It, by Stephen King

We all float down here.

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This is by far the best cover ever designed for this book.

Warning: some spoilers ahead

I like to think that I’m relatively widely read – that I will, in the optimistic words of some of my customers, “read anything if it’s well-written” – but there are still some gaping voids in my reading, and one of them is pretty much the entire genre of horror fiction. Partly, maybe, this is because horror is a genre that hasn’t been rehabilitated in the way that science fiction and fantasy has. Even a dedicatedly snobbish reader of literary fiction will be able to find some crossover, in 2017, between their tastes and the speculative writing being produced. Horror isn’t quite there yet; I can’t think of analogous examples in that genre, apart from Let the Right One In, House of Leaves, and maybe The Loney (which might qualify more as literary Gothic), and I haven’t read any of those, let alone the classics and modern classics of the genre. So a Stephen King novel was very unknown terrain, and I approached it prepared for pretty much anything. What I wasn’t expecting was quite how addictive it (or, rather, It) would be, and how much this is a function of King’s frictionless writing. Here is an author who can write sentences that go down as smooth as cream, utterly without pretension, but without the stultifying samey-ness of a Dan Brown or a Paula Hawkins. It’s a much harder trick than it looks.

It flips back and forth between two time periods: 1958, when a group of seven schoolchildren in Derry, Maine first become friends, realise that the string of child murders in their town has malevolent supernatural causes, and band together to destroy the shape-shifting entity known as It; and 1985, twenty-seven years later, when It – not properly destroyed the first time – returns, and the children, now adults, have to return and get rid of It for good. I know very little about horror tropes, but I think the genre works best when the Big Bad is representative of real things, and the shape of this story reflects the real struggle that many (if not most) adults experience in trying to come to terms with whatever trauma shaped their childhoods. The children—who call themselves “the Losers’ Club”—are all social outcasts in one way or another: Eddie Kaspbrak is an asthmatic with an overbearing mother; Richie Tozier wears specs; Mike Hanlon is black, Stan Uris is Jewish, Bev Marsh is both desperately poor and regularly beaten by her father. Ben Hanscom, perhaps the most intelligent of the group, is morbidly obese, and Bill Denbrough, their charismatic leader even at the age of eleven, has a terrible stutter. They would all have been marked by these traumas alone; it’s these, King suggests, that bring them together in the first place, that make their challenge to It possible.

All of this interweaving of childhood trauma with adult reckoning is clever, but the book wouldn’t amount to much without the other half of the equation. The thing that’s killing Derry’s children is unequivocally supernatural (or, rather, extranatural; near the end of the book, several of the characters begin to think of objective reality as a stage set made of ropes and thin canvas, behind which endless other complex machinations are occurring). Bill Denbrough’s brother, George, is the first child to be killed in the 1958 timeline, and it’s through his eyes that we see It for the first time. It appears to him as a clown calling himself Pennywise and offering a bunch of balloons, and although it seems to George faintly odd that the clown is in the sewer, he’s drawn towards it anyway almost against his will. When his body is found, his right arm has been completely torn off. He’s three. As the Losers’ Club begins to form, it becomes clear that each child has already had a close encounter with It, but each describes It differently: It appears to take Its form from the private fears of its victims. Each instance is both clearly drawn from cheesy B-movies, and utterly fucking terrifying: a decomposing leper, a fish-man, a floating eye, a clown with a mouth full of razors, a werewolf, a flesh-eating bird, George Denbrough himself.

This quality leads to some of King’s best and smartest thematic work. I’ve already mentioned that the kids of the Losers’ Club are outcasts in a superficial sense, but several of them also experience wider traumas, and that too affects how they see It. As the book goes on, Eddie Kaspbrak begins to suspect that he’s not nearly as sickly as his mother is determined that he is, and the adult reader can see the sad, awful manipulation that Mrs. Kaspbrak tries to exercise: having lost her husband, she’s damned if she’ll ever lose Eddie to anything—not to childhood illness, but neither to a college education or a girlfriend or a wife or a family or his own life as an adult. At several points in the story, Eddie sees It take on his mother’s face. This works the other way round, too. Beverly Marsh’s father at one point beats her so badly that it’s clear he will kill her if not stopped; she recognises, even as she’s running for her life, that there is real evil present in her father, that It often works best simply by provoking or enabling the innate weakness or cruelty of an adult. Bill Denbrough’s parents, crushed by the loss of their youngest son, become incapable of speaking to each other or to their remaining child. (In one heartbreaking scene, Bill hears his mother crying at one end of the house, his father stifling sobs at the other, and wonders, “Why aren’t they crying together?”) During their 1958 confrontation with It, Bill becomes locked in a kind of metaphysical stand-off, during which he can feel himself moving both closer towards It and further away: closer to Its actual essence, further from being able to stand outside of It as a separate entity and talk to It. He recognises immediately why this puts him in danger—“to pass beyond communication,” he thinks, “is to pass beyond salvation”—and he recognises it because he has seen it happen in his parents’ house.

