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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Review: Across the Universe

I've never read much science fiction literature. Star Wars doesn't count because it's actually a form of fantasy, and I've only watched a bit of the Star Trek franchise. I tried reading a book called Greenthieves that my cousin gave me, but younger me quickly got bored with it. I could write all day about why pure science fiction literature, heck, pure science fiction in general, has been in a perpetual rut, but I think that it all boils down to it's tendency to heavily rely on spectacle. We've been trained to expect this sort of thing from works branded as sci-fi, and when a book or movie comes along which lacks those things, we quickly move on to the next thing. (Nate (the one who thinks Richard Donner's Superman is the best superhero film ever made), if you're reading this, feel free to chime in in the comments, because you've seen way more pure science fiction films than I have, and I think that you could contribute to this dialogue.) Anyway, there's also the whole thing about Moh's Scale of Science Fiction Hardness, but we won't get into that. Right now, I want to say that Across the Universe, a dystopian sci-fi thriller written by Beth Revis and published in 2011, is easily the pest science fiction book I've ever read. That said, it's probably the only science fiction book I've ever read.

Taking on a rotating first person narration, we've got seventeen year-old Amy who voluntarily goes into suspended animation, along with her parents, aboard a generation ship known as the Godspeed (for those of you who don't know, a generation ship is a space ship which is meant to to take several generations of people to man and populate it as it traverses space over a couple hundred years in order to get to its destination), and is later woken up in less than ideal circumstances, in what is quickly discerned as a murder attempt. On the other side of the coin is sixteen year-old Elder, a wiseguy who lives in the society of the ship several hundred years later among the population of the Godspeed, being trained by the leader, Eldest, to eventually take over for him. Unfortunately, nearly everyone except for Elder and his friend Harley hates Amy's guts, egged on by Eldest, because her appearance does not reflect the mono-ethnicity of the Godspeed's population. Elder and Amy have to avoid Eldest's wrathful rule, catch the would-be killer, and figure why the Godspeed is so messed up.

This book has a clumsy beginning, and finishes only partly strong. The first chapter with Elder is rushed and forced, but from there it begins to grow. There are way too many chapters in the beginning with Amy in suspended animation, and it just goes on and on. But once Amy gets out and our two protagonists begin actually interacting with each other, then we get to the good stuff. Apart from being a dystopian sci-fi thriller, this book also incorporates a love story into its plot, and I'll say that Revis pulls off the chemistry between Amy and Elder very well. Amy herself isn't the greatest character, being hard to connect with, but she's serviceable. Elder isn't quite as impressive either, but he's definitely more interesting than Amy. This is because he has a compelling role in the story (the heir to the throne, as it were), and it's played in a compelling way. Amy's role in the story has plenty of potential, but it's not executed in the most hard hitting way. This is partly due to the spotty build up and pacing, but also because of her shallow characterization. We get that she's insecure and misses her dirtbag boyfriend and is really freaked out by the new world she wakes up in, but the book doesn't really get across who she is. She likes photography and running, and that's about it.

Now that I look back on it, I realize that the most interesting characters were in the supporting cast. Characters like Eldest, Doc, Harley, Orion, and this one old lady whose name I don't remember. Eldest is a great villain. Doc is a cool, not-quite-evil-but-not-quite-good reasonable authority figure. Harley is tragic and introspective, but also has the capacity for heroism. Orion is one of the few characters who seems genuinely nice and likeable, but there's a twist that gives him a whole different dimension. Unfortunately, this last clause brings me to one of the book's main problems, which we'll discuss later. Concerning character dynamics, the best one was absolutely the dynamic between Elder and Eldest. The tension between them is great, and they have some really raw emotion in between them. 

The greatest thing about the book, I think, is some of the reveals it pulls near the end. Note that I said some of the reveals. There were a bunch of them, which is not always good, and can actually be really bad, a la Once Upon a Time. I believe that there were three really big ones, the first of which was a build up to the second one, the second one making me want to but the book down for a few minutes and absorb what I had just learned, and the third making me raise my eyebrows and go, "Huh." But the "big" twist was one I saw coming from a mile away, concerning the identity of the killer. I guessed as soon as the character was introduced that it was going to be that person, and I was right. I'm not sure if that makes me clever or the book dumb, or even both, but I'm must saying, I totally called it.

The last twist that I mentioned, the one that I barely reacted to, felt shoehorned in and extraneous. It mainly made me think, "Okay, we get that the Godspeed is messed up, let's move on. Huh? Oh, yeah, sure, throw it on the pile." I also felt that the "mystery" that they were trying to solve (how all of the victims were connected) had a solution which was a bit too obvious. It was staring me right in the face, and then it was revealed, and I was like, "Well, duh." What it should have done was make me go, "Of course! How could I have not seen it?" And remember what I said about the build up and pacing being off? It's not as glaring a problem in the middle portion of the book, when we're dealing with Amy mucking about the ship, but it really shows in the beginning when it just keeps going on and on about how Amy's stuck in the cryonics pod and whatnot. The end is also less than clean, forcing yet another reveal on us that doesn't have quite the impact it should have. In short, there are too many twists with too little build up.

But you know what? There's one thing about this book that sets it apart from other, slightly related books (Looking at you, Thrawn Trilogy): It's actually compelling and competently written. There are no overly convoluted subplots, no unnecessary characters, no unbelievable motivations. It made me want to find out what happened next, and to actually read the next book. It's theme of deception was a bit overdone, and I daresay I rolled my eyes when I read the preview chapter of the next book and saw that this theme would apparently be continuing, but it's actually a pretty decent work of literature, and not bad for a writer's first book. It may not be exactly outstanding, but it's still one of the better ones out there. And with my standards, that's sufficient enough for me.

(A word of warning though: This book, being of the young adult-teen category, contains some not-quite-explicit sexual content, including a sexual assault, and, on a lesser note, heavy use of futuristic profanity. I'd recommend this only to ages fifteen and up.)

RATING: 7.5/10

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