Here at the R.H.W. Blog, we target book reviews to people who write novels. There are many other book reviews on Across the Universe out there tailored for readers.
Across the Universe by Beth Revis is a contemporary young adult science fiction book of monumental science fiction YA goodness. There is a particular fondness for YA sci-fi on this blog, as the 9.3 blog readers will attest. Before we get into Across the Universe, let’s talk about that topic specifically: YA science fiction. We need to go there to come to grips on why Beth Revis has awesomesauce for blood.
Dystopian Settings in YA Science Fiction
YA science fiction has historical roots in dystopian settings. What industry labels as simply “dystopian” really used to be thought of, by readers, as “science fiction”, if they thought about the genre label at all.
Enter vampires, urban fantasy, contemporary and paranormal (although vamp fic is a paranormal offshoot). You could say these killed off classic science fiction under the guise of character-driven stories marketed (successfully) to girls, and science fiction stories along “classic” lines was not meeting the needs of a new vastly expanded audience.
We could say that… and it’s BS. Science fiction is alive and well, simply nudged into a little dystopian niche that is selling like chocolate in an all-girl high school student store. There are only so many books and book publishers to go around, in the traditional sense. What sells, sells. That “classic” science fiction for young adults fell by the wayside wasn’t elitism, but it wasn’t the fault of science fiction itself. It was capitalism.
This is only brought up because as novelists, we need to practice the art of eye-rolling. Take for example the following conversation:
“Science fiction as a market for youth is dead.”
“What? What about The Hunger Games? Uglies? Unwind? Or…”
“That’s dystopian fiction.”
“Don’t roll your eyes at me! It’s true. Simply placing a book into the future doesn’t make it science fiction…”
“Maybe classic science fiction for youth is dead…”
“You mean, maybe classic science fiction for youth is underutilized and underrepresented?“
This was an actual conversation, by the way. No names are given to protect the guilty.
Why digress to talk about the current YA book market in speculative fiction? Because the current market has its roots in the older market. And there were some amazing young adult science fiction books in dystopian settings.
Enter John Christopher
The king of dsytopian settings is John Christopher. His legendary Tripod trilogy was a chilling tale of alien conquest and subversion, where as a teen, your own parents turn against you because they have been “capped”. It’s a mind-control device turning people into hypnotic slaves for unseen alien masters.
Christopher nailed all the dystopian YA elements, and one could say, defined them. There is one complete and utterly horrific subplot, where the unseen aliens (in the first book) take the prettiest young girls to “the masters” city once winning a beauty contest, and these girls are never seen again.
Once the truth is known what happens to these girls, oh my. There’s nothing explicit about it. It’s just evil. Pure, understated, evil, and from a literary standpoint, so very delicious.
We’ll come back to John in a moment.
What Makes Dystopian YA So Delicious
There no mystery why dystopian fiction provides a fertile ground for young adult novels. It’s delicious because the setting is great for the come-of-age story. As teens and adults, we yearn for places to put context to growing up, and nothing says “grow up!” like oppression and tyranny, especially in the future. In dystopia, everything is about the removal of choice. And nothing makes a greater young adult story than a teen trying to make choices where it seems like there is none. It often is a choice of defining oneself correctly, or dying.
So much goodness.
Enter Across the Universe. Across the Universe nails the dsytopian feelings of oppression and tyranny, and as a dystopian novel it just doesn’t work, it sparkles brightly (sparkles like stars, heeee). The setting, particularity for Amy, the main character, goes from a disturbing familiarity to an assault on everything it means to be a teen girl growing up. Like Christopher, Revis serves up the terrible with glee, and like Christopher, it is both hauntingly subtle yet at times overpowering and overt.
The Value of Choice in Across the Universe
Unlike Christopher, Revis parties in the gray areas of choice and consequences. She parties hard. Right at the beginning of the book, Amy must make a choice and ho-boy (ho-boy being a technical term), is it a doozy. When she “wakes up”, the novel is a quest for the truth. A mystery presents itself and it spirals out of control as she and Elder (a teen boy training to become a leader) come to grips with the awesome evilness of a society built on lies.
And here is where we depart our dystopian study, and how Across the Universe plays in the genre, because the book is so much more.
Ho-boy is it ever.