Historical interludes (supposedly written by Mike Hanlon, who remains in Derry to become the town librarian) suggest that the town has a long and statistically anomalous history of extreme violence coupled with the bystander effect: in one case from the early twentieth century, a woodsman massacres several other men in a public saloon with an axe, while the other tavern-goers continued to drink at the bar. The youngest of them, then a boy of eighteen, is in his nineties when Mike Hanlon interviews him, and his testimony suggests that a pervasive sense of not-my-business settled over the bar while the massacre occurred behind the drinkers. It’s extreme, but not, perhaps, that extreme—recall Kitty Genovese. (After the murderous woodsman is finished, and has wandered up and down the town’s main street for some time, he’s arrested. A lynch mob arrives at the jail; the deputies flee instantly, and the man is dragged out and hanged from a tree. It’s not a story about justice, even of the vigilante sort; it’s a story about bloodlust.) What King is getting at here is a sense of collective responsibility, of how essential that responsibility is to the development of human communities, and how constantly we must be on our guard—be brave, be true, stand—to maintain it. There is no suggestion of nostalgia or that people were more neighbourly in the past; indeed, one of the worst moments in the book is when an old man in 1958 watches a potential homicide unfolding before him, then simply folds his newspaper and turns to go back inside. It’s not the times that make us evil, King wants us to know; we always carry that potential inside us.

The book’s approach to diversity and tolerance is particularly interesting, both because it engages with those issues more consciously than I expected it to, and because King is still hampered by something—perhaps the ‘80s, perhaps wider genre tropes that I don’t know much about—that causes him to make some obvious (from my standpoint) missteps. The fact that he includes a black child, a Jewish child, and a girl in his circle of Chosen Ones is unexpected, and pleasing; yes, there’s only one of each, but he handles it in a non-tokenistic manner; race, religion and gender are rarely dwelt upon. Racism is responsible for one of the worst massacres in Derry history, and King is pretty clear on the monstrosity of small-town organisations like the Legion of White Decency. On the other hand, this doesn’t stop him from giving Richie Tozier—a faintly obnoxious but charming cut-up—a party act called the Pickaninny Voice, a grotesque parody of cringing blackness liable to announcements like “Oh, lawdy, Miss Scarlett! Thisyere black boy’s gwineter behave, don’t you beat thisyere black boy”, and so on. Richie’s regularly told to shut up by the others, but no one suggests that he’s being a racist prick and maybe the black kid that they’re all friends with has something to say on the subject. There are jokes about circumcision and kosher food (though these are tempered by Stan Uris questioning why Catholics eat fish on Friday, which at least makes Richie recognise that all religious strictures are equally arbitrary). Perhaps most damningly, in the 1985 timeline, Stan Uris commits suicide instead of rejoining the others in Derry, and Mike Hanlon is attacked and put in hospital before the final confrontation with It can take place. This may not have been intentional, but it effectively denies both the black and the Jewish man participation in a catharsis that they have most assuredly earned, reinforcing the idea that heroes—in this case personified by Bill, Ben, and to a lesser extent Richie and Eddie—are just naturally white, goshdarnit.

Which brings us to Beverly, because she too is present during the final showdown with It, but you wouldn’t know it. Her role is primarily to take care of Eddie, who’s badly injured early on and spends most of the action bleeding out on the floor. When Bill and Ben and Richie disappear into the metaphysical arena of combat, Beverly’s left behind. Sure, she’s the best shot of them all and was previously given the responsibility of shooting It with a silver slingshot pellet, but that was when they were kids; the adult battle seems to have no place for her in it (except as a caregiver, and as an object of desire to both Bill and Ben). It’s the Susan Problem all over again—girls can only be active agents for as long as they’ll pretend to be one of the boys; once they hit womanhood, they’re no longer of much use—and I resent it.

