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.
Sadly, I was disappointed.
Spoilers for Across the Universe and A Million Suns.
The story picks up pretty much where the first one left off, again alternating between Amy – awakened before time on a generation ship that’s meant to be racing towards a new planet for colonisation – and Elder, now officially the one who’s in charge of the ship and the one who woke up Amy when he wasn’t meant to (which, the more I think about it, CREEPY. Which gets addressed briefly here but not enough). The book revolves around the issues confronting the population now that they’re off the drug that’s been in the water, keeping them all nicely docile, which also means that they can now realise that they’re being led by a sixteen year old boy (an issue which is only briefly addressed).
The good: I continue to like the exploration of generation ship issues. While I have some problems with how it’s done, it’s nonetheless good to see it done at all. If you’ve grown up in a tin can, it makes sense that at least some people are going to find the idea of not having walls utterly terrifying. It also makes sense that some people are going to resent begin, effectively, just a means to an end – why do stuff for people, and a destination, that you’ll never see? I was glad that Revis addressed some of the issues of resources and the problem of being a closed system, even if not in great detail.
I liked that people started thinking about political change. I can’t decide whether that happened too quickly or not, but it amused me greatly to see the French Revolution being referenced.
There are some pleasing aspects in Amy and Elder’s relationship. I really like the discussion of whether, if you only have one possible choice, falling in love with that person is real. There are too many examples of that just happening, as if OF COURSE I love you because you’re in front of me. Of course, this ignores the fact that people don’t necessarily fall in love with people of their own age – as demonstrated by Victria – which makes Amy’s flailing about do I/don’t I a bit precious. As mentioned above I really liked that Elder’s fascination with frozen Amy was revealed to Amy, even if it was only briefly an issue for her when I think it should have been more significant.
Overall, the writing is smooth; it’s not hard to read.
The bad: look, I don’t think I’ll read the third. That should tell you enough.
Amy and Elder both drove me nuts at different points. Amy whinges a lot, and Elder is alternately arrogant and fearful and it didn’t always make sense in context. Their relationship bugged me, especially towards the end – and I got annoyed because much of the story is about their relationship. When I realised that really, this is a love story that happens to be set in space, I got a bit less annoyed. Because that’s totally fine: it’s not what I was expecting or hoping for, but it’s a perfectly fine choice for Revis to make. Except that the story of their love just didn’t interest me that much – but that’s an issue of story telling rather than story choice.
To move on to the plot – Orion setting clues for Amy so that she finds out the truth about the ship was just ridiculous. It makes no sense for Orion to have done that, since I don’t think it’s suggested anywhere that he was sadistic. One clue, leading Amy to discover a video of Orion explaining the truth about the Godspeed, would have made sense. Or leading her to the space suits so that she could go out and see the truth for herself – that would have been fine too. But this convoluted trail that relied on Amy, a seventeen year old, having read certain stories and paying any attention to the shelving of books… seriously. No.
And the great reveal? I absolutely guessed that the ship was stationery, having already arrived. I think that the idea of people refusing to go down because of wild animals is weak, and the suggestion that people would not have earlier made exactly the decision that’s made at the end of the novel – of splitting the population – is ludicrous. The only thing that kept me reading this was to find out how the generation ship aspect was dealt with; I do not care enough to read about the population trying to make their way on the dirt.
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.