Hold Back the Stars is Katie Khan’s debut novel. It may have been trying to be literary science fiction, with capital-T Things To Say about life, love, and mortality. Or it may have been trying to be science fictional soap opera, which is pretty much the level it hit for me.
The novel opens with two characters, Carys and Max, floating in space somewhere in Earth orbit. Their vessel has been damaged, and their attempt to repair it went wrong, leading to their current predicament: limited oxygen, no tether to their vessel, and no way back. The first pages made my hackles rise with the expectation of sexism: Carys is panicking, but Max is calm, and he tells her that, “I’ll save you … Like I always do.” It turns out, though, that this is not a terrible sexist book. Heterosexist, maybe, and very much filled with imperialist assumptions, but only as sexist as any novel that takes equality for granted (rather than examining what “equality” means) ever is.
The novel intercuts Carys and Max’s increasingly more desperate attempts to self-rescue with the story of their lives from the point at which they first met. In the future which Hold Back the Stars envisages, Europe is a “utopia” (quotation marks intentional) called “Europia.” People under the age of 35 are required to move every three years, in a process called “Rotation,” to prevent national and community attachment and competing loyalties, and therefore causes for conflict. (Let us skip lightly over the insistent historical truth that humans develop communities which are not necessarily based on physical proximity, and that we can always find something to fight over.) People in each Rotation are assigned to a different “Voivode” and are not supposed to develop long-term relationships, especially not long-term romantic relationships, before age 35—when they can apply for a license to settle down. (As I understand it, the term “Voivoide” derives from words meaning war-leader and has been used to refer to governing officials, not places: no explanation is given in the text for how it has come to mean a geographic-administrative district.)
Carys and Max are in their mid-twenties. Carys flies shuttles for a space programme. Max works in nutrition. They fall in love. Max has to move before Carys does. They try to keep a relationship going long-distance, with weekend visits and communication. Their relationship is rocky. Max’s family are die-hard believers in Europia’s “utopian” system, and he is embarrassed and uncomfortable to be bucking the system at all. They break-up. Carys discovers that she’s had a contraceptive failure and experiences a miscarriage. They get back together. Max brings Carys to meet his parents, and there is an ugly scene in which Max’s parents excoriate him for not following the rules—then, with little consultation with Carys, Max drags them both off to the government-assembly body and petitions to change the Couples Rule. (I guess polyamory isn’t a thing in “utopia” either.) His petition results in said government requesting (requiring) him and Carys to volunteer to go into space, essentially to be a lab study on long-term romantic relationships and how they survive isolation and a highly-pressurised mission environment.
This sounds like cruel and unusual punishment to me, and a very inefficient way of figuring out if people in their twenties can handle high pressures and maintain a healthy romantic relationship—you’d want a population study at least—but then, nothing about the so-called “utopia” or Carys and Max’s relationship really seems healthy to me. Carys and Max don’t really seem to communicate about their relationship, or to fully respect each other. I find this somewhat distressing, in a novel that wishes me to believe in the importance of their romance.
An additional weirdness in the world-building is that Earth is now ringed by asteroids which prevent access to higher orbit. (That is not, my heart cries, how asteroids work.)
So, you have these apparently-not-very-competent astronauts. Who are in love with each other. And stranded in space. Above an Earth that hasn’t had a cataclysmic meteor strike event yet, despite a belt of asteroids surrounding the planet.
Then shit gets weird.
(Major spoilers for the book’s conclusion.)
The last section of the book tells first how Carys survives and Max dies, and some months of Carys’s life after.
Then it tells how Max survives and Carys dies, and some months of Max’s life after.
Then it rewinds, and they’re in space with eight minutes of oxygen left between them, and they can “remember” their lives without the other. And they choose to die together, because neither of them feels like there’s a place in the world for them without the other.
Which, after the soap opera of their lives, I suppose I should have been expecting. But honestly, it plays in to some ridiculously toxic one-true-love myths, and frames grief at the death of a romantic partner as something impossible to live with. It feels like Hold Back the Stars is trying just too, too hard to say Deep Things about romantic love, and instead, manages to be more trite and less healthy than the sentiments on a Valentine’s Day card.
Perhaps it will find an appreciative audience. That audience, however, does not include me.
Hold Back the Stars is available from Gallery Books.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.