The biggest problem with King’s treatment of Beverly, though, happens in the 1958 timeline. The battle with It, which leaves It badly wounded but not yet defeated, also leaves the children disoriented. Eddie, an infallible navigator, has lost his touch; they’re in the sewer tunnels, deep below Derry and mostly unmapped. Losing their way means certain death. Something is needed to bring the friends together again, to restore their confidence in each other and their sense of themselves as a unit. That something, it turns out, is for all of the boys to have sex with Beverly, which they duly do, one by one, on the ground. It’s greatly to King’s credit that at the time of reading, immersed in the novel’s world, this makes a certain degree of sense, and he handles it, for the most part, with surprising sensitivity, giving Beverly a kind of detached maturity that doesn’t make her a martyr. (The sex is her idea; only this, and the distinctly non-realist flavour of the story so far, prevents it from reading like a gang rape.) At the same time, the children he’s writing about are eleven, which strikes me as depressingly young to be concluding that sharing a woman is the only way to bring men together. (And what about the woman? How does this logic allow her to reconnect, too? King doesn’t go there.)

For all of these problems, though, It really, really works. The 1958 storyline is perhaps more compelling than the 1985 one, which begins to rely much more heavily on interpersonal melodrama to get its plot rolling. But King’s effortless evocation of fear in his readers is a writerly skill that has to be read to be believed, and the way that he integrates commentary about how humans live together—the best of it, and the worst of it—with his overtly scary monster is clever and compelling. I definitely want to read more of him in future; which of his books should I pick up next?

The Hate Race, by Maxine Beneba Clarke

I knew they were scared. I knew they were just kids. But so were we.

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Maxine Beneba Clarke’s short story collection, Foreign Soil, was one of my favourite books of 2016. Do you know what it feels like to open a book by someone totally new to you and to know, within the space of the first page, that you can trust them and their writing, that you can relax the part of your reading mind that’s always on the alert for awkwardness or falseness, that you can just sink below the surface of the words and go? Of course you do. That’s what Clarke’s writing did—and does—for me, and it’s a large part of why I was anticipating The Hate Race so much.

It doesn’t disappoint. As a memoir of a middle-class black kid growing up in white suburban Australia, it is indeed the kind of story that Clarke’s country hasn’t often heard and needs to hear, as she herself says. But I worry that it will be shared and written about only in that context—of being an “important”, “brave”, “necessary” book—and often, when I see that context, I see condescension. So here’s another way of saying it: The Hate Race is important, brave, and necessary. It is also phenomenally well-written, meticulously observant about social minutiae. Above all, in it, Clarke precisely anatomises the psychology of a bullied kid.

Her observations sting like a badly skinned knee. Bullying starts early: on her first day of kindergarten, a tiny white bitch-in-the-making called Carlita Allen surveys Maxine with wrinkled nose and announces, “You’re brown” in a tone that suggests this is, definitively, unacceptable. To begin with, Carlita perplexes Maxine—who knows she’s brown but has never considered that this might mean anything much—but pretty soon she learns. The book is punctuated with a repeated riff on a couple of sentences: “This is how it broke me,” on one page. Or, “This is how it alters us. This is how we change.”

Maxine starts to alter early on. Her thought processes bounce sharply off of injustice and are forced to bend, every time. A boy in her class calls her blackie one too many times, and she tells a teacher. If she’d been hoping for protection, she’s mistaken:

Mrs Hird kept her grey-green eyes on me, red pen still poised above the spelling test she’d been marking. “Well,” she said slowly, “that’s what you are. You can call him whitey if you like.”

This is 1990. Clarke is ten.

In her horror and rage, she makes the mistake of crying, “That’s racist!” and is scolded for “using that word in my classroom” and “accusing your classmate of something like that.” How dare a girl taunted by the word blackie accuse her tormentor of racism?

