Thursday, April 28, 2011

Review: Beth Revis' Across the Universe

It’s always a pleasure to read authors who love their genres. Their books are delightful because they have an understanding born from being steeped in a certain pool of ideas. These consumed conventions act simultaneously as foundations and building blocks, allowing an author to play and create possibilities on top of something established. With Across the Universe, Beth Revis is in direct dialogue with what came before, but her passion and thoughtfulness keeps her blend of influences fresh. 

I’m having a hard time classifying AtU with an existing phrase. “Space opera” doesn’t quite cover it. Really, it’s a dystopian murder mystery set in space. Dyspacery? Whatever you want to call her book, Revis wears her influences on her spacesuit and does them justice. Showing “the bridge” on the ship’s blueprints is a tribute to Star Trek, and Amy’s number 42 cryo chamber can only be a nod to Douglas Adams. I saw shades of Joss Whedon’s Firefly in the name of Kayleigh and the positive slang “brilly,” but the correlation was strongest between the Pax and the “Phylus” drug. (Interesting note: I think Phylus comes from Phylum, which is Latin for “division.”) There are echoes of Ender’s Game and The Giver as well as direct references to Alice in Wonderland and Dante’s Inferno. I could feel all of these books ringing in my ear as I read, amplifying and deepening the story. (Not to mention the identically-titled Beatles song or Albus Dumbledore’s admonishment: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”)

Still, Revis is more than the sum of her references. She is an excellent storyteller and worldbuilder, crafting a sense of urgency and claustrophobia that underlies everything. Alternating viewpoints between Amy and Elder allowed multiples arcs to move along at a brisk clip. Working with two sets of eyes and ears and brains, Revis sustains tension without resorting to a love triangle. I liked the evolution of Amy and Elder as people and as a couple. Plus, it’s always exciting seeing your name in a book! (I was named after Amy March, but now I’m proud to share a name with this Amy too.)

Though a savvy reader can play “spot the bad guy” and come out correct, it is not at all boring to confirm these suspicions. There are loads of discoveries to be had. A large debt is owed to the spaceship Godspeed, a well-executed setting that operates within its own probable laws but also has enough details to catch the imagination.

A good dystopian always has something driving it, a question at its heart. Revis has the five Ws and one H: What is worth saving after the world ends, and where does society go afterward? Who’s going to get them there, and when will they arrive? Why did the world fall into ruin, and how do you survive after it happens? She covers all of the classics—genetic engineering, free will, inhabiting other planets, wars, economic collapse, rewritten history, religion, choice, love, knowledge—and has themes within themes. I was particularly charmed by the koi fish and by Harley, the painter who makes them his motif. I also enjoyed how creative people are made out to be crazy, when there already is that strain of thought in our society today.

Tiniest nitpick: When our slender, athletic protagonist who runs cross country and wants to run a marathon says she can barely run ten miles in two hours, I cried foul. I ran in high school and still enjoy running, but I’m more of a hoofer than a speedster. That being said, I ran 3 miles in 27 minutes at my peak. I could sustain that pace, and did, for 12 miles in around 2 hours. I bet she’d be quicker. Nitpick over.

Across the Universe wrapped up in a way that needs no sequel, but I’m glad Revis gets to write two more anyway. I’m looking forward to seeing what the future holds.

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