Saturday, August 6, 2016

THE LADY ASTRONAUT OF MARS, Mary Robinette Kowal's Hugo-winning novelette

Free online read, or 99¢s; on Kindle

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Thirty years ago, Elma York led the expedition that paved the way to life on Mars. For years she's been longing to go back up there, to once more explore the stars. But there are few opportunities for an aging astronaut, even the famous Lady Astronaut of Mars. When her chance finally comes, it may be too late. Elma must decide whether to stay with her sickening husband in what will surely be the final years of his life, or to have her final adventure and plunge deeper into the well of space.

My Review: No wonder this story won the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Novelette. Kowal, comme d'habitude, presents her Lady Astronaut with a life-choice that will reverberate down the ages no matter how she decides it; and makes it clear that this is not the first time Elma has faced such life-choices, but is at last old enough to really *get* what she's deciding.

It's a theme in my reading here lately. This is the same vein worked by Blake Crouch in his exciting and engrossing novel DARK MATTER. It's an evergreen in all manner of fiction from Jack Finney's romantic obsession novel TIME AFTER TIME to the entire genre of alternate (sic) history worked famously by Harry Turtledove and Eric Flint. It speaks to something deep inside us, a common core of regrets seething or simmering in each human breast. It's impossible to exist in the material world without creating this core, and I'm beginning to think that it's the source of our human condition: malaise, misery, morbidity. We're all weighed down to one life of the infinity of possibilities by the gravity of our regrets.

Elma and Nathaniel have lived a happy life. They're married many years, they're still in love with each other, but they're childless and they're aging (she more gracefully than he) on Mars. Their work in the space program, here turbocharged by a celestial accident much discussed in modern space science: asteroid impact, made the Martian colony possible when politics made it imperative.

As she levels up in her life experience, Elma isn't clear on the correctness of her decisions already made which gives her pause in facing this latest one. Her husband's life is ending, both inevitably and painfully. Her misery is deftly portrayed, without melodrama or self-pity. When her life-changing decision arrives, she's sure of her course. Nathaniel, however, has other ideas. He does, out of love, a self-sacrificing thing to enable his beloved Elma to do the only job she's ever had, the only one she loves. The no-correct-way ending feels so deeply true and right that it brought me to tears. I identify with Nathaniel and Elma, probably because I'm about Elma's age, and because my life circumstances are, like theirs, constrained by decisions made long ago.

Like them, I don't regret my decisions so much as question them. Stories like this enable me to go through my own life's process again. So far, I don't regret much that I did and didn't decide to do; but the ones I regret, I regret completely, forcefully. Which tells me that I did life right: I'm still not obsessed with trivialities!

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