Crossing the Universe: not as easy as it sounds
Girl. Boy. Spaceship. Murder. Deception. Totalitarian political system, manipulation, and art.
I loved this book a very, very great deal.
Like Leviathan Wakes (and it’s about the only thing the two books have in common, aside from the whole space thing), Across the Universe is a dual narrative, although here it’s two first-person voices. In this case, one POV is Amy: frozen in hibernation, accompanying her parents to a new planet to be amongst its first colonists. (Which may make you ask how she can be a narrator… just trust me on this one.) On the other hand is Elder, awake on the same ship Amy is sleeping on, part of the generation crew tasked with looking after the ship while it travels to the planet – a journey of some 300 years. The story revolves around Amy waking up ahead of time. Accidentally. And she’s cranky about it. As you would be. Amy’s awakening is a disruption on two significant levels: for Elder personally, because he finally has someone around of the same age but she’s like no one else he’s met; and for the ship, not least because it is mono-ethnic – an ethnicity that Amy quite clearly does not fit. Both Elder and the ship as a whole struggle to figure out how Amy can fit in. On a ship hurtling through space, with limited resources and no way to leave if you don’t like things, fitting in seems of paramount importance. So what does Amy do, what does Elder do, and why is Amy awake now anyway?
Along with a cracking pace and intriguing plot, there are some meaty issues to be dealt with. On the large scale, there’s the issue of how a generation ship could be made to work. This is a question that has frequently taxed SF; Elizabeth Bear’s Dust/Chill/Grail sequence is one example that goes in completely different directions from Revis. On the face of it life on the Godspeed looks like it works quite well, but very quickly it becomes obvious that perhaps there are cracks that have been papered over. Connected to this is the question of leadership, and what makes a good leader; Elder is learning from Eldest, and his reflections on what works and what does not are by no means trivial. On the more personal scale is how individuals deal with trauma, and expectations, and their own inner demons. Amy’s angst over whether to join her parents, and then how to cope with being woken early, is visceral and compelling. Elder’s disagreements with Eldest and how discoveries about the ship are in some ways less shattering, but have further-reaching consequences. And then there’s Harley, who I wish had had more of a presence in the novel. An artist, impacted by tragedy, and a better friend to both Elder and Amy than either to the other. His perspective, even though we get it solely through Amy and Elder, adds great richness. And poignancy.
Also, there is a love story. But not an easy one.
Plus, that cover! Beautiful!
There is some hand-wavey science-y stuff that doesn’t entirely make sense, and for the more technically-minded this may well be enough to throw you out of the story (Niall H!). I am not that person; I love my science but I am willing, for a good cause, to be very forgiving of hand-waving when it’s not too obvious (to me!) – and as you can see, this was a very good cause indeed (for me).
This is (of course) the first in a projected trilogy. I hope Revis can maintain the awesomeness.
(To make things even more fun, Beth Revis sounds like a totally awesome person. She was a teacher, who loved teaching! She likes Shakespeare for the dirty jokes and wrote her MA on CS Lewis’ Till We Have Faces (oh I must re-read that, I haven’t read it in such a long time). She is racing her mother to see which can get to the most (US) states! That says… quite a lot, really.)
Some slight spoilers in the comments.
Really enjoyed the story as a whole. It opens with a series of vignettes, “Legends,” mostly set in the childhood of various characters. One of the games I played as I read was figuring out which character had had a legend (this shouldn’t have been very hard, given they are all named… but I have a poor memory and I read too fast, so you know. It worked for me). This was a really cool technique. However, the characters are not a strong point – more to the point, I think the female characters are not a strong point. Some of the men weren’t great either, but more of them were interesting and appealing and relate-able than women, for me.
The story as a whole is a compelling one, dealing as it does with mind-mapping and (potentially) -controlling technology. The world is a very near-future one – even closer than when Robson wrote it, actually, since some of the technology she throws in that in 2001 may have seemed quite ‘tomorrow’ is already here! Most of the story flows nicely, with only a few only-for-the-narrative moments, none of which were tooo jarring. It’s well-paced, and the shifting between characters works nicely to build tension and provide juxtaposition.
This review was written ages ago and I meant to add more, and then… time went on… and now of course I have forgotten what I was going to say. I was also going to link to Dreams and Speculation, the blog that hosted the 2011 Women in SF Book Club until it folded a couple of months ago, but the blog itself seems to have disappeared – which is sad, because we had a really interesting discussion on various aspects of this novel.