What is Classic Science Fiction, Anyway?
Let’s not be coy. There are certain elements of science fiction that can be called “classic” and applied to books aimed at young adults, such as Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin and to a larger extent, Cities in Flight by James Blish. I could go on and on but those are “classics” and not “dystopian” (although in Rite of Passage the main setting is not perfect by any means).
Science fiction, in essence, is more than a look in the future and the use of some thing that, if it didn’t exist, the story would come apart.
Classic science fiction holds elements of what I call The Want. The want to know. The need to know. The yearn to understand. Star Trek was up front about this: this is a story of people who want to know more.
There’s a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where the Enterprise is on a mission. On the way, they find a curious hole in space and wonder what it is. The plot is summed up like this:
“Hey, there’s this funny hole in space.”
“Not really relevent to the current mission.”
“Let’s look at it anyway. It’s kinda cool.”
That right there is classic science fiction.
Across the Universe is Classic Science Fiction
Beth Revis nails this. She sticks the yearn to know, the itch to understand, in a 10-point landing. The story takes place on a colony ship, the Godspeed, and what a brilliant story it is. There are problems with the Godspeed. Deep problems. People problems. Technology problems. Problems with simply being in space.
The colony ship is a familiar troupe, and as a science fiction setting it works: a big ship in space going from point A to point B.
Setting, though, is only a small part of it. Science fiction authors should pay close attention to the underlying thematic in this book. Revis goes so far as to place Amy, a runner, in a place where she can run, but soon she realizes there is nowhere to run to. She just isn’t metaphorically trapped by her youth and inexperience, she’s trapped by the cold, hard, reality of space. There is nothing for Amy. Labeled as “nonessential” and alone from anything familiar (including safety), she turns to the search for truth, not simply as a means for survival, but because that’s all she has left.
And oh, Ender, the boy born on the ship. How he yearns. He yearns both for knowledge and the right to know knowledge. He yearns for the stars. He also yearns for the truth.
Indeed, at one point, someone in the novel dies for the yearning. It drives him crazy because he literally is designed to know and question, but because of the dystopian society he lives in commits the cultural equivalent of the Russian Winter Mistake, his creative intellect never goes anywhere. It drives him to the edge of disrepair and beyond.
So Brutal. So full of storytelling goodness.
And Finally, Character Driven vs. Plot Driven Elements in Across the Universe
Is Across the Universe a character driven novel mercilessly targeted to teen girls, because, you know, boys don’t read and that’s what sells to girls?
Do it with me folks:
No. It is not, and a novelist wanting to write a page-turner targeted to teens should pay close attention. Revis drives the central elements of the novel by events that are both based on character motivations and actions, but also plot elements that interject themselves into the story in which Amy and Elder have to react.
That is, of course, life, and especially a poignant way of looking at the process of growing up. If a writer takes anything from Across the Universe, study how Revis does this, because she pulled it off like this was her tenth published novel, not her first.
So here we are. We have a brilliant come-of-age story in a dystopian setting with classical science fiction themes delivered by the yin-yang dance of characterization and plotting. How wonderful Across the Universe is!
While I am loath to even type the word “I” in a book review (witness the thousands of book reviews where the “reviewer” simply talks about themselves), I need to confess I had a dream about Across the Universe the night I finished reading it. I can’t even remember the last time I did that. To say the book sticks with you after you finish it would be an understatement.
Now that I have read the book, I don’t particularly like either the cover or the title. While the starry background makes sense given the way some of the characters feel about stars, both the title and cover art do not convey the wonderful, yummy mystery hidden inside. That’s just me. It’s also me that I didn’t like one of the intense scenes where I felt a different outcome would have made Amy more of a young woman many girls yearn to be.
Of course, the book was expertly written with a distinctive voice even when the viewpoints flipped back and forth between Amy and Elder. Readers will appreciate the subtle foreshadowing and the mystery-in-a-mystery plotting. Readers will also appreciate masterful world-building that never bores you, only teases you and makes you thirsty for more. All these things are the hallmarks of an excellent novel, and as a debut it was a stunning and thrilling page turner. On the Rehabilitated Hack Writer Scale of Book Goodness, I give it four slices of bacon out of five, and it is literally a genre defining book in the Young Adult market segment.