Hold Back the Stars, by Katie Khan

“It’s not your job to save me.”

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When I was little, I didn’t know what I wanted to be, but my best friend Kendall wanted to be an astronaut. Even at seven, I knew the Best Friend Rules—you support and encourage at all times. She’d talk about going into space, and I’d nod along, but there was a constant undercurrent of fear that I couldn’t shake or share with her: I was terrified she would die there. I’d never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I had read the Tintin book Explorers on the Moon, and I remembered the bit where one character, a stowaway on a rocket ship, sacrifices himself by stepping out into space when it becomes clear there isn’t enough oxygen for everyone else. Nothing—not monsters under the bed, not Voldemort or Sauron or the White Witch—was as frightening to me as the thought of dying alone in an infinite darkness, floating thousands of miles from Earth and light and love, suffocating slowly.

Hold Back the Stars is about that. As the book opens, Carys and Max are free-falling through space. Their severely damaged ship, the Laertes, is behind them and receding every minute. And every minute counts: they have ninety left in their oxygen tanks. After that, if they can’t get back to the ship or get the AI to direct a satellite drone their way, they will suffocate.

Most of the story is told in flashbacks, showing us how Carys and Max came to know each other and to fall in love. Their world, the back cover of my proof says, is one “where love is banned”, which isn’t strictly true but is close enough for marketing copy. Katie Khan has created a near-future, semi-familiar world, suffering from nuclear fallout as the result of a war between the US and “the Middle East” (never clear which bit). Europe has become Europia, a collection of regions known as Voivodes through which citizens are shuffled every three years in a programme called Rotation. It’s meant to discourage individuals from becoming overly attached to one place; how better to combat xenophobia, jingoism and the various dangers of nationalistic pride than to make sure that everyone is from everywhere, or nowhere?

The catch is the Couples Rule, which stipulates that no one can enter a marriage or a civil partnership—preferably not even a serious relationship—before the age of thirty-five. Carys and Max are in their mid-twenties when they meet each other. (It’s a technological meet-cute, wherein she asks the MindShare [which does what it says on the tin] where to get hold of goose fat to roast potatoes; he answers; they flirt in multiple languages and eventually bump into each other in meatspace.) It’s not the smoothest of romances: Max is from one of the founding familes of Europia, people who believe firmly in the rightness of the rules, and Carys wants a demonstration of commitment that he finds hard to give. Eventually, however, wanting to prove his love for her, he not only introduces her to his parents, but asks the Europian government for an exemption to the Couples Rule. The legislature agrees to give the pair a trial run as a couple, but not within Europia; instead, they’re “volunteered” for a space mission to try and find a navigable route through the asteroid field that has inexplicably surrounded Earth since about the time of the nuclear war.

Hold Back the Stars, you will probably have gathered by now, is a kind of sci-fi-lite. All of the trappings are there: global political catastrophe, new world order, environmental changes, altered names for familiar objects or phenomena, increased levels of domestic technology, grand and impersonal government. It is, at least, an actual dystopia. I get very fatigued when people throw the word around imprecisely, but in the case of this novel it’s almost too apt: the population of Europia believe themselves to be living in the best of all possible systems on the benighted Earth (they’ve even incorporated the word “utopia” into their new name), but it doesn’t work for everyone, and isn’t as impartial it seems. However, if you’ve read more than even the tiniest smattering of mildly speculative fiction, or seen more than three episodes of Doctor Who, you will probably find the book’s atmosphere a bit dull. The MindShare, for instance, is not what you’d call a groundbreaking concept. Nor are the Wall Rivers, indoor text and video feeds that echo ideas found everywhere in the genre, from Fahrenheit 451 to the Black Mirror episode “Fifteen Million Merits”. (Also, Khan’s description of the Europian government’s debating chamber reminded me so strongly of the way the Galactic Senate is portrayed in Star Wars: Episode II that I almost giggled.) It’s not that searing originality is the most important thing; I’m not demanding that everyone be a Joanna Russ or a China Miéville. It’s just that if you’re going to use building blocks that lots of other people have used before you, it would be nice to at least give them a fresh coat of paint. <eyes strained metaphor; abandons it>

Anyway, the sci-fi is lite because Hold Back the Stars isn’t all that interested in its own theoretical implications; it’s much more interested in being a love story, and in this it succeeds. Carys and Max are irritating but fundamentally likeable people; they fuck up because of relatable human things like pride, fear, loyalty to family. They’re not deeply characterised, but they are at least clearly so: Carys does things we recognise as being Carys-like, Max does very different things that are classic Max. And as Khan carries her story along, we see the value of this, because of the nature of the plot twist.