Most of the bullying is verbal and emotional, which is hard enough. When Clarke realises that she’s winning schoolyard games of Catch and Kiss not because she’s a fast runner, but because none of the boys want to touch her, it feels like a fist in the throat. She quotes the stupid cruelties of one kid in particular, Greg Adams (all names in this book have been changed, which I assume is to prevent readers from tracking down Greg Adams, and Mrs. Hird, and kicking the living hell out of them):

Greg Adams loudly ranked the girls in our class from one to eleven on his Fuck Chart. He said he couldn’t even put me at the end of the list because animals didn’t count. Greg Adams said that would be bestiality. Greg Adams said the only way black chicks got fucked was gang-banged with the lights turned off, and even then you’d have to be super-desperate, and use ten condoms so you didn’t get AIDS. And then Greg Adams and his friends laughed, and laughed, and laughed.

(I wished, reading that, that Clarke had gone to my majority-black American high school, where white girls were essentially useless. The most desirable trait in a girl at my high school was to have a booty out to HERE. Our prom queen’s nickname literally was “Booty”. Based on Clarke’s writing about her own booty, which stubbornly refuses to be tucked in during gymnastics classes, she would have been a goddess.)

But physical bullying intrudes too, most notably when Clarke and her brother are riding their bikes with two white friends, the McGuire kids. Older boys show up on the scene. Names are called. The McGuires are silent. Then a stone is hurled; and another. The McGuire kids break for home, not even looking back to check that the Clarkes are okay. That scene is where the quotation at the top of this post comes from, and it’s one of the most powerful moments in the memoir. Kids of colour who deal with racism and bullying are children. Children with more structural privilege don’t get to invoke terror as an explanation for their failure to act; Clarke and her brother may be children, but they live in a state of watchfulness and fear so constant that it sometimes reminded me of the behaviour of soldiers. It’s an equally useful reminder for adults. You might be scared by the white supremacist shouting at the hijab-wearing woman on the bus, but guess what? That woman is also scared, and the actual target. Fear of reprisals is a weak excuse for “allies” who do nothing.

Clarke doesn’t let herself off the hook in this regard, either. One of the bravest and most painful sections is her recounting of her behaviour towards Bhagita Singh, an Indian/Australian girl in her class who was, predictably, also bullied by people like Greg Adams. Clarke finds Bhagita’s ability to stare past her tormentors baffling: why can Bhagita do that, but she can’t? When Clarke gets hair extensions—something she’s wanted for months—Bhagita off-handedly says that she liked Clarke’s hair the way it was, and muses that Indian women often sell their hair so that extensions and wigs can be made for other women. It’s all delivered in an utterly un-malicious tone; Bhagita’s straightforwardness makes her capable of ignoring bullies, but also of being quite startlingly tactless without intending to be. Clarke is so disappointed in this response, so filled with embarrassment and let-down and an unplaceable sense of shame, that she lashes out appallingly: the word curry-muncher is used, the accusation leveled that no one would want Bhagita’s hair because it smells disgusting and is greasy (none of which, Clarke notes, is true.) It’s only a matter of hours before Clarke begins to repent, but when she tries to apologise to Bhagita the next day, the other girl wrenches herself away, a look of fear on her face. “Get away from me. Get away!” To Bhagita, Clarke is One Of Them now, undifferentiated from the Carlita Allens and the Greg Adamses. It’s a betrayal more painful to Clarke than almost anything she experiences personally.

(It will also feel familiar to readers who have read Foreign Soil; it mirrors the story “Shu Yi”, in which a little black girl in a majority-white school is instructed to befriend a Chinese Australian classmate, on the basis that they’re both non-white and therefore presumably share some mystical bond. Ava, the protagonist, turns on Shu Yi in order to grasp a shred of playground credibility, and is made to pay the emotional price by Shu Yi herself, who locks eyes with Ava even as she pisses herself with fear and shame. It’s one of the most powerful stories I’ve ever read, and it comes from this place of scrabbling, this place where badly bullied kids end up, where survival instinct takes precedence over kindness.)

Anger is the engine of this book, but Clarke’s writing corrals that emotion and uses it, instead of being overpowered by it. Reviewers often complain that reviewing a memoir is hard, because it’s unfair to judge someone’s life; I would argue that in reviewing a memoir, you are not judging a person’s life, but the way in which they choose to present it to you. For Clarke, presentation is paramount. Also repeated throughout the text is the touchstone phrase, “This is how it happened, or else what’s a story for.” It is not written as a question. She roots her telling in the storytelling traditions of West Indians (her father’s family is Jamaican, her mother’s Guyanese). The passage into adulthood is, in large part, a process that begins when you start being able to tell a story your own way. Clarke’s recounting of what happened to her is an act of authority and reclamation: she was hurt, she was beaten down, and now she will not be silenced any longer. If you have any sense, you will buy this book immediately, and listen.

