They tumble blindly as they make their way
Marveling at the new renovations to our old favorite bookstore, the Beamers similarly hoped to enjoy some new changes on the old science fiction theme of the generation ship to be found in Beth Revis’s Across the Universe. Unfortunately, despite our time aboard the starship Godspeed, it seemed as though nothing was gonna change our worlds.
She’s Leaving Home
Revis’s book, the first of a trilogy, concerns a colonizing expedition to another star, a journey of 300 years taken by a combination of frozen specialists and active crew. The novel takes alternating first-person chapters from Amy, an accidentally defrosted colonist, and Elder, the leader-in-training of the crew. The narrative revolves around Amy’s attempts to orient to the society of the Godspeed, dividing into distinct functional castes (Feeders, Shippers, Keepers), as well as the need to uncover the mystery of who is unplugging and thus killing the frozens. Plus, the budding romance of Amy and Elder and the conflict with Eldest, the current leader.
Judging by the number of copies and frequent check-outs in local libraries, Revis’s books seem quite popular. As a few Beamers pointed out, she deploys some of the more popular tropes and conventions for Young Adult fiction (young woman, with the help of a supportive young man, struggling against an oppressive authority, in a life-and-death situation, spread over a trilogy). So, our very first argument centered over whether this book was even one for the Beamers to read.
Alan, in an e-mail critique, found the book to be a “Long and Winding Road” (he dropped many a music reference), without much compelling interest in either the mystery nor the romance to hold the attention of any reader who was not a 10-year-old girl. Eileen, who did read the entire trilogy, disagreed that the books were beneath our notice and took strong exception to Ruth Graham’s recent Slate article on why adults should be embarrassed to read “children’s books”. On the whole, the Beamers sided with Eileen, often quite vociferously. But, we did admit that there was a strong tonal difference to Across the Universe from some of our other books featuring younger protagonists, such as Lev AC Rosen’s All Men of Genius. We discussed examples of “children’s literature” (Kathy offered The Little Prince by Saint-Exupery) that did reward reading by (or re-reading as) adults.
I explained that I use “young adult” (YA) to mean books with younger characters, dealing with the concerns of adolescence. When it is used more pejoratively, what is meant are books like Across the Universe, which to me felt simplified and trimmed down to the expectations of younger readers. One area in which the simplification of Across the Universe hit us hard was in its scientific topics. Jon, our physicist, was thrown by the explanation of decreasing engine efficiency slowing down the starship traveling through space. Liz, our biologist, found the hand-waving DNA manipulations to add “creativity” or “mechanical aptitude” to new-born crew to amount to pretty unconvincing technobabble.
I felt that that book was committing the cardinal sin against the spirit of science fiction by Not Thinking Things Through, so that plot contrivances like frozen colonists murdered by defrosting were overcoming basic design principles (why are frozen corpsicles being kept in a heated storage area, especially when heat is an expensive commodity in space?). Eileen assured us that answers to our puzzlement would be found in the later books of the trilogy, though she did also admit that the forthcoming answers did not prove to be good ones. A sense of disappointment did haunt our reading, it seems.
It’s Getting Better All the Time
The book showed some strengths in trying to subvert the YA conventions that it was using, but it just did not hold onto its own convictions for long enough, we thought. Eileen liked the idea that Amy would reject the idea of romance with Elder simply due to its necessity (Elder being the only person close in age to Amy on the starship) rather than embrace it for that reason. Merrie had hopes that Eldest would prove to be a worthy antagonist who, even if we rejected his rationales, would have some compelling reasons for why a benevolent dictatorship was best for ruling the starship. Unfortunately, Eldest was “relaxed” to death in a lab accident that struck us as too convenient (the fatal chemical being handled in a bucket? Shades of the Wicked Witch of the West melting, as Nick pointed out). And the ultimate villain, Orion, proved painfully obvious to many of us.
Our viewpoint characters also came up a bit short. I liked how Amy’s disorientation and antagonism to the strange social customs of the starship put us in a classic sf confrontation with “aliens”, but it failed to deliver on its promise as Amy’s own cultural assumptions were not similarly challenged. She was, too easily, always right. Though when she was wrong, as when she was sexually assaulted, Carol found it disagreeably out of tone with the rest of the story. Alan also could not “Let It Be” (OK, I’ll stop) that the book offered a racist ideal of beauty, with a pale white girl being the love interest in a society of brown folk. Elder, though earnest, struck us as a bit too naive and uncomplicated, not as interesting a character as his friend Harley the painter, who was removed from the book, this time by suicide.
It’ll Make a Million for You Overnight
Still, we did not berate the author nor her work overmuch. Light sf reading can have its place, as Fran pointed out, enough so that a few Beamers were considering going on to the next 2 volumes. With a plethora of dialogue (and white space on the pages), Across the Universe is a very quick read. Eileen diagnosed some of its problems as a result of being spread over 3 books, believing that a strong editing hand to remove “filler” and consolidate the rest into 1 volume would have helped enormously. At the least, it would have got us to the answers, however unsatisfying, faster. Whether time is of the essence or not, for generation ships or book groups, is left as an exercise for the individual reader.
– Eugene, offering thanks, Jai Guru Deva Om, for another good Beamer session …