The Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal (Hugo nom)
Posted July 16, 2014on:
You can read “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” over at Tor.com, and really, you should. It’s a quick story, but that doesn’t really matter, because you’ll be hooked right away. But you might want to read it at home, with tissues handy. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Such a beautiful, but painful story to read. On a happy note, I got a kick out of the nods to a The Wizard of Oz, which gave the story an ethereal, almost nostalgic feeling. A little funny to read a scifi story about a Mars colony, and getting a feeling of nostalgia! But that’s all that is funny about it. “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” has a gravitas to it, a maturity, a wordless something I don’t often get to see in science fiction. It’s about a husband and a wife who love each other, who want to help each other, and they both understand one of them is dying.
It was nice to read a speculative fiction piece that stars an aging woman. We get male characters of all ages, teens, young men, 20s, adults, retired guys. But those female characters always seem to be in that nineteen to thirty two sweet spot – old enough to kick some ass, but not, like, old. And Elma York? She’s old. She’s retired. No one recognizes her anymore. Her body is not taught, her back is hunched, her arms and legs jiggle. But she still dreams of flying. Back in the 1950s, Elma was known as The Lady Astronaut of Mars. But that was thirty years ago. Now, living on Mars, Elma has a new life. Yes, she still keeps in shape as best she can, yes, she keeps up with the physicals and the tests, anything to keep her name on the active list of astronauts, but she knows she’s not going anywhere. She’s retired. Her dreams haven’t changed, but her priorities have.
Elma’s in good health, but her husband Nathaniel, his health is failing rapidly. Their life rotates around his medication schedule, when the nurse visits, how his tests come back, when the doctor expects the paralysis to set in. There are some undignified moments, but Kowal lays their story bare, gives us everything. Because that’s love, you know? It’s in sickness and in health, for better for worse. Signing up for love means signing up for everything. You know those stories that after you read them, you suddenly find yourself across the room, holding your partner’s hand, and they when they ask if everything is ok you tell them you love them? This is that story.
Kowal takes it further, adding layer upon layer of dimensions to the world of the story, giving us flashbacks of Elma as the young astronaut, how she smiled wearing her red lipstick, was an inspiration to housewifes and daughters everywhere, resented every moment that she was seen as the lady who is an astronaut rather than the astronaut who happens to be a lady. But if that’s what it took to reach the stars, she’d do it, and a part of her would still do it. We learn of the disasters that befell Earth, the satellites that fell, the orphans. Elma and Nathaniel do not live in a vacuum. Their story is very small, very intimate, the stakes are only high for them.
Elma feels horribly guilty. How can she still dream of the stars when her husband can barely walk? How dare she inquire about new missions when they have so little time left? It’s a sick thought, that widowhood is a type of freedom. But that’s the thing, there are new missions. Missions designed for people who know they have nothing to come back to. And her phone is ringing.