Many thanks to Grace Vincent at Corsair for the review copy. The Hate Race is published in the UK on 8 June.

Two Utopias: Thoughts on Walkaway and Naondel

These two books are, on the surface of it, about as different as you can imagine. Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow, is resolutely for adults (with a lot of graphic sex); Naondel, Maria Turtschaninoff’s follow-up to last year’s Maresi, is, despite its girth, a middle-grade YA novel. Walkaway believes in the power of technology to save us; Naondel places its faith in earth magic and the maternal life force. Walkaway is profoundly, almost giddily, optimistic about human nature; Naondel shows us a humanity that is near uniform in its brutality. And yet for all these polarities – sci fi vs. fantasy; adults vs. kids; positivity vs. cynicism – the two books have some striking similarities, and even their differences are illuminating.

9780765392763Both are about the drive, and the overwhelming need, to create utopias. Doctorow opens his book by introducing us to three characters: Hubert “Etcetera” Espinoza, so called because he has nineteen first names; Seth, Hubert’s slightly fratty but basically harmless friend; and Natalie, the scion of a minor branch of Toronto’s wealthy Redwater family. Hubert and Seth meet Natalie at a party (in one of the book’s many delightful coinings, it is a “Communist party”, where enterprising youths use 3D printing and microbial biology to create free dance floors, free speakers, and—crucially—free beer out of “feedstock”, useless industrial leftovers in an abandoned warehouse). At the end of chapter one, the party is crashed by drones directed by the forces of “default” society; one of Natalie’s friends, Billiam, falls fatally from a catwalk; Hubert, Seth and Natalie end up in the house of Natalie’s father, uber-capitalist Jacob Redwater; and the three of them, fueled by Natalie’s disgust over her family’s privileged arrogance and Hubert’s knowledge of other options, choose to “go walkaway”. Apparently, eighty years in the future, this will be a possibility: to join huge communal groups of people who don’t want to live in the wage slavery of late capitalism (where the rulers are not the 1%, but the .001%), and who use advances in 3D printing, network programming, and genetic modification to build lives for themselves.

The other way of living, in this world—the “default” way—is exactly like how we live now, but worse: go into deep hock to acquire degrees that are all but meaningless; reach age sixty-five without ever shaking the word “assistant” from your job title; live in constant terror of eviction or joblessness. Domestic servants in the Redwater household are hired on an ad hoc basis through an app—much in the way that catering and hospitality agencies provide workers now—meaning that the maid or the gardener is rarely the same person twice. It’s not the sort of world that values anyone, other than absolute zillionaires. The appeal of rejecting it is obvious.

34035652Naondel, meanwhile, is set in a country that clearly doesn’t belong to our world but which, judging from linguistics and economy, seems to be an amalgam of Arabic and Japanese culture. (This is a problem in itself, opening the novel up to charges of both exoticising and demonising Eastern cultures and their attitudes towards women. The Big Bad character is a brutal poisoner and rapist named Iskan ak Honta-che, which made me think of nothing so much as the rapey desert warlord in Game of Thrones.) In Karenokoi, very few people are both good and powerful. Power, by definition, corrupts. Turtschaninoff shows us a world where it’s not just the men who are evil, either; Izani, Iskan’s mother, is cold and cruel to her grandsons, while Lehan, the younger sister of a main character, is so infatuated with Iskan that she actually—albeit unknowingly—helps him to victimise another woman.

The whole novel is the foundation story of the Red Abbey on the island of Menos, where the first book, Maresi, was set. In Maresi we saw that kind of utopian, matriarchal society in action, and cheered as it destroyed a threat from outside. In Naondel we see why it’s necessary: the only place for women in Karenokoi is a subservient one. Interestingly, though, Turtschaninoff’s attempts at creating diversity among her characters cause a continuity problem. Several of the women who eventually escape from the dairahesi (harem) of Ohaddin Palace are from other cultures: there’s a woman from a nomadic tribe with strong spiritual connections to the earth, another from a tree-dwelling people who has the power to control others’ dreams. When they escape—as we always know they will—why don’t they make for one of these lands, where women and their powers are revered or at least respected? One suspects that it’s because the mechanics of Turtschaninoff’s plot demand otherwise. They have to settle the island of Menos and establish the Red Abbey; we knew from the moment we opened the book that it would end this way. To make that happen, we get a bit of authorial hand-waving that acknowledges the problem without digging into it, which limits the book’s success.

