Hold Back the Stars: A space romance with a political edge

Katie Khan’s debut novel charts plight of lovers cast adrift in space from utopian home

Khan alternates the astronauts’ present predicament with flashbacks to their lives in Europia, a futuristic self-styled utopia

Khan alternates the astronauts’ present predicament with flashbacks to their lives in Europia, a futuristic self-styled utopia

Sat, Feb 4, 2017, 06:00

Hold Back the Stars By Katie Khan Penguin Sara Keating  

Book Title:
Hold Back the Stars


Katie Khan


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In the opening moments of Katie Khan’s debut novel Hold Back the Stars, two astronauts find themselves tumbling through space, “two pointillist specks on an infinitely dark canvas”, untethered to anything but each other. As their space ship recedes further into the distance, they realise they have only 90 minutes of air in their oxygen tanks. They are creative and informed thinkers. Carys is a logical pilot with a scientific mind. Her partner, Max, is a more spiritual soul with a firm belief in utopian ideals. Even so, between them they cannot fight the perpetual pull of gravity, which drags them into the deepest part of the asteroid belt, “a godless place outside earth”.

The opening chapter of Hold Back the Stars paints the familiar premise of a sci-fi film with words. As Khan describes the fishbowl helmets and padded suits that insulate Carys and Max from the atmosphere and each other, it is impossible not to see Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in the 2013 film Gravity, for example, floating around as they try to save their own lives. The 90-minute countdown, meanwhile, adds an extra narrative pressure, a well-used convention of blockbuster films. As the premise continues to unfold, it is difficult to dispel the impression that the writer, whose first novel was bought by Penguin in a highly contested auction in 2015, has Hollywood aspirations.

However, there is more to Hold Back the Stars than a future screenplay. Khan alternates the astronauts’ present predicament with flashbacks to their lives in Europia, a futuristic self-styled utopia, whose ideals have managed to sustain almost half a century of world peace. Europia is a constellation of former countries, rebranded as Voivodeships, discrete regions that citizens inhabit by a system of Rotations. They are “everchanging, mixed communities” that allow people to live as individuals “free from national identity or an allied social pressure” and without fear of ethnic or religious discrimination; with “everyone doing their best and giving their all, undistracted”.

Different beliefs

Some of these individuals, however, have different beliefs: Carys and Max, for example. He is from a founding family, and holds the utopian ideal above all else. She grew up outside the Voivodeships, when there was an outside not riven by civil war and refugees, as the Americas now are. When they fall in love, however, it is Max who starts to question the status quo, challenging one of its fundamental tenets: that men and women cannot commit to each other before they are 35. As a test, or perhaps as punishment, they are sent into deepest space to see if their love can survive the dangers of the asteroid belt. In the final minutes of their lives they have to decide whether their illegal love was worth dying for.

Khan fully imagines the parameters of her future world: from the flick-of-the-wrist “flexing” of thoughts from one individual to another, to the Wall Rivers that line every room, a “constant, scrolling feed of news, weather and updates” that makes the borders of an individual’s living quarters porous. If Max and Carys find Europia to be less the utopia it claims to be, however, neither is it a dystopian dictatorship.

Khan borrows the structure of the Voivodeship from medieval eastern Europe, but the backdrop is curiously ahistorical. We get hints of the world outside Europia; it is “bleak. Aid teams fighting to get water to the refugees left in the US, the middle East annihilated”. But that is as much detail as Khan is willing to let puncture Europia’s idea of political stability, and there is no hint of contemporary metaphor either.

In fact, the closest Khan comes to ideological deconstruction in what is, essentially, an enjoyable space romance comes in a cryptic critique made by Max’s friend Liu, a defector from China. As Liu warns them: “The biggest truth about Europia is that it’s almost impossible to live here if you can’t live by the utopian guidelines . . . People who can’t live by the rules of a utopia tend to find it’s not really a utopia, for them. They are the ones who go looking for something else.” Max and Carys travel beyond the edges of the world looking for that something else, but the only thing they find that far in deepest, darkest space is each other. Their love may survive, but they won’t. How’s that for an uncompromising ideal?