Across The Universe
Space, as well as being the final frontier, would appear to be the next big thing in young adult fiction. James Frey saw it when he approached Jobie Hughes with I Am Number 4 and I am sure that the publication of the far superior Across The Universe will herald a slew of titles set beyond the confines of earth. This is no bad thing. While not all YA readers may be into sci-fi, most are into fresh and original writing – something that Across The Universe certainly exhibits.
At first glance, the plot of Beth Revis's debut novel is fairly simple: Amy and her parents are cryogenically frozen (cryogenics seem to be a bit better in this book than they are in, say, real life) in order to undertake a 300 year voyage to a new planet. When she finds herself being rapidly unfrozen, she fully expects to open her eyes to a new sky – except that Amy has been woken up 50 years too early. While she's been sleeping, the ship she's been on has become it's own society with it's inhabitants having an extensive history - one that doesn't include their frozen cargo. Watching her wake is Elder, future leader of the ship, who rapidly starts to question everything he's ever learnt.
Elder and Amy are an interesting pair. Amy is perhaps the more straightforward, being recognisable as a teenage girl torn out of her comfort zone (and, in this case, her ice box). At the start of the novel we see her make the difficult decision to stay with her parents and her dismay at waking to find that they are still frozen is tangible. However, Amy isn't a character to sit and mope and her constant push for understanding and answers about the odd community she now finds herself part of is the driving force of the novel. Yet, for the main part Amy's character is forced to be reactive – lurching from one situation to another, acting as a cypher through which we gain an objective eye on the society aboard the ship. While this doesn't detract from the story, it does mean that readers perhaps do not get to know Amy as well as they get to know Elder.
Elder is fascinating. Born to lead, literally, he is under the tutelage of Eldest (and yes, the Elder/Eldest name thing does get a little confusing at points) – current leader of the ship, possible despot and all round grumpy old man. Everything that Amy finds bizarre about the ship, Elder finds utterly normal. Not only is it all he's ever known, it is all anyone he's ever met has ever known. Amy's appearance forces him to question everything he's ever believed. The struggle that he has with this is very believable. Rather than shucking off the old to embrace the new, Elder turns everything he learns over in his head numerous times before making decisions. Elder makes some mistakes along the way and perhaps moves more slowly on things than Amy would like but when he finally starts to understand the inner workings of his community his actions are fast and decisive.
While other characters are few and far between, those that do feature are multi-faceted and all play a part in illustrating how life on the ship works. Most notable is Eldest, who is really quite unpleasant yet clearly feels pressured by the responsibility of leadership. While it isn't possible to actively like his character, it is possible to see that he absolutely believes in what he is doing. Which takes us to the heart of Beth Revis's story because, of all the themes that run through the book, the plot always circles back to the difficulties of leadership. As Elder learns what it truly means to be Eldest, he sometimes finds himself shocked but mainly finds himself confused. As any leader must truly know, leadership contains no rights and wrongs, blacks and whites – just endless shades of grey. Through Elder, readers are encouraged to see that even the worst decisions are often made with good intentions.
The writing in Across The Universe is interesting. The opening scenes are some of the most arresting I have read – there is no gentle hand holding here. The community aboard the ship is absolutely fascinating and often shocking – the reality of The Season is not something that I expected to find in YA fiction and I can only applaud the brutal yet concise way in which this is portrayed. The plotting is skillful and the denouement is far from predictable. If the comparisons between Amy's world and life aboard the ship lack subtlety (one particular reference to Hitler is a prime example of over-egging the pudding) then this is more than balanced by the intricate world that Revis has created. The only issue that crops up as far as the story is concerned is that of chronology – the whole book seems to take place over the course of less than a week and this seems impossibly quick considering events.
Part sci-fi, part dystopia and part social commentary, Across The Universe is unlike anything else currently available in the YA world. Amy and Elder are characters that will stay with you after you finish reading and the issues raised will certainly make you think. First in a trilogy (aren't they all?) Across The Universe is completely open ended – finishing quietly and leaving many questions. This is a title worth reading.
Across The Universe is released in paperback in the UK on 3rd March. Many thanks to Puffin for sending me this copy to review.