as being the sort of person that you’d never want to do anything for you because she’s such a martyr that you’d never hear the end of it.)

I don’t have anything against this author personally and have no idea what else she’s done. Just based on reading this, I can only conjecture that she’d hate the sort of works that I prefer– Tolkien’s writing, for example. She strikes me as a competent wordsmith, but I don’t know that I can readily forgive her for using her talents to make something that is so intentionally ugly and hollow. Maybe I should feel sorry for her for her lack of imagination? Ah well, I guess this is all that’s left when a person has purged the chainmail bikini from their science fiction and fantasy. At the very least, this piece graphically demonstrates where that sort of idiocy ultimately leads….

11 responses to “Review: The Lady Astronaut of Mars

  1. dgarsys May 6, 2014 at 6:56 am

    FWIW – MRK came to my attention for two reasons.

    Reason the first: A new host added to writing excuses, a sharp and insightful podcast that up until that time had featured Howard Taylor (Schlock Mercenary – a very long running and awesome space opera comic), Dan Wells (I Am Not a Serial Killer – a very disturbing but well written book), and Brandon Sanderson.

    “Fifteen minutes long – because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart.”

    Short, weekly, to the point, insightful, with excellent advice that 60% of the time was beneficial to any storytelling/characterization, 20% of the time was useful to writing any sort of fiction, and the rest SF/F specific.

    I can’t say her joining the show has really helped it. It’s not that she hasn’t made good points or provided OK info, but at no point have I really ever sat there and felt that she added sufficiently insightful input above what the rest already provided that made up for the muddle: with more hosts on, the show feels more constrained. There is now LESS time for each person to elaborate what they’re saying within the time constraints of their format, and I feel things go less deep and stay at the level of bullet-points.

    Reason the second: During one of the kerfluffles a year or two back, when Resnick and Malzberg were being pilloried for commenting in an article in the SFWA journal about a “lady editor” they respected, and whom they admired for her beauty, she was part of the crowd that was all pissed that they shouldn’t use “lady” as a qualifier, and that an editor should be respected for JUST her work. And it’s sexist to talk about how beautiful a professional woman was. Sadly, even Resnicks daughter did not see fit to stand by her dad.

    Wanting to know her viewpoint on things, I also discovered she had a very negative opinion of several authors I considered the greats – including Pournelle. Yes, the accomplished, multi-degreed engineer who also worked in applied social sciences, wrote science books on the side, arguably co-wrote one of the top three or four books and best first contact novels, and (personally) inspired a deep love for history when I realized that several of the Falkenberg shorts were direct rewrites of historical events such as the Nika revolts. A man who’s coined or helped coin several well known Sfnal phrases (“think of it as evolution in action” and – though it was more likely Niven – “on the gripping hand”).

    This makes the title of MRK’s book even more ironic. From your review, she very much titled this “lady” to emphasize that what makes her important as an astronaut is that she’s a lady. Sortof like in a book called “Dentist Warrior”, “dentist” would be the defining characteristic of a person who became a warrior in the course of the story.

    Somewhat returning to the podcast – but my gut feeling is that when discussing topics wherein several classics (Heinlein, etc…) would be perfect examples of the topic at hand, they tend to mention writers that I have never heard of instead of those classics who would likely be a common touchstone. I don’t know if it’s consciously avoided – after all, part of the format was to promote new works that were examples of the topic at hand via audible and I learned of some pretty good stuff that way and I’m not about to tally mentions before/after her joining, but I used to feel that the examples they provided were more often ones I already knew.

    Perhaps she simply doesn’t have those touchstones….

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  5. Tapetum July 1, 2015 at 11:38 am

    All I can say is that (fortunately for you), you have never had to take care of someone you love as they die by inches, because MRK hit the conflict of emotions exactly. You have spats, because they’re in pain and you’re both exhausted past endurance. You want to hold them and never let go – and you want to run away forever and not have to see them like that. And you question your reproductive decisions no matter what they were – we should have had children to share the burden. Oh God, why did we have children, they’re one more thing to worry about, and they’re suffering too, and what will I do with them when he dies? You see contempt, and wonder what they see in each other? I see a deep understanding and abiding love in a couple under immense strain.

    To have someone come to you, when you’re already in that roil, and offer you your heart’s desire? If only you’ll leave it all behind? Take all of the above knock it up an order of magnitude.

    This wasn’t a story about brave derring-do and beautiful women and rugged men. It wasn’t meant to be. And sometimes those of us who are older, and whose dreams are age and tragedy adjusted get to have SF wish-fulfillment stories too.

    • jeffro July 1, 2015 at 11:44 am

      I’m glad you dig the story. I didn’t. I really prefer Leigh Brackett’s work, honestly. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Different strokes and all that.

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