The Leviathan may be awake…
… but it’s not that impressive, as these things go.
The inner solar system is quite well colonised, and humanity is beginning to move out into the outer reaches as well. Unsurprisingly, there is friction between the planets – and the asteroid colonies – in some of the same ways, I feel, as there was in Africa when European countries decided they wanted to establish colonies on that continent (without, happily, the mitigating issue of prior occupation). Who should have control – the people in the area or the people back home? How do you make decisions when communications suffer a significant lag – and when the conditions there are significantly different from the conditions here? And then you add in travel time, and rogue elements care of capitalism and free enterprise, and you have a rather chaotic system. On the scale of the solar system, even if you restrict yourself to the asteroid belt and in, that’s a very messy situation indeed. I really, really enjoyed the world-building here. The description of the living situation on the asteroids in particular was very compelling, and the way in which – for example – relying on external sources for all of your air and water would change people’s attitudes towards those fundamentals, and the corresponding cascading effects, was beautifully drawn. I also enjoyed that the focus was largely off-planet; it would have been a very different story had it been slightly more, well, grounded.
The notion of Earth/Mars rivalry is not a new one, of course; many authors who have suggested planetary colonisation have imagined at least political disputes, if not war, over issues such as governance and resources. Here, though, it is not the focus of the plot; more the background, and the catalyst, and eventually the binding factor in two quite different narratives. One of those narratives is a detective yarn that owes a lot to the noir: grizzled cop looking for missing girl, ends up getting involved in something much bigger than he expects. The other narrative is of a space-lovin’ ship’s captain who stumbles across the wrong derelict, and ends up getting himself chased from one end of the system to the other because of some rather delicate intel that he accidentally gets his hands on. Miller, the cop, and Holden, the captain, trade chapters throughout most of the book – although it’s all in third-person, so there’s still a barrier between reader and character. Their stories start in quite different places (literally and metaphorically), and spend the novel (550-odd pages) merging and twining and departing in clever and intriguing ways. James S.A Corey is actually Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck writing together (quite why you would go with a nomme de plume and then tell absolutely everyone about it confuses me; were they told that collaborations didn’t sell, or was it whimsy?), and I wonder whether each of them was largely responsible for one narrative – not that I could pick a difference in writing styles.
I had one big problem with this novel, which colours my view of it, and that was Miller’s developing preoccupation with Julie, the girl he is tasked with finding. Some of the reasons for why he might become obsessed with her are developed along the way, but it made me feel quite uncomfortable, and additionally I did not feel as though that discomfort was part of the intended effect. While other characters acknowledge that Miller has taken it a bit far, quite how creepy and weird that is is not made explicit. This was problematic for me, although not enough to make me stop reading.
My view, then, of Miller is tainted by his (non-)relationship with Julie. Overall he is one of those not-necessarily-likeable characters whom a reader nonetheless can (perhaps grudgingly) admire and appreciate (caveat above in mind), making hard choices and occasionally getting them wrong but standing by them, and his own morals, through various tribulations. And I did end up overall admiring him. Holden is a very different character, as is appropriate for a multi-point of view novel. He tends more towards action, although to say that one is brain and the other brawn is doing both a disservice. I think Holden is easier to like, as a person, although he certainly has his own faults. This may partly be because we see Holden interacting more positively with more people, particularly the crew of his ship, whom we also get to know somewhat; Holden’s story is largely theirs as well, and they are a disparate and motley group indeed. Their banter, and their cooperation, helped make Holden’s sections of the story more enjoyable for me than Miller’s.
The cover of my paperback has George RR Martin proclaiming this book as “Kickass space opera” and, much though I hesitate to quibble with GRRM, I feel I must. An enjoyable piece of SF, absolutely. I’ll probably read the sequels (this is the first of a trilogy, and it ends with a really awesome twist). While I am not especially one to quibble over sub-categorisation, for me this was not space opera. It was not… operatic enough. Not grandiose enough. The distances involved were too small, the plots too petty (in the sense of petite, rather than mean), the scope and implications not wide enough for it to count as such. Still, it was an enjoyable ride and it will be interesting to see where Corey/Abraham/Franck go with the story in the rest of the trilogy.