Title: Across the Universe
Authors: Beth Revis
Star Rating: * * *
Genre: Young Adult Sci-Fi/Dystopia
Amy must make a choice. Does she chose to follow her parents into space, leaving behind everything she has ever known, or does she abandon her parents forever and stay on Earth? As she watches both her mother and father undergo the painful process of being cryogenically frozen, she decides to take the huge risk and sacrifice of joining the generational ship, Godspeed, heading to another planet on a 350 year journey.
Several hundred years later, Elder, the next leader of the generational ship, starts to realise that there is a lot more for him to learn about the secrets of the ship and its people. One of the most major questions he has is why are there dozens of frozen individuals on a secret deck of the ship?
The plot begins when Amy is mysteriously unfrozen, a process that almost kills her, fifty years before the ship is scheduled to reach the new planet. Elder can’t help but want to spend time with this strange new woman, and she challenges his insular beliefs about society and leadership with information about the history of Earth.
When more cryogenically frozen individuals start being murdered, Amy and Elder must work together to figure out who is carrying out these terrible crimes and why. While doing so, not only do they discover some horrific truths about the ship, but they are forced to challenge the foundational beliefs underlying the unique society that has arisen on Godspeed.
The first thing that struck me about this book was its introductory chapter, and I am not the only person who has commented positively on the incredibly suspenseful writing. My heart thumped heavily in my chest as I read about the intense and painful procedure behind cryogenic freezing. I really appreciated this scene as it shows how technology can have consequences. While I do enjoy sci-fi where technology is so advanced that many of the downsides have been eliminated, it’s also important (and very interesting) to see stories where science is in development, and where use of new technology comes with a price. Cryogenic freezing is a sacrifice on many levels in Across the Universe, and this emotional first chapter was a great way to show the high stakes of the choice that Amy has to make.
Another aspect of Across the Universe that pleased me was how subdued the romance was. While the book was advertised as a love story, the romantic relationship between Amy and Elder does not overtake the main plot. There is nothing wrong with romances themselves, but it can be aggravating to have a very interesting sci-fi plot take a backseat to a simple teenage love story that could have easily been told in a normal high school setting. Furthermore, while Elder and Amy fell in love quite quickly, I actually believed in the reasoning behind their infatuation for one another. Elder had never been around women his age before as he was born in-between generations, and Amy appreciates that Elder is the only man in her life who has never lied to her or tried to force her into doing something for him. While this might not seem like a lot to base a relationship on, it makes sense in the context of two teenagers stuck on a spaceship with no one else to trust.
Finally, I am quite fond of Amy as a character. She is a teenage protagonist who acts her age without being a miserable representation of what the author thinks that teenagers act like. She is brave in the face of her terrifying fate, but she also cries for her parents. While she may act out sometimes, she also accepts responsibility. For example, she understands that even though her early awakening means that she may never see her parents again, she knows that they are needed when the ship actually lands, and therefore she cannot wake them up simply to be with her. I appreciated her balanced traits, and enjoyed reading about her reactions to her life on Godspeed.
The first chapter of this book was so intense that I had very high hopes for the rest of the novel. However, Across the Universe did not fully live up to the excitement of its first few pages. Instead, the book moves very slowly, but does not take advantage of this sedate pace to flesh out the characters or the world very well. This is made worse by the fact that the writing is sometimes unclear and confusing. There were times when I struggled to visualise what the author was describing, and it took a while for me to immerse myself in this new world.
The other major issue that I had with Across the Universe was that even though many horrific things were taking place on Godspeed, the chilling nature of these actions was not adequately conveyed. This may be because the book was told largely through the eyes of the two main characters, and Elder, at least, didn’t see many of these actions as totally wrong. On the other hand, other books have managed to make me shiver despite whatever the main character thinks. For example, when Amy learns about the dictatorship running the ship, the use of Phydus, and the euthanasia of the older generations, her reactions are often subdued. She is angry, but does little to actually effectively challenge these regimes. She is in a precarious position on the ship, and many do not believe the things that she says because of the fact that the captain called her a pathological liar, but she rarely speaks about these issues to anyone other than Elder and the doctor. When she does talk about the ethical problems that she’s uncovered, there is a lack of in-depth conversations with shipboard people about them. There was room in this novel for some very interesting discussions of the ethics of survival that unfortunately did not occur. Consequently, readers lack of the context to really be able to understand the positions of the shipboard people, and this ensures that the conflicts that Across the Universe brings up are less conflictual and thought-provoking than they could be.
