Beth Revis’ debut, Across the Universe, is a book after my own heart – a science fiction involving cryogenically frozen people aboard a ship bound for a new planet, combined with a spine-tingling mystery? Yes please. I really hate reading books on a screen, so when I tell you that I read the entire first chapter online (available here), you know that the premise has to be pretty darn awesome.
And it is. The first chapter opens with seventeen-year-old Amy being frozen alongside her parents in preparation for a 300-year trip across space to a new planet. Her mother works with DNA and her father is a military strategist, so they’re both vital to the mission. Amy is going along simply because she’s their daughter, but they’re not forcing her to – it’s her choice. She’s leaving behind her entire life to take this tremendous risk, and it’s tearing at her.
I was so impressed with the first chapter that I knew I had to read the whole thing. Particularly impressive is Revis’ description of the freezing process. Amy watches her parents being frozen, first her mother and then her father, and it is neither comfortable nor pretty. When Amy herself steps into the coffin-like container to undergo the same process, the reader is right there with her, feeling her physical and emotional pain and dreading what will happen next – will she really lapse into dreamless sleep, as she’s been told, or will she be stuck in a 300 year long nightmare?
Unfortunately, Amy’s sleep ends too soon – she’s woken up fifty years before the spaceship is due to land on the new planet, by someone unknown who supposedly wants to kill her. Amy survives, but other people who are prematurely defrosted aren’t so lucky. Alongside a few friends she makes on the ship, Amy tries to figure out who the killer is before he or she goes after her parents next.
This is made difficult by the fact that the society on the ship (those people who are descended from the original people who signed up to staff it and prepare for colonization of the new planet) is not a friendly one. They’ve all interbred over generations so they all look alike with dark hair, eyes, and skin. Amy has pale skin and bright red hair, so she sticks out. What’s more, a terrible plague hit the ship many years ago, and since then the society has been restructured. Most people don’t know about the frozen cargo at all, and they all resemble mindless drones, going about their work with no real questions or defiance of the authority, a man called Eldest.
Across the Universe has a tremendous amount of potential, but it’s unfortunately pretty uneven. The first chapter – used in promotions and marketing – is polished and well-written. We get a great view into Amy’s mind while still being entertained and wanting to turn the pages as quickly as possible. After that first chapter, however, the perspective shifts for a time to the leader-in-training on the ship, named Elder. We get a little insight into his character throughout the story, but not nearly enough to really know him, and not enough to believe the romance that blossoms between him and Amy. To me, the romance was completely unnecessary and the book would have been stronger without it.
Revis relies a lot on short, choppy sentences and paragraphs for extra emphasis. While this works in moderation, it’s overused here. When a character we care about dies, it’s hard to really feel its impact since it happens in a single sentence. Similarly, the rapid back-and-forth shift in perspectives from Amy and Elder don’t allow the reader to ever really become fully immersed in either person’s experience. While the book is 400 pages long, that’s sort of misleading – the text is large and there’s a lot of white space. There’s plenty of room for a bit more development, particularly character-wise.
My other main complaint has to do with unanswered questions. There’s one particular question broached in Chapter 1 that is never resolved – it’s never even alluded to in the rest of the book. I don’t expect books like these to answer all of my questions, but to me, this seems like an unintentional loose end – the ball dropped by the author. I know now that Across the Universe is meant to be the first in a trilogy, but you’d never know it from just reading it. Perhaps some sort of reflection on Amy’s part near the end – What’s next for me? What about that thing in Chapter 1 that I was so worried about but didn’t give a second thought to in the rest of the book? – would have satisfied me.
Across the Universe, which publishes January 11, is a good choice for people who prefer their science fiction without a lot of science (like me). If the author tells me that Amy can’t be refrozen due to cellular degeneration, that’s a good enough explanation for me. It’s also a good choice for people who value a fast-paced plot above all – over character, setting, theme, and so on. I do believe the plot is a good one, I just wish I could have had the rest, too.
Galley received from the publisher.