Across The Universe

Across the Universe - Beth RevisI have been reading a number of YA (or alleged YA) books recently because this is an area where I have been told a lot of women are starting to write SF. The poster child for this new publishing trend is Beth Revis, whose Across the Universe has been long listed for the Carnegie Medal. Naturally the book was high on my list of things to read.

From a first look, the book is either going to be real SF or romance. It is set on a generation ship, but the cover suggests more of a star-crossed teenage love affair. I’m can report that what I found was far closer to the former than the latter.

The central element of all generation ship stories is that Something Goes Wrong. Across the Universe is no exception. One of our lead characters is Amy. Her parents are vital members of the colonial expedition: mother is a geneticist, father is in the military. Amy is what the ship’s manifest describes as “unessential”, but her parents are so important that she has been allowed along anyway. They did give her the choice of staying behind with her boyfriend, Jason, but she decided to stick with the family and is expecting to be unfrozen with her parents when the Godspeed arrives in the New World.

I should note here that the book opens with a really disturbing account of the process of being cryogenically frozen. It is enough to put anyone off the idea, and possibly a few squeamish readers off the book.

But of course Something Goes Wrong. Amy’s freezer casket is unplugged by a saboteur, and the crew have no choice but to revive her. The situation she finds on the Godspeed is far from what she had been led to expect when she went to sleep.

Instead of the classic starship crew that Amy was expecting, we find a society divided very much by function. Most of the crew appear to have been bred for obedience and stupidity. A few are selected for specific engineering tasks, but are still very subservient. A very few are bred for artistic skills, and have to reside in the ship’s mental hospital where their craziness can be kept under observation and controlled. The ship is ruled by a dictator known as Eldest. Only he knows how the ship really works. Once a generation he trains up a subordinate, known as Elder, and this is the character who provides Amy’s love interest, and also the ship-born viewpoint.

As you have probably guessed, the primary theme of book is the parent-child relationship, and how this maps onto the leader-society relationship. The Godspeed has become a deeply authoritarian society that uses advanced biology to keep its population subservient. That makes it fit very well into the fashion for dystopias that is so popular in YA at the moment. If Revis wants us to take a message from the book I guess it is this: “If you don’t like the way that your parents boss you about, you shouldn’t put up with the same sort of thing from political leaders either.” That’s certainly a message I can get behind.

Those of you concerned about this being a romance novel can be reassured that it has very few of the standard tropes I associate with such things. Obviously Amy and Elder have a relationship, but what is happening on the ship is far more important to the plot than how they feel about each other.

In fact, if it wasn’t for one fatal passage, I would be wholeheartedly recommending Across the Universe to SF readers. You’d love it, until you got to chapter 63, in which Eldest explains to Elder why the Godspeed is so far behind schedule. Apparently their uranium recycling system isn’t as efficient as expected, and as a result the ship can’t keep up the required level of thrust. It is slowing down, and will eventually drift to a halt.

This is the point at which I wanted to get hold of the author and her editor and smack their heads together. If you don’t know why, put on a dunce cap and go and sit in the corner reading books about space travel until you work it out.

Then I talked to Gwenda Bond, who has interviewed Revis for Lightspeed. You can read that interview here. In it Revis says:

Very observant readers — I’ve had maybe a dozen contact me — have noticed that there’s actually a pretty big scientific “error” in the book. It’s actually not an error; it’s a clue for the sequel.

Actually this is quite believable. Eldest is an habitual liar, and it is therefore entirely in character for him to have made up a silly story about failing engines that Elder would have swallowed, having had little education in physics. But that’s not the first thing that will jump into an SF reader’s head when reading the novel. If Revis had revealed the lie in the first book that would have been fine, but leaving it for a sequel ensures that a whole bunch of readers are not going to buy that sequel. Worse still, anyone trying to defend the book on the basis of Revis’s comments is going to get mansplained about how this is an obvious ex-post excuse that the author is making after finding out how stupid she had been. It is, I think, a strategic error to have left the correction for the sequel.

It is a real shame that I’ve had to spend so much of this review on that one point, but it seriously spoiled my enjoyment of the book, and I’m pretty sure that lots of other SF readers will react the same way. At least if I have warned you what to expect you will hopefully not be quite so upset by it, and can enjoy the rest of the book.

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3 thoughts on “Across The Universe

  1. Just reading your old reviews, hence the late reply! The error seems to be another case of the “authorial voice” not being strong enough to overcome the character voice. I’ve noticed a few stories now where the characters are stupid, or cruel, and the writer hasn’t been able to adequately convey that this is a character trait, not authorial oversight or opinion. Surely a nod to Newtons Third in the following pages might have helped with the “running out of thrust… in a space vacuum” here.

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