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.

13 responses

  1. 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

    The thing is, I am usually that person as well. But Eldest’s explanation that they were going slower and slower because the fuel is getting less efficient just hit my no it doesn’t work like that! button. As I said on Twitter, I gather there are a couple of things in this book that are deliberate lies, and I hope this is one of them; but the rest of the speech in which we get that explanation is proven to be reliable by the end of the book.

    As I said on Twitter, and apologies for tacking this onto your enthusing, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the book for other reasons as well. I do think what’s interesting about it is how it attempts to combine the narrative virtues of golden age sf and contemporary YA sf. You’ve got what appears to be an attempt to do a hard-sf sociological generation starship story (perhaps partly why that bit of dodgy physics derailed me so hard), combined with the zeitgeisty YA dystopia/romance story. I think immediacy of the contemporary YA voice style worked quite well in the setting — Amy’s reactions in particular — but the mix has some drawbacks as well. I found it very strange to be reading a generation starship story that clearly has no intention of taking place across generations (I would love it if volume 2 is about Elder and Amy’s great-grandchildren, but somehow I can’t see it), in which everyone remembers they’re on a generation starship; I didn’t feel that the story took enough advantage of what was unique about its chosen setting, I guess.

    1. Niall, the more I consider that aspect, the more it bugs me too. I think I swept over it while I was reading because I was very impatient to hurry up and get to the reveal already, part of which (Orion) I had (unsurprisingly) already guessed and wanted to see what would happen. So, yes, I agree – I hope it’s one more lie. I did at one stage wonder whether they were already there and not disembarking for some reason…

      Your idea about this being golden age + modern YA is a really interesting one; I probably haven’t read enough golden age to really get the resonances, but it’s certainly a cool idea. And now that you mention it, I am entranced by the idea of finding out about whether/how Amy and Elder work through their differences by seeing their great-grandchildren talk about it! It has been done before, and well (Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom springs to mind); again, the more I think about it the more I think it would make a lot of sense. I really want to read more about the Godspeed and how they deal with their problems, but with a bit of distance I concede that more Amy and Elder – especially if they’re still mid-teens – might not work for me quite so well a second time ’round.

      1. But Eldest’s explanation that they were going slower and slower because the fuel is getting less efficient

        Now that ARCs for A Million Suns are around, my spies have provided me with the lowdown on whether this is an error or a hook for the plot in the sequel; do you want to know?

        1. noooooo! Must find out for myself! Looking forward to getting my hands on this eventually and seeing if she can keep my interest 🙂

  2. Shara @ Calico Reaction | Reply

    I, unfortunately, had a lot to nitpick about this book. Definitely promising, but I doubt I’ll continue the trilogy unless I’m getting some kind of free copies. 🙂 But you never know!

    My review: http://calicoreaction.wordpress.com/2010/12/20/revis-beth-across-the-universe/

    1. Thanks, Shara – interesting review from you too. I didn’t get the sense of jarring that you mention by switching between the male and female POV, but I agree definitely with your comment about Amy’s sense of entitlement – for me it made sense, though, because after all she’s 16 and has clearly had a very cushy life at home; I didn’t find it surprising that she would have a great deal of difficulty adjusting to the ship, up to and including going for a run when that was clearly a bad idea! I also liked your discussion of the nearly-romance 🙂

      1. Shara @ Calico Reaction | Reply

        I don’t know for sure, but I’m afraid the second book still features Amy and Elder… I had a brief email discussion with the author, and if memory serves me well, she indicated she’d figured out a way to make a trilogy including them. I could be wrong, but that’s what I vaguely remember!

        1. Hmm. Could be interesting. I will certainly read the second one – hoping that I still enjoy it!

        2. “Figured out a way” is interesting — I guess they could both go into hibernation and the society could change around them…? Or the ship could arrive somewhere, I guess, although if the information we’ve been given about the ship’s propulsion *is* wrong, the most likely scenario would seem to be that they’ve overshot their target for some reason, so who knows where the next viable stopping point is.

          1. And they don’t appear to have great nav? – like there doesn’t seem to be any suggestion that they are actively looking around them, just that they are following a pre-prepared programme.

            Amy being put back into hibernation and leapfrogging would certainly be interesting.

  3. […] long ago). I picked it up because I read great reviews of it on Tansy Rayner-Robert’s and Random Alex’s […]

  4. […] I loved Across the Universe, the first of Beth Revis’ series about a generation ship. I was really excited about the sequel and bought it ages ago… and have only now read it, as part of my Read the Books I Own but Haven’t Read thing. […]

  5. […] ship story: Elizabeth Bear’s Jacob’s Ladder series was awesome, I enjoyed much of Beth Revis‘ Across the Universe stories (although the relationships were wearing by the end), and […]

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