Friday, October 11, 2013

Review: "Across the Universe" by Beth Revis

Not pictured: The Beatles.
Amy Martin gives up a lot when she agrees to join her parents on their expedition to colonize the newly discovered planet in Alpha Centauri: her friends, her boyfriend, her plans for a normal life. Instead, she will spend the next three hundred years in cryogenic freeze, traveling across the universe in the Godspeed. She is "nonessential cargo" compared to her brilliant scientist parents. But in a terrible accident, Amy wakes fifty years too early--without her parents, lost in the cold black of space.

Elder was set apart from birth to lead the crew of the Godspeed. Yet he is also the youngest and most misfit member of the ship's homogenous and rigidly controlled population, shaped by centuries of space travel. Elder's supposed mentor refuses to teach him anything about the ship. Amy is the first person Elder has ever known his own age; the first person who doesn't take a life of lies and confinement for granted; the first person who has walked on real earth and felt the warmth of a real sun on her skin.

For Elder, just knowing Amy is happiness enough. But Amy, once deemed "nonessential," is now considered a freak. She is disturbed by what humanity has become aboard the Godspeed, and wants to know who woke her, and why. More frozen passengers are found thawing ahead of schedule--and don't survive the process. With mind-altering drugs in the water and a killer on board the ship, only the misfits are asking why.
  2 out of 5 stars
(grump below the cut)
I was mentally composing this grump in my head as I was reading, dog-earing the dickens out of the book the way that I do when I want to remember talking points, and suddenly it hit me:

I didn't care.

With that verdict in mind, let's break it down. In theory, Across the Universe--no relation to the Beatles song of that name--is part sci-fi, part mystery, and part romance. It's written in very conversational language in chapters that alternate viewpoint between the two protagonists.

The author, Beth Revis, has a great starting premise. Amy waking too early, doomed to grow old without ever rejoining her family or reaching her goal, should have made for an absolute playground of internal conflict and character growth. Elder, a product of a culture drawn liberally from the footnotes of 1984 and Brave New World and handpicked to become a Big Brother analogue, has every opportunity to offer fascinating new views on the world. He should have been almost alien to the reader.

Disappointingly, both of these characters were, in every way--their attitudes, their preconceptions, their reactions to events and to each other--identical to the average American seventeen-year-old living through ordinary events. Amy's character arc barely touched on what should have been the  intense double trauma of 1) being conscious and immobile for centuries and 2) learning that her family, as well as her entirely world, is effectively dead to her. As for Elder... I don't even know what to say about Elder, except that he manages to be both boring and vaguely gross in his single-minded horniness. His first chapter is his finest--it's the only time when he demonstrates both decisive courage and a capacity to put others first. For the rest of the book, he bounces from plot point to plot point like a ping-pong ball of aimless teen angst.

Revis hits a few potentially interesting notes in setting up the world of the Godspeed, only to let them fall flat. I want to give her points for creating a homogenous race out of the ship's crew that isn't white-by-default... but I'd have to take them away again for describing the ship's agricultural & residential areas as being thoroughly rural Americana (except with medieval fashion?) I can believe that the American influence is strong, since Amy credits the USA for spearheading the Centauri-Earth project. What I can't believe is that the African, Indian, and Asians who apparently made up the original ship's crew had no influence on the resulting society except to make the population an attractive shade of brown.

If that weren't enough to revoke any "diversity points" Revis might have accumulated, she promptly sets up (the white) Amy as being objectively the most beautiful and fascinating woman on board, surpassing anyone in the aforementioned brown-skinned ship society. (Not like there are any other female characters, of course. There are only five characters in the entire book.)

That said, even if she had followed through on a few remarks about Amy being alien in contrast to the population, I would have been happy. Or if she had continued the theme of Amy being the embodiment of Elder's hopes and dreams in a way that was literal, rather than limiting it to a very ordinary run-of-the-mill teen romance.
Eldest taught me about ancient religions that worshiped the sun. I never understood why--it's just a ball of light and heat. But if the sun of Sol-Earth swirls in colors and lights like that girl's hair, well, I can see why the ancients would worship that. 
I would have forgiven the book a lot of other flaws if it had spun me a compelling love story. Or at least a new and different one.

I had high hopes that Revis would use the detail of Elder spending time in the shipboard mental institution, and continuing to take medication, to say something interesting about the stigma of mental illness. Elder does begin to question whether his time institutionalized should disqualify him from leadership. Regrettably, the medications are used instead for a reveal of the caricatured evil of Godspeed's dystopia. The subject of mental illness isn't developed at all.

Speaking of caricatured evil! The book literally has one of its antagonists praise Hitler, thus checking off my Godwin's Law sighting of the week. (On the other hand, one of the details Revis gets right is how time might rewritten human history to support a different worldview. Amy is angered to find the amended version of the Gettysburg Address being taught, but doesn't have it memorized to correct their mistakes.)

The book suffers throughout from its small cast. The mystery is barely deserving of the term, as the culprit was evident one-tenth of the way into this unnecessarily convoluted book. (I can't even remember what the protagonists were doing for half of it, and I only finished reading it yesterday.) It isn't like Amy and Elder have a lot of suspects to choose from!

In the end, Across the Universe is a very generic but more or less acceptable example of the YA dystopian romance genre. Fans of that genre might find it a fun little diversion. (If you do choose to read it, here's your warning for disturbing medical scenes and sexual assault.) I can't give it my own recommendation. To me, it missed the mark as science fiction, as romance, and as a mystery, leaving it without a single quality in its favor.

It apparently has sequels. I'll be giving them a pass.

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