Actually, there are two. The end of part one seems to answer the question of what will happen to them as they fall through space, and the reader, saddened and bewildered, reads on to discover the repercussions of their actions in later years. Until a point at which that answer is suddenly shown to be malleable: a different ending could happen, and then the future would look like this. Or…another possibility altogether.

I like the options that are revealed to us; I like that they are revealed in the first place, that Khan is open-ended and open-handed with her characters’ fates. I like somewhat less the fact that the device enabling these twists is never explained or even hinted at. Is there reincarnation? Time travel? Are these parallel universes? Are we, at any point, simply inside someone’s head, and if so, whose? It seems odd, in a book that adopts a speculative or science fiction-y air, to completely ignore this. Unless the point is a meta one (any ending is possible because all is invented), but if so, the book doesn’t draw attention to its own fictionality in its earlier stages, so it’s a bit sudden.

Hold Back the Stars is an evocative, solidly written love story hung on a futuristic framework. The hook is terrific—the opening pages absolutely dare you not to read on—and it’s easy to become invested in what happens next. I probably won’t reach for it again; I’m not its ideal reader. But if you’re looking for an absorbing, fast-paced, and rather charming love story, pick it up. You’ll have a hard time putting it back down.

Many many thanks to the publicity folks at Doubleday for my review copy. Hold Back the Stars is published in the UK on 26 January.

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19 thoughts on “Hold Back the Stars, by Katie Khan

  1. I’m so keen to read this, partly because I’m interested by the recent trend towards speculative fiction, where hard SF tropes are repackaged for readers who wouldn’t normally reach for SF. Hold Back the Stars, from what you say, seems to demonstrate both the benefits and the potential pitfalls of such an approach – it’s easy to simply rehash old stories when you aren’t intimately familiar with a genre, and I’m not hugely enthusiastic to read about yet another simplistic dystopia. But then I absolutely love the idea of piggybacking off a SF setting to explore themes that might more typically turn up in a traditional romance, and the ending sounds really intriguing. I think that sort of playing around is where speculative fiction has the most to offer, and it’s a shame to hear that you think it didn’t quite work.

    I wasn’t sure from this whether you’re interested in reading stories set in space in more general terms, but James Smythe’s The Explorer series is a wonderful hard(er) SF take on some of the things this picks up on. Not recommended if you’re still prone to space-related nightmares, however!

    • I like that sort of piggybacking too; I just think it works better when the author is using the full nuances of the “foundational”/window-dressing stuff, as well as of the themes she really wants to explore. Still, might be a good one for you to read to see whether you disagree! I do like spacey stuff, and will have to see if Smythe is on the Chaos’s shelves (although I also still panic about dying in deep space! Perhaps I’ll look up a plot summary first…)

  2. From the cover and the initial paragraphs of your review I was sure this was going to be a YA novel. I’m not sure the sci-fi/dystopia lite plot appeals to me that much, but in some ways it reminds me of The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, which I read last month. That one features two NYC 17-year-olds who fall in love on one day, with their romance set in a cosmic context through the gal’s love of physics and the multiverse theory. That one definitely was YA, but I loved it.

    • People seem unsure whether this is meant to be YA or not; I’ve seen it shelved on Goodreads as adult fiction and as YA. I wouldn’t say it was written as YA—it doesn’t quite have that flavour to it—but a thoughtful teenager would definitely enjoy it.

    • Yup, it hovers in an interesting place genre-wise. Possibly it’ll draw more readers because of that, or possibly it’ll lose some; I suppose the publisher must have had to gamble on the former. It’s certainly a sweet love story.

  3. I’m so glad you’ve reviewed this. I don’t usually read other people’s reviews before I write my own but I read it last week and I really wasn’t sure what to say. The problem for me was the ending and I wasn’t sure whether it was just my problem, but clearly not. There was no signposting, was there? The alternates came out of nowhere and had me baffled/frustrated. It was almost as if it wasn’t sure whether it wanted to be really clever or a decent genre novel. Second one of those I’ve read lately, it’s all a bit odd.

    • Yeah yeah yeah EXACTLY about the lack of signposting! I mean, having alternate endings is one of my favourite things (most of the time) but they HAVE to hang together in terms of the rest of the book, it’s like writing magical realism. Having multiple options has to feel reasonable to to the reader in some way, and this didn’t.

  4. The way you describe this makes me want to try it. I share your dread of floating around in space, running out of air, all alone – how awful. Astronauts are brave.

    • They are, and one of the book’s strengths is the way it describes the act of having a relationship as being the same: you have to be brave and committed and gutsy to even try.

  5. Not my kind of SF but I am glad you enjoyed it and who knows, if it gets more people reading SF that’s not a bad thing! I have to ask though, given your childhood fears, did the book freak you out at all?

    • Not massively. It’s the sort of book that allows you to ignore the emotional weight if you want to, which I did; the writing doesn’t force you to experience what the protagonists are feeling.

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