Reading Diary: Across the Universe by Beth Revis
"Who are you?" I say loudly. For the first time since I woke from my centuries-long slumber, my voice does not crack. They must have done something to my throat. A dull, throbbing ache fills my body.
The boy jumps, a look of guilt or wariness on his face when his eyes focus on me. He looks around as if he's surprised I'm talking to him, but he's the only other person in the room.
"I'm uh . . . I'm Elder. I'm the future, um, leader. Of the ship. Um." He stands up, but I don't, so he sits down again awkwardly.
Future leader of the ship? Why does the ship need a future leader?
Last year, when I told a friend that I was reading Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games, he couldn't believe I had made it past the first chapter. Collins's prose was so awful, he told me, that the pain of it stopped him whenever he tried to go on. I honestly never developed that problem at any point during my reading of The Hunger Games trilogy; but I had cause to think of it last weekend when the very first page of Across the Universe all but tossed acid-spiked sand in my eyes.
So Beth Revis isn't an amazing prose stylist. How many of us are? I tried to set my aversion aside and to be as fair to the story as possible. After all, it did grow from an interesting "What if?" scenario: the nightmarish, claustrophobic idea that you are trapped in a huge box flying through space, where everything is strictly regulated, from your everyday tasks to the nutrients in your food . . . a concept also known as high school. ;-) Or to certain types, the suburbs. =P And to the supremely bored and entitled, the earth itself. LOL!
Across the Universe is the type of novel that is more fun to read when you're not planning a review at the end of it, but a deconstruction. So let's continue with something else that happens after one of Revis's narrators wakes up from several centuries of cryonic sleep . . .
"Hello," I say, hating the quaver in my voice.
"What are you?" one of them, a man, asks. Not who. What.
"I--I'm Amy. I, uh, live here now. Not here, I mean, at the Hospital." I point to the white building in the distance behind me, but I don't feel comfortable turning my back to them.
"What's wrong with you?" the man asks. A few of the others nod, encouraging him to ask what they're all thinking.
Goose bumps prickle under my cold sweat. I stare at them. They stare at me. I have never felt more different, more of a freak--more alone--than now. I bite my lip. These people are nothing like Elder. Elder may stare at my skin and hair, but he's not staring out of fear. He didn't look at me like I'm a sideshow.
I'm actually a little disgusted by the way Amy just assumes there is something wrong with everyone else on the ship. It doesn't at all occur to her that while she is noticing the way everyone is gaping at her, she herself is gaping at them. So stung is she that they think she is a freak that she spends the rest of the novel pointing out, in unforgiving detail, how they are the real freaks. (Keep it classy, Amy!)
It's also possible, however, that this may mean some depth for her character. What if her perception is completely skewed because is unconsciously projecting her own uncomfortable feelings onto everyone else? (Ooooooh!) Even if this were true, however, we can't give Revis any credit for creating such a complex character. Amy is no more and no less than your typical modern YA heroine: a character who gets to be right without having to earn it.
So now that we know Sideshow Amy, what of Elder, the other narrator of this novel?
. . . I know--I know--on the other side of that door is my chance. When Eldest was called to the Shipper Level to inspect the engine, he rushed to his chamber for a box, went all the way to the hatch, then turned around and took the box back to his room. And locked the door before he left. Clearly, whatever is in that box is important and has something to do with the ship, something that I, as leader-in-training, should know about.
It's just one more thing Eldest is keeping from me. Because stars forbid he'd actually train me instead of giving me more mindless lessons and reports.
If I had that box, I'd prove to him I could . . . what? I don't actually know what's in there. But I do know that whatever it is has been making him spend more time on the Shipper Level. There's a serious problem going on, something that's kept Eldest more preoccupied than I've ever seen him before.
And if they would just give me a frexing chance, maybe I could help.
It was bad enough that Amy reminded me of Luce from Fallen by Lauren Kate (See my Reading Diary entry and weep!). But then Elder had to go and remind me of Emo Harry from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling. (There's a Reading Diary entry for that, too!)
If you've been reading this blog for a while, then you know that I really can't stand characters who are special just because they're special. Especially because the moral of their stories is usually, "Special people need special treatment."
Accordingly, the catch is that Elder also gets to be right without having to earn it. Inasmuch as he was born to be the future leader of the ship, he is special; and inasmuch as the welfare of thousands of people will rest on his shoulders, he needs special
In Across the Universe, we see that most clearly in the choice of historical sound bytes, such as this dandy bit from Elder: "Eldest [the current leader of the ship] has always taught me that Hitler was a wise, cultured leader for his people."
Excuse me while I--Bwahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!
The fastest way to establish that someone is a villain is to rubber-stamp his character with the most obvious tropes possible. Eldest once said something positive about Adolf Hitler? STAMP! Eldest does not believe in societies that are diverse, democratic and free? STAMP! Eldest speaks to the heroine in a way she doesn't like? STAMP! STAMP! STAMP! STAMP! STAMP! It's quick and dirty, all right--but if you look closely enough, you'll see that your reaction to Eldest tells you more about yourself than about him. And what you just might learn about yourself is that you have a two-dimensional understanding of villainy and learned nothing in History class except how to earn As by parroting what the propagandist at the blackboard said to you. Congratulations.
I could go on all day, but I feel like wrapping it up now, so let me do that . . .
In a nutshell, the problem with Beth Revis's Across the Universe is that she wanted to write an epic SF fantasy that two totally inadequate narrators would be able to carry . . . and she succeeded.
Image Source: Across the Universe by Beth Revis