Anyway. Both of these countries, clearly, are ruled by total bastards. The establishment of a utopia is the only way out of their uncompromising and dehumanising systems. But here Doctorow and Turtschaninoff part ways again. Doctorow’s bastards are, by definition, a minority, and a tiny minority at that. Pretty much everyone whom our hero/-ines meet in walkaway is compassionate, sensible, and positive about their ability to make a difference. They collectively embody the covered-dish principle, which Doctorow explains within the book itself: after a catastrophe, do you go over to your neighbour’s house with a covered dish of food, or a shotgun? If you choose the dish, even a neighbour who chose the shotgun is more likely to put it down and offer you some food in return. If you choose the shotgun, it’s very unlikely that things will end well for anyone. Walkaway is about people who believe fiercely that taking a covered dish is the right thing to do, and who make the right choice most of the time. When an aggressive inhabitant of a walkaway community tries to create a formal hierarchy, he’s stymied because people there simply abandon the place, rather than live under someone again. When police besiege another community near the end of the novel, they’re defeated in part by their own innate goodness: those who are trapped mobilise the Internet to find relatives of the policemen who are also walkaways, then broadcast appeals from police’s siblings, parents, and children, targeted at individual cops. Without fail, this causes them to drop their weapons. You may find this beautiful, or unbelievable, or – as I did – both; but there’s no doubt that it gave me more hope, post-election, post-Brexit, post-Westminster and Stockholm and Syrian gas attack, than anything more overtly political I’ve read in the past year.

Naondel, by contrast, doesn’t allow us to believe in the innate goodness of anyone other than our heroines. They are somewhat complicated, but their morally dubious acts are always implicitly justified: Kabira, the eldest, taunts her mother-in-law with breathtaking cruelty as the old woman lies dying, but she has endured decades of taunts in her turn, and has been denied access to her children. Orseola, the dreamweaver, is exiled from her home for a major social taboo, but her outburst stems from the fact that she is untrained in her craft, and frightened of her own power. Sulani, the warrior, murders people left, right and centre, but she is a warrior and—it’s implied—that’s just what warriors do. Outside of this circle, we actually see very few characters, and the minor ones—like the eunuch guards of the harem—are at best indifferent to the suffering of the women. At worst, they’re either mustache-twirlers (like Iskan, who all but cackles), or—as in the case of Iskan’s other concubines—vain and stupid.

This is largely down to the fact that Turtschaninoff’s gender politics are broad-brush. It makes a certain level of sense. She’s writing for middle school girls, who are just becoming aware of the fact that, yeah, people will judge you for literally anything, and, no, it doesn’t seem to be like that for boys. Unfairness is the engine that drives Naondel—at points I found myself becoming furious—and to be given a book that not only provokes anger, but legitimises it, is a big deal for a twelve-year-old girl. Doctorow’s utopia takes the opposite approach. It is almost post-gender. None of the major characters have long-lasting cishet relationships; they’re all either L, G, B, T, Q, or I, and relationship drama is kept at an absolute minimum. Crucially, cishet identities are most reinforced by people who oppose walkaway culture: by Jimmy, the guy who attempts to create hierarchy in a community by tearing down their best programmer for being female; and by Jacob Redwater, whose wife and daughter live in a world of gilded privilege but almost no real freedom.

I prefer Doctorow’s vision, probably appropriately: I’m an adult, and his gender politics are adult too. Naondel is still a book I’d recommend heartily to middle-grade kids and their parents; it has important things to say. I would just take care to balance it with something like Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet. For all her faults, Pierce at least recognised that women were capable not only of creating their own retreat from the world, but also of engaging with its injustices head on.

Thanks very much to Chrissy at Head of Zeus and Tabitha at Pushkin Press for the review copies. Walkaway will be published in the UK on 25 April; Naondel was published in the UK on 6 April.

 

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.