Sunday, 25 February 2018

Hold Back the Stars by Katie Khan

Hold Back the Stars by Katie Khan is a near-future science fiction love story. When I picked it up, I had misremembered it being YA, but it's not. (The characters are in their late 20s.) The social world building is the most interesting aspect of this book, despite a few hiccups, and while the science was more or less OK for the most part, the author did hang some crucial plot points on some rubbish physics, which I will be ranting more about below.

Carys and Max have ninety minutes of air left.
None of this was supposed to happen.
But, perhaps this doesn’t need to be the end…

Adrift in space with nothing to hold on to but each other, Carys and Max can’t help but look back at the well-ordered world they have left behind – at the rules they couldn’t reconcile themselves to, and a life to which they might now never return. For in a world where love is banned, what happens when you find it?

Hold Back the Stars is a love story like no other.

This book has two timelines, the floating in space with ninety minutes of air left timeline and various flashbacks showing us how the characters got together as a couple and, to a lesser extent, how they ended up floating in space. The two timelines worked, but I think the linking and integration of the past storyline could have been more clever. It was fine as it was, but the flashbacks were all quite discrete for all that they were chronologically ordered. That aspect was mostly enjoyable but didn't exactly impress me. Also, most of the story focussed on the love story and I'm not completely convinced they were a perfect match so it was a bit meh.

What was interesting was the social aspect of the world building (for the physics aspect, see rant below). In this near future world, the EU has expanded to include large swathes of the world, notably not China, not sure about the rest of East Asia, and not the former US. (Bafflingly, Australia was welcomed into the system after Russia, which seems like a strangely out of touch take on the matter, from the perspective gained by living in the EU.) Now called Europia (Europe + utopia, sigh), they are aggressively anti-nationalism and pro-individualism and seem to be very socialist, although this isn't discussed in the story, it's just the only thing that makes sense. Their solution to nationalism is to have everyone on Rotation, moving to completely different parts of Europia every two years and encouraging them to learn lots of languages to be able to communicate with each other well. That part I found very interesting, if slightly dystopian when it mentioned a seven year old living on Rotation away from his parents (I was assuming children moved with their parents until a sensible age, which wouldn't have undermined the system). Of the two main characters, one comes from a fiercely pro-Rotation family and the other didn't enter Rotation until she was 18, which sets up a lot of interesting conflict between them.

The more pertinent and contrived conflict, however, comes from our main couple vs Europia's Couples Rule, which states that people can't settle down and have kids until 35 (because fertility problems have been solved). I thought Rotation was a really interesting idea, but the Couples Rule was taking things a bit bafflingly far, in a "How did society really thing this was a good idea?" way. (They should have just stuck to having parenting exams, in my opinion.) The main characters obviously want to challenge the rule and be together, but there's a lot of weird overreactions that aren't really fully addressed.

So the physics rant. For reasons unexplained, a shockingly dense asteroid field has settled in near-Earth orbit, which is stopping people from leaving Earth (by destroying stuff in space — miraculously not any communications satellites apparently because the future internet is doing quite well). Also there are frequent meteor showers, of the size to burn up in the atmosphere, which apparently terrifies people in places that have devolved to uncivilisation (like the former US). I don't see why shooting stars are so terrifying, but on the other hand it's not like the US school system was great before it was destroyed? Anyway, I was willing to let the magical appearance of an Earth-orbiting asteroid field pass, until the solution to getting of the planet was to try to fly through the asteroid field and find a path that way. What the actual fuck. That is just so mind-bogglingly not how it works. The first thing the space agency would have done when asteroids magically showed up is map and track them all using telescopes on Earth. That way no one would have been trapped (although it might still have been inconvenient to get past them). Also the whole mapping a path through the asteroid field makes it sound like they were magically hovering above the earth (actually, a lot of things sounded like that...) when, duh, they'd be in orbit and not all on the same trajectory if they weren't actually magically gravity defying. Speaking of magic gravity, the author manages to define Lagrange points correctly, then completely misunderstands practical implementations. (Mind you, I would have let that last one pass if it hadn't been repeated three times.)

A lot of the above became apparent near the end of the book, leaving an unpleasant taste in my mouth as I finished it off. There was one physics fail much earlier which annoyed me a lot because it also implied the author doesn't read much SF since it's something that seems to come up a lot (correctly) in other books/stories. Basically, at one point when the main characters are floating in space, their comms fail and they panic and try to mime at each other and stuff. These characters are tethered together and neither of them (not even the more astronaut-trained one!) think to touch their helmets together and talk that way. Sigh. Instead they end up using a torch in a slightly nonsensical way until they fix the radio. So that annoyed me, because it could have been a lovely moment too. (Disappointingly, in a short interview at the back of the book, the author cites the torch solution as one of her favourite parts of the story...)

As I said earlier, the social world building in this book is really interesting. I wouldn't mind reading another book about other people set in the same world to get more insight into other aspects of this future. There were a few contradictions between the idealised society and how things worked in practice that I would like to see explored more. But in the end, and because it was loaded towards the end, I couldn't see past the physics to properly enjoy the book overall. I didn't hate it, but those aspects were very frustrating. The author also did something unusual with the very end, which I don't want to spoil, which piqued my interest as I got to it, but there seemed to be a bit of magic to some of the insights the characters gained because of that writing device, which, well, didn't make sense. But it was still an interesting way to finish things off, even if it broke some narrative rules.

I would recommend this book to people who enjoy reading about future societies and characters getting together. It's definitely not a capital R-omance book, and I don't think it would satisfy a reader who went into it with those expectations. Read it for the social world building and do not expect any of the science to make sense.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: November 2017, Black Swan (Random House UK)
Series: No
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via Netgalley

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