It wasn’t a simple choice, but the fact of it was supposed to be: Amy would be frozen, stored on the ship Godspeed, and hundreds of years later when they reached their destination, she would be unfrozen and start life with her parents on a new world.
Then she woke up.
And nothing on this ship is as simple as it should be.
Across the Universe is in itself part of a brave new world in teen fiction: science fiction. Aside from the cross-aged Ender’s series, there’s been almost no true sci-fi in YA. Dystopians, contemporaries, straight fantasies, urban fantasies, even steampunk, but very little sci-fi. Now Across the Universe is heading the fleet, joined by books like Glow, A Long, Long Sleep, Tankborn, and others.
This book gives us two narratives: Amy, pre- and post-awakening; and Elder, in training to be the next leader of the Godspeed. They’re both wonderfully naive in their own ways, something that allows for a lot of shocks, a lot of growth, and a lot of change. Amy’s life on Earth focused around running (and just a brief point that I have to admit, really irked me: competitive cross-country runners in serious training for a marathon would not have lush breasts. Just saying.) and her family. She left behind extended family, left behind a boyfriend, to join her parents on their expedition. She is non-essential personnel, brought along mainly because her parents hoped for it, but the choice was hers. Up until the very last moment, her parents made it clear that they would love her no matter her choice. Elder, meanwhile, is set apart from the rest of the crew on the ship by his designation as future leader. He spends a great deal of time with the crotchety Eldest, sneaks time with his friends, and tries to learn the secrets he knows his mentor is keeping from him- which is how he discovers the frozen passengers.
Science-fiction is a worldbuilding experience as intense as any you’ll find in fantasy. Scientific speculation has to mesh with fact and expectation. It’s harder than it sounds. People assume certain things about space, scientifically accurate or not, and no matter how sound the fact, we resist anything that goes against those expectations. At the same time, we don’t want to see something blithely stated that we know for a fact is wrong. Beth Revis does a very good job at juggling those pieces, crafting a world inside the ship that has many, many echoes of our own, but that has evolved into something new through generations of isolation and subtle warping. Think the telephone game with history.
What I really loved about this book was the division between the artistic and the more prosaic. The artists are necessary, but they’re also considered insane, and kept away in a house so as not to bother those who do the more manual labors. Where everyone else in the society is dull and steady, plodding about their tasks, the artists are beautifully, vibrantly alive. There we meet Harley, probably my favorite character, and though we never actually get to meet her, Kayleigh is every bit as strong a presence. Within the confines of the hospital, they’re allowed to paint, to draw, to create, to read, to speculate, all things that set them apart from others, and they’re told they’re sick.
In his collection of essays called Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton holds that insanity is not, in fact, the overabundance of imagination, but rather its profound lack. Insanity is being too firmly wedded to reason. To use his example, a man who thinks he’s a chicken is absolutely convinced he’s a chicken, and there’s no room in his logic (in his reason) for any other possibilities. Sound like the hospital setting? Everyone out in the rest of the ship has a single task and they do it, day in and day out, with no questions, no thoughts, no imagination, simply the facts before them and the reasons it must be done. Meanwhile, the ones in the hospital can imagine, they can wonder where they came from and where they’re going. They can dream about things like a sky, like stars, things that they will never get to see. They can experience the whole range of human emotions.
Mystery weaves through the book, the question of the secrets Eldest’s hiding, the question of who is pulling frozen passengers from their cryo-cells and why, even the question of why they’re hurtling through space for generations at a time. And there are no simple answers. Not for any of these, or the other questions that arise, and there are so many questions that a geek-minded book club could speculate for weeks. Notions like insanity and the neccesity of artistic invention to prevent stagnation. Like genetic identity, personality, and predisposition. Like genetic inheritance. Like the moral implications of DNA modification. Like the ripple effect of history seen through an isolated culture increasinly distanced from context. Science, for all its black and white facts, is an extremely grey area when it comes to moral quandaries, and we get to explore a great deal here. Delicately, carefully, without being told what we need to believe.
And once you get to one hell of a confession at the end, you’ll be glad you only have a few months to wait for its sequel, A Million Suns, out 10 January 2012. Across the Universe is out now in hardcover and e-book, or look for its paperback, with a shiny new cover, out on 29 November 2011.
Until next time~