Tuesday, May 17, 2016

(Gender) Coding for the Space Race: Barry & Turner's EARTH BOUND

In the 1960s, when electronic computers began to be used in commercial as well as scientific settings, the people who most often programmed them were not men, but women. My own mother-in-law, who programmed computers for a big insurance firm in New York City in the early 1960s, enjoys telling stories about the largely-female department, and how women were thought at the time to be better programmers than men. Naval Admiral Dr. Grace Hopper, who invented the first computer compiler, concurs: "It's just like planning a dinner.... You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so it's ready when you need it. Programming requires patience and the ability to handle detail. Women are 'naturals' at computer programming." (quote is from Cosmopolitan article pictured below)

From an 1967 Cosmopolitan magazine, extolling the new kind
of work for women: computing
My spouse, who followed in his mother's footsteps to become a computer programmer himself, tells me that during the early days of computer science, men staked claim to computer hardware, deeming it more manly, and left the more "feminine" software programming to the ladies. But in our age of Gamergate and obnoxious dude "brogrammers," it's almost become a given that both computers and computer programming are by their very nature the domain of the male. Such an assumption erases the history of the field in a decidedly sexist way.

Which was why I so enjoyed Earth Bound, the latest volume in Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner's "Fly Me to the Moon" historical fiction romance series. Unlike the first two installments in the series, which featured male astronauts and the women they fell for, Earth Bound focuses on the people behind the scenes, the engineers who drew on cutting-edge technology, including computers, to create the rockets that would send human beings into space.

Not a few of those behind-the-scenes people were of the female persuasion.

Eugene Parsons, Director of Engineering and Development at the ASD (American Space Department, Barry & Turner's fictionalized NASA) is caustic, demanding, and committed to the mission of landing an American man on the moon before the Soviets do. To make sure his country achieves that goal, Parsons insists on hiring only the best. And Dr. Charlie Eason, engineer and computer programming pioneer, is the best.

Even if she also happens to be a woman.

Parsons has no control over her job title, though, and Charlie is named Deputy Director of Computing. Though in practice, it is she, rather than the gladhanding Director of Computing, who directs the department. Everyone else at ASD's Houston facility quakes in their boots whenever Parsons steps in the room. Everyone else but Charlie, that is, a woman secure enough in her own accomplishments, and equally committed to excellence, to take Parsons' intensity in stride.

The tenor of their working relationship is set during Charlie's initial interview:

     "I expect perfection. I know I can't have it, but I expect it." People hated him for that, but better their hatred weighting him down than the deaths of any of the men they were sending up.
     Again, she wasn't put off. "You'll always have my very best. And my very best is better than everyone else's." (Kindle Loc 222)

Unfortunately for the uptight Parsons, Charlie is as physically stunning as she is intellectually. Something that makes him both angry and turned-on, because "he needed her to do this job, and his body refused to stop noticing hers" (193). But Parsons won't let anything distract him from the task at hand, especially not his own unruly desires.

Charlie is used to using her physical assets to catch the eyes of men—not because she wants to sleep with them to get ahead, but because she wants to distract them before they can dismiss her:

The 6 women classified as "scientists" who worked
at NASA's Langley, VA location in 1957
Graduate school has taught her an important truth about being an intelligent woman, one she hadn't been able to learn growing up in Princeton: It helped to be stunningly beautiful, especially when dealing with the Zeppelin-like egos of scientific men. They never saw her coming; it was only after she'd outthought them that they realized they'd been flanked. (77)

Charlie and Parsons are both thinkers, both scientists, and excel at keeping their private feelings private. But since the narrative is told from their dual points of view, we as readers get to see inside, see the problems that make them both feel like outsiders not just at work, but in the world at large. Charlie has to cope with a family of scientists, parents who do not understand, and do not respect, her choice to pursue computing rather than the "pure" science of Physics. Not to mention her mother's resentment of her ability to pursue her own career, rather than act only as a supportive wife for another scientist. For his part, Parsons compartmentalizes his issues, issues related to social class and to guilt about the death of his elder brother.

Thus the low-level attraction that simmers between them during ten months of working together is never openly acknowledged by either. Charlie cooly bears the everyday sexist aggressions offered by many of her male colleagues (except for Parsons). But after a particularly galling meeting with the head of the program—"It would never be enough. No matter how many papers she authored, no matter how many projects she successfully completed, deadlines she met, or snafus she navigated, all they'd ever be able to see were the breasts" [870]—she feels even more like an outsider, more like a freak. Until suddenly she's struck by the idea that she's not the only freak in the Department. And perhaps, two freaks together might find some solace, if only of a temporary and intermittent kind.

At first, the two scientists are careful to keep their clandestine affair completely separate from their professional lives—"We never talk about this at work," Parsons demands before engaging in their first shockingly erotic interlude. And careful to keep their affair only about sex, not about anything as uncontrolled and messy as feelings. But as the tensions of work and the emotions stirred up by families begin to collide, it becomes increasingly difficult for both Parsons and Charlie to compartmentalize their growing need for emotional, as well as intellectual and sexual, connection. Even if neither of them is as close to being as competent with emotions as they are with engineering.

Especially when casual sexism puts their space mission in danger.

I'm a sucker for intelligent-heroine romances, especially when that intelligence is a major turn-on for hero in question. Earth Bound is compelling, intense, and sexy romance reading catnip.

Photo credits:
Cosmopolitan article: Backstory
Women at NASA: NASA History

Earth Bound
Penny Bright Publishing, 2016


  1. There's an alternate universe story of the Apollo Missions being run with female astronauts. The third book in the quartet by Ian Sales, is their story; Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ian_Sales and http://www.amazon.com/Great-Ocean-Above-Apollo-Quartet/dp/0993141706/ref=pd_sim_14_1?ie=UTF8&dpID=31nK3AAVjyL&dpSrc=sims&preST=_AC_UL160_SR104%2C160_&refRID=1PT59EMAQHJS50R1MKBM

  2. Great review. Just finished reading this on your rec, and loved it. Catnip indeed!