TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:
When I heard last year that a big teen sci fi trilogy would be published beginning in early 2011, I was super excited. Being a sci fi geek (I love me some Star Wars and Star Trek), of course I'd be stoked to read about teens in outer space. Beth Revis' "Across the Universe," which was released by Razorbill / Penguin in January, isn't so much a sci fi novel as it a dystopian novel set in a claustrophobically insulated community on a spaceship. Once I accepted that fact — and despite one huge misstep, which I'll elaborate on below — I really enjoyed this creepy, suspenseful, love-tinged view into a strange future.
The story kicks off with an absolute bang. Modern teen Amy describes in brutal, terrifying detail the cryogenic freezing of her parents and then — ack! — herself. Amy and her folks are being frozen for a long journey aboard the space vessel Godspeed, which will take over 200 years to reach a habitable planet. Getting frozen is excruciatingly painful, involving all manner of tubes, suffocating liquids, and nearly unbearable pain. Even worse? Amy never fully loses consciousness, so as hundreds of years pass, she floats in and out of nightmares, confused and alone. It's wrenching to read!
While Amy is in frigid hell, we fast forward 200+ years to life on board the Godspeed. Apprentice leader Elder narrates here, detailing a world of monoethnic people, divided labor forces (there are "Feeders" and "Shippers"), unquestioning compliance to the rule of Eldest, forced medication of allegedly insane people, and some vague talk about an upcoming "Season." Elder is the lone teenager currently on board, and he's being groomed by the ruthless Eldest to someday take his place as ruler. Elder is lonely, curious, and defiant, so when he accesses a hidden basement and discovers Amy's thawing coffin, he is enthralled by the pale girl with flaming red hair.
Amy is disoriented upon waking up too early — without giving anything away, Godspeed is still *very* far from what's now being called Centauri Earth — and shattered to learn that she will likely outlive her parents. Amy's heartbreak at the futility of her situation is devastating to read. Moreover, our girl now lives in a stifling community in which everyone is the same and no one argues, questions authority, or expresses any independent ideas … and, as a bonus, they all think she's a dangerous freak. Well, everyone but two people: Elder and his best friend, twentysomething mental patient / artist / free spirit Harley. As more cryogenic boxes are mysteriously pulled from stasis and the bodies within allowed to die, Amy, Elder, and Harley struggle to find out who is behind the murders and what is really happening aboard this ship of lies, secrets, and manipulation.
What works well here? Amy and Elder are great characters with distinctive voices. Amy's tough survivor streak, strength, and independence create plenty of conflict within the oppressively orderly world of the Godspeed. Her brave confrontations with Eldest and one of his cronies, Doc, are riveting, and as a feisty newcomer, she helps voice our own bafflement at life on the spaceship. Considering this is a sci fi / dystopian novel with little basis in our current reality, Elder, as a boy of the future, is remarkably believable as a real teenager. He can be proud, petulant, childish, bold, and occasionally heroic as he struggles to balance the responsibility of his impending leadership with his weaknesses as a regular kid. Author Revis is particularly adept at showing Elder's internal conflict in challenging Eldest and the rules that have been ingrained within him since birth.
I also loved the ship's setting, with its "big brother" monitoring and stifling atmosphere of order and control. There is no authentic outdoors, no view of space, and everything from the air to the sunlight is artificial. We get a palpable sense of living within an elaborate metal box. The repressiveness and danger spike up the tension factor and help give the mystery even greater weight. Indeed, much of this book is so taut and suspenseful that I was actually worried to read on and discover what would happen next! We're also treated to some truly thought-provoking issues about time and sacrifice; freedom (Harley's drug of choice becomes staring through a forbidden portal at the long-hidden stars); and the balance between individual expression and society's basic need to function properly. Plus, there's some romance. 😉
Ok, so you're wondering what exactly my issue is. UGH! I hate to even bring it up, but reproduction among the inhabitants of Godspeed is limited to the Season, a brief mating period on a designated schedule. And when I say "mating period," I mean exactly that. You know, people behaving like animals in heat? Outside? In public? Indiscriminately? Whoa. I get how structured repopulation is critical for plot purposes (fixed generations are integral to the story's functioning), but, for cripe's sake, you usually don't see rampant nudity and random, group sex in a teen novel. And an attempted gang rape scene? Good lord. I'm no prude, but in a book essentially written for children, I wish the author would have figured out another way to ensure the existence of specific age groups aboard the ship. The method she chose was both distasteful and, in my view, wildly inappropriate for the intended audience.
If you can get beyond that issue — which, admittedly, gave me a great deal of difficulty — "Across the Universe" is a riveting, thrilling, often troubling tale of life in a repressive future society. The story contains plenty of secrets, a compelling mystery, and some epically shocking revelations, all of which should keep readers galloping through the pages. There are even some heavy emotional moments — oh, Harley! — and the beginnings of a sweet romance. In other words, there's plenty to enjoy in this first installment. If you're a high school aged fan of dystopian tales like "The Giver" (or Ally Condie's recent "Matched"), you should check out this dark, troubling tale.
PS – "Across the Universe" has its own site. And here's Penguin's book trailer: