Across the Universe by Beth Revis

Short review: Generation ship. Dystopian dictatorship.

Wondering what that means? Read more science fiction. I would not advise starting with this one, however.

As the story begins, our heroine Amy is in the cryogenic preparation room with her parents, getting ready to be put into hibernation for the 300 year journey on Earth’s first manned interstellar space ship, the Godspeed. The Godspeed combines aspects of a “generation ship” with the more high-tech hibernation–both common tropes in science fiction as a method of dealing with the necessarily LONG time it would take to travel between stars without the starship drive equivalent of an “ansible” communication device. Her parents go through the unpleasant process first, partly to show their daughter what the process is like but also to allow her the option of ducking out to return to all that is familiar to her–her loving aunt and uncle, a boyfriend1, and Earth itself–without even the pressure of their awareness of her decision. She dithers, but chooses to undergo the process herself so that she may go with her beloved Mom and Daddy.

Unfortunately, things don’t turn out quite as planned, either for Amy or for the Godspeed. She is “accidentally” thawed when the ship is only partway through its voyage, though not surprisingly given we’re only about 100 pages into a 400 page book, this turns out to be an act of sabotage by a disgruntled crew member. The waking crew for the generation ship have undergone a Plague, which killed off three quarters of the population and left the society with an autocratic inherited rulership; the Eldest is the leader and the Elder is his son, groomed to take over when Eldest goes to the Great Beyond. The majority of the population are subsistence farmers, uneducated and uninformed, kept under control by medical intervention to keep them simultaneously stupefied and infertile until The Season, the period once every twenty years during which women may become pregnant. When waking residents of the generation ship reach the age of sixty or thereabouts, they are euthanized.

Amy struggles to settle into this alien society which will form her world for the rest of her life, but which seems to have no place for her…though this may change when Elder moves up from mere heir to the command to Eldest, or ship commander.

The plot struck me as a bit shaky, for a variety of reasons. Many of the book’s science fiction elements are inadequately developed, whether technologic or biologic, though I’ll pick just two to allow the blog post to remain a reasonable length: the “Season”, and genetic issues resulting from a population of limited size.

     1) The Season. My problem with this harks back to a very basic precept of population control on Earth: to maintain a stable population, the female population as a whole must average two children which survive to adulthood per woman (or rather, survive to reproductive age themselves but let’s not get too fussy). In a population the size of Earth’s, this is not a problem; the women who have several kids more than make up for the women who don’t or can’t have kids of their own. In the plausible population of a generation ship, this is more of an issue, as the population is of necessity much MUCH smaller.

In the case of this particular generation ship, there’s an additional issue: the “Seasons”. The awake inhabitants of the generation ship are controlled through substances in the drinking water to, among other things, have children only once every twenty years. This “Season” is scheduled when the younger generation is in their early twenties and the older (logically) in their early forties. Given the spacing of the “Seasons”, this means that, even allowing for the chance of multiple births, every single woman must get pregnant every Season, as they will have only two chances in their lifetime to have children. (A corollary is that both of those children must themselves survive to have their two children…and so on.) In reality as we know it on earth, things are a bit more complicated–not all children survive to reproduce–but for the sake of internal plausible logical development, I’ll have to assume that in the controlled environment of the Godspeed, all the kids DO survive to adulthood and there is no accidental death prior to the required number of childbirths.

All very well and good if you want to maintain a stable population, but the commanders of the Godspeed wants to increase the population, after the Plague. Not going to happen, unless there are a lot more multiple births than there are in the current Earth milieu.

     2) That Plague I mentioned in an above paragraph. Reducing an already restricted population by three-quarters will necessarily reduce the available gene pool for future generations; ask anyone who breeds animals or studies cheetahs or sea lions why this is a problem, if you haven’t studied genetics yourself. Carefully handled breeding from a closely related population may work, either if the society has sophisticated medical records tracking genetic issues in the population or if the society is willing to cull the undesirable offspring with a heartlessness not likely to be used on a human population…but then the latter option circles back around to issue #1: how to maintain a stable population. Hopefully, the ship lands before this becomes a problem!

Now on to the more literary quibbles. The characterization struck me as being one step above cardboard figures, leaving me unsure who the author intended her audience to be. Elder and Amy, though identified as sixteen and seventeen, strike me as very naive innocent examples of teenagerhood he because of his limited experience and she through such things as clinging to her teddy bear in lieu of her parents so it might appeal to younger readers. On the other hand, the book includes some sexual references which parents might find inappropriate for their young children–Amy is set upon by some hormone-crazed crew members when the breeding cycle Season is upon them. While Revis comes up with some interesting ideas, such as attempting to eliminate prejudice and strife by blending everyone into one multiracial norm and forbidding religion to that limited population, I don’t think she develops either idea well. Even many of the suggested elements of a dystopia aren’t expanded, such as Eldest’s revering Hitler as an ideal leader. (All standard disclaimers apply: this is just my opinion!)

There are a few factors to consider before deciding whether to like this book or not. There may not be enough world building to make her world (either Earth of the future or of the society within Godspeed) plausible to readers who’ve read a significant amount of science fiction intended for older audiences. However, the book’s the first in a trilogy, and many questions and gaps may be answered or filled in later books. Perhaps the most applicable might be that, as with several of the other YA books I’ve read for this blog, Across the Universe might better be regarded as chicklit romance or mystery than as science fiction. It’d probably appeal much more to the intended audience, tweens and younger teens, than adults or science fiction buffs.

External reviews:
Fantasy Book Critic
YA Reads
Rhapsody in Books

1watch this boyfriend carefully
2the ideal both for fictional interstellar ships and for the planet we’re on now


3 thoughts on “Across the Universe by Beth Revis

  1. Pingback: King of Shadows by Susan Cooper | Josephine's Readers Advisory

  2. Pingback: Wither, by Lauren DeStefano | Josephine's Readers Advisory

  3. Pingback: Wither, by Lauren DeStefano | Josephine's Readers Advisory

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