Across the Universe

Beth Revis
Across the Universe Cover

Across the Universe


So, overall I enjoyed reading Across the Universe, by Beth Revis. I'll probably read the next one, too, even though there were things about this book I didn't think were stellar. It's a first novel and a YA, so I can excuse a certain amount of heavy-handedness and other flaws. This certainly isn't a book I'm going to think back on in the future, though.

I'm more than a little surprised, too. Revis posted the first chapter of this book on her website and it's so good I've thought about it regularly, basically every time I look at my "to read" list on goodreads and realize I still haven't knocked it off the list. It's a stellar opening--Revis gives us a sympathetic protagonist, Amy, dealing with a wrenching emotional decision (whether or not to accompany her parents on an interstellar journey that will require her to be frozen for 300 years or stay on Earth and live out a life with her Aunt, Uncle, and boyfriend) and an intriguing mystery (why the freezing is continuing even though the launch has been delayed).

There is no answer to that mystery. Amy's parents are lost to her anyway. The first chapter really is just setup. It's also the best chapter in the book, imho.

Amy is awakened accidentally (kind of) and, because of the way she was unfrozen she can't be re-frozen. The scientist in me wonders why they can't just wait a few years for her tissues to completely turn over/heal (if it even takes that long) and then re-freeze her, but that's nothing ever explored. Now that Amy's thawed, she's thawed for good.

The other protagonist is Elder, a 16-year-old boy who was crushing on Amy even before she was unfrozen simply because she's a red head. Apparently it's not just in fantasy that red heads have super magical powers. Science fiction red heads are apparently super attractive, especially to a boy from a mono-ethnic culture.

A note on mono-ethnic cultures: humans pretty much evolved in mono-ethnic groups. We also pretty much fought in mono-ethnic groups for most of our existence, since most fighting was with neighboring tribes who also, not coincidentally, were often kin. Does this have anything to do with the book? Well, let's move forward.

So, as it turns out, Elder is the next in line to be supreme leader of the people aboard the generation ship. His mentor, Eldest (gee, I wonder if there's any significance to the similarity of their names) is teaching him all about being an effective leader. By effective leader he really means a tyrant willing to do whatever it takes to keep the people on the ship happy and alive. It's a completely closed system and it sorta makes sense democracy as we know it just wouldn't work, but the tyranny espoused by Eldest is over the top. He claims the three reasons for strife are 1) differences, 2) lack of a strong leader, and 3) individual thought.

As it turns out, it's so over the top, Eldest's favorite leader is Hitler. You know, 'cause he was a strong leader who sought racial homogeneity and stamped down individual thought.

Oh, and Lincoln sent the blacks back to Africa to maintain the racial homogeneity of North America.

Yeah, I get it, rewriting history is bad. This is so extreme it's hard to take seriously, and it just feels so lazy. I know it's YA, so Revis may have felt she needed to use kind of lowest common denominator history in her book, but it's got to be possible to use someone other than Hitler, and defame someone other than Lincoln. Sheesh, she could have made up her own, in-world leader and let Amy fill us in on the details. Really, she already shows in so many other ways how bad a person Eldest is that the Hitler thing is redundant anyway.

But anyway, Elder doesn't quite understand things yet and Amy is a wrinkle in Eldest's plans for continuation of his little corner of the human species/ship domination. Eldest does stuff to isolate Amy, most of which pushes Elder toward her more firmly; there's a subplot revolving around protecting the other people in stasis, some of whom are murdered through improper unfreezing; there's this thing ominously called "the season" that's obviously a frenzied mating season. Stuff happens.

The murder subplot's really pretty obvious since there are only about six major characters, and the motivation of only one of them is left unexamined.

The season thing is also pretty obvious, though the scientist part of my brain didn't quite turn off enough to buy it. The humans on board have a single mating season when they're 20 years old. All women, from basically a few days of mad sex with whatever male is nearest, get pregnant immediately. They then raise their children, who subsequently have a single mating season at 20. Okay, I get that they manipulate everyone's hormones to time them together; I get that they have magic science that informs them if a woman is likely to conceive.

Something like 20% to 50% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. I guess they get around that with their magic gene splicing serum that also turns some of the people into mad geniuses and keeps the rest docile. Fine.

They have to have more than one mating season. To have a stable sized population you need a replacement rate of about 2.1 children per female. So, if they only have one mating season, everyone has to have twins or triplets. I guess the 40 year olds could also get pregnant, though a lot of women are infertile by that point in their lives. Magic science, making women baby factories twice in their lives.

The thing I found most disappointing about the book, though, was that it's so very male-dominated. While it doesn't fail the Bechdel test, Amy is the only major female character. Of the three other named women one shows up in one scene only and another shows up twice, and dies in her second appearance. That scene (Amy taking Steela up to the fourth floor from which nobody has ever returned is one of those scenes where the character is so inexpressibly (and out of character) stupid you want to strangle someone.

I know, I'm complaining a lot. I really did enjoy reading the book. I liked Amy (most of the time) and liked Elder as characters. It's good that it's a fast read, though as it does not hold up to close scrutiny.

I don't know if I'll read the next one. The first chapter (included at the end of the book) again sets up an interesting problem and is quite well-written. After the promise of that other first chapter wasn't really realized, though, I'm a little wary of committing to the second book.