CONTENT NOTE: Discussion of sexual assault and reproductive coercion
While I do enjoy authors who understand that dystopias are books that should push boundaries in terms of human morality, I say this with the assumption that such limit breaking is used for a purpose. Dystopias are meant to tell us something about human society as it is right now, as an author is speculating about a future affected by certain current beliefs or behaviours. Good writers will take these concepts to their logical extremes in order to show how disorder could arise from contemporary failings. I appreciated Across the Universe for exploring the horrors that a dystopia has to offer, but the inclusion of the “season” and the rape of Amy were uncomfortable, disturbing, and largely unnecessary.
After the rebellion on Godspeed and the implementation of the Elder/Eldest totalitarian system, the powers that be decided that the average citizen needed to be drugged into compliance with a opiate called Phydus. Part of this system involved reproductive control. On the drug, the “Feeders” (the working class of the ship) were given large doses of birth control, and the mood-altering aspects of Phydus diminished everyone’s sex drive. Once every generation, however, the drinking water would be flooded with hormones, causing all of the adults of the appropriate age to mate without discrimination. The women would be given additional drugs in order to ensure that they became pregnant, and the developing fetuses would be genetically modified to combat the problems of incestuous breeding and introduce important genetic variations in the population. Individuals on Godspeed grew up thinking that it was perfectly natural to mate in this manner since it was similar to the way that animals copulate (hence why this period of time is called the season).
On its own, the season is an exceptionally creepy and horrific concept. It’s an ugly commentary on what sorts of terrible things human beings will do to one another to survive. And this sort of terrible concept is not unwelcome in a dystopia. Being that it was a system that was dismantled by the end of the book, and it was continually described as something so horrific and unfair that it needed to be destroyed, the book was quite responsible in how it dealt with the idea. It was the result of a desperate and morally destroyed people, and an experiment that had horrific consequences. I was uncomfortable with the season, but that was the point. I was actually impressed that the author was able to deal with the concept. That is until the author made the choice to have Amy be raped.
Amy is unfrozen only days before the season takes place aboard Godspeed, and she was never really told what the event entailed. She leaves the safety of the hospital one day and is assaulted violently by a group of three men. Screaming for help, she is told by the other women under the influence of the drug that it will only hurt a bit and she should just enjoy herself. The men pin her to the ground and tear off her clothing. While she is not penetrated, she is most certainly raped. She is rescued when a friend from the hospital sees the assault occurring, and Amy escapes back to her room, left in overwhelming fear and terror.
Part of the horror of this scene is supposed to arise from the fact that the drugged Feeders simply cannot control themselves during the season. However, one of the men involved in the gang rape, Luthor, was from the mental ward of the hospital where all the individuals on the ship who are given drugs to counteract the mind-control drug live. These individuals are unaffected by the season, so Luthor made the active choice to rape Amy and to induce two other men to join him.
The only reason that this scene seems to have occurred is to make Amy feel unsafe on Godspeed, and to set Luthor up as a villain. However, Amy already felt quite unsafe on the ship, and Luthor was portrayed as a person with questionable morals in several other ways. The rape scene was merely an addition to a plot that already had quite the substantial amount of foundation to it, so there was no real purpose to having a sexual assault added. Rape is a difficult, sensitive, and easy to misuse topic, and it was an unnecessary addition to this book. (Further, having read the rest of the series, I now know that the horror of the scene really does not pay off. While it is mentioned several times in later books, it doesn’t truly affect the plot or much of Amy’s character development).
Across the Universe has many problems, but the book had enough redeeming features for me to pick up the second novel in the series. It’s a book that takes chances, though not all of them pay off, and some are downright icky and unnecessary. I enjoyed the low-key romance and the author’s ability to tap into some of the more horrific aspects of dystopic writing. After reading the rest of the series, this is a definite recommend with a few reservations.