13 April 2013


Locus Focus: Take Eighty-Eight!

We are at the most auspicious post we will ever have! Chinese numerology says so! =P Our only hope of toping this is to get to a Take Eight Hundred Eighty-Eight, but even I am not that crazily ambitious. (In fact, I've been thinking about retiring Locus Focus after Take Ninety-Nine . . . but I'm not  absolutely certain yet, so I'm throwing that out to be a tease.)

Our April theme is In Space, No One Can Hear You Blog, and last week I featured a space setting from a great SF classic, which is as timeless as it is dated. This week, I take my setting from a book which I predict will be out of print in about twenty years.

Across the Universe
by Beth Revis

. . . When Eldest looked at Godspeed, as I'm looking at it now, he saw the same things I see: an interior of a ship modeled like a county in Sol-Earth's America, but in miniature, trapped in a round bubble of ship walls. A city piled on one side, with neat, orderly streets laid out in a careful grid, the center of each block stacked with box trailers that served as homes and workplaces for trade. One block for weavers . . . One block for dyers, one for spinners, one for tailors. Three blocks for food preservation: canners and dryers and freezers. Two blocks for butchers. Four blocks to the house the scientists and Shippers who work on the level above this one. Each family, gen after gen, born and raised to work until death in the same block of the same city on the same ship.

When Eldest posed for his painting here, did he think of this? Did he look at the City and marvel at its smooth efficiency, its careful construction, its consistent productivity?

Or did he see it as I do: people boxed in trailers that are boxed in city blocks that are boxed in districts that are boxed in a ship, surrounded by metal walls?

If you've read my Reading Diary entry for Beth Revis's Across the Universe, you may be wondering why it's getting its own Locus Focus post. The reason is that there was one thing I left out of it that I was really passionate about, but which didn't fit the rest of the post.

The first thing that struck me about the ship Godspeed is how much it has in common with earth. It practically is another earth, inasmuch as both are self-sufficient worlds floating in the vastness of space, whose inhabitants are as unsure of the future as they certain they are right on course. So I initially found the two protagonists' sense of claustrophobia to be ridiculous. Yes, one character who grew up on earth is used to having more space to run . . . but didn't she always come home to a tiny box of a house at the end of the day? What she is missing isn't freedom as much as a heady illusion of freedom. Real freedom is not merely wide enough space between walls. Real freedom is . . . flourishing.

On the other hand, no one can really flourish in a dystopia, either. And when we find out, later in the novel, what the source of the orderliness of Godspeed is, we can give the earthling character points for intuition as well as for culture shock. In a truly free world, people don't live in such neat little boxes.

Space-set SF is a great vehicle for satire: even characters who aren't extraterrestrials are assumed to have a "better" perspective of earth, by virtue of being far away from it. But not every SF writer has an imagination powerful enough to achieve the same distance. Revis's Godspeed doesn't even seem to be a projection of an American county of the future; it's quite clearly a collage made out of a cut-up carbon copy of a county of today. And while I acknowledge the possibility that some geographical situations may rival the Bermuda Triangle when it comes to sucking out the human spirit, the idea that happiness is a distant destination does not impress me.

Flourishing is blooming where you've been planted, and it's a bit disappointing that a novel which should dare to say that this is possible even in the darkest corners of outer space should be so small-minded when it comes to immediate space.

Question of the Week: If you had to design a space ark for thousands of passengers--crew and their families--all of whom would spend their entire lives on board, what is the one thing you would be sure to include?

Image Source: Across the Universe by Beth Revis


Sheila said...

You know what I'm going to say, right?

A garden, obviously. On a space ark you might get the impression that everything was totally controlled, that it's all within our power to manage. A garden is by nature unmanageable. Results are unpredictable. And even when results are good, you can't help but notice that *you* did not create anything. All you did was allow something to be created.

I'd wager a guess that there aren't many atheist farmers. The first farmers probably invented a ton of "religious" rituals that were really just a stab at figuring out what, of the many things they did, caused a crop to grow. But even now, when there are both scientific and theological explanations that are perfectly adequate, I find myself flabbergasted when I check my garden and see living things where I planted only lifeless specks.

Oh, and of course the people will need to eat. LOL.

As far as freedom and blooming where you're planted ... I think that physical location doesn't make you free, or prevent it. But unless there's some sort of freedom about the way you choose to live your life -- to put your own unique stamp on it that *by its nature* is going to ruin the orderliness of a planned society -- you'll never be able to flourish.

I was reading recently about an Iron Age village in Poland that's been found preserved in a bog. Every house is exactly identical, and they stand in neat rows. This is taken by the archeologists as solid proof of a strict government. Why? Because on their own, people *never* choose to build everything alike. If you give people freedom, they will *never* use it all the way you want, or even use it for good 100% of the time.

Which is something God knew when he gave us free will. He gave up perfection for that. Kinda makes you think.

A bit off-topic though, sorry.

Sheila said...

Actually, now that I think about it, it is kind of on-topic. People are like plants. They are never, ever completely within your control. But that can be a good thing.

Enbrethiliel said...


Actually, Godspeed has an agricultural sector--one which is, from what I gather, as efficiently regulated as its other aspects. Factoring in your posts about gardening (and my current adventures!), I wonder how much experience Beth Revis has had with growing her own food, because she makes it so easy for Godspeed. (Or perhaps she gets that it's messy but needs us to suspend disbelief here, like the gracious readers we are! =P)

There are a few characters who seem to be free. Since you will likely never read this novel, I hope it's okay for me to spoil this bit for you! The ship's leader has most of the population under control thanks to drugs in the water supply. But a few select candidates--those who show scientific aptitude or artistic promise--are given medicines that counteract the effects of the drugs in the water. So they get to be normal . . . but they also have to live in the ship's "hospital." And no, they aren't significantly freer than everyone else. The environment is that controlled.

But I don't think Revis is trying to make the same point you are about control vs. freedom, if only because the form the rebellion takes is so adolescent. Quite literally so. While it's true that the society is designed to take away people's freedom, it's also undeniable that the heroes leading the revolution are brats. Sigh!

DMS said...

What a fascinating post. I haven't read this book yet, but it has been on my list for ages.

I would definitely include a garden (food, soothing, etc.). A library would be a good addition because books help us pass the time and inspire us (plus, I love to read- and would want to have a place to go and read or to get more books).

I guess I still need to think more about this ship I am building- but I have a start.

Enbrethiliel said...


Thank you, Jess! =)

Godspeed also has a library, but its books--like its food supply--have been a bit "modified." ;-) But then again, when has a Dystopia ever been truly friendly to books?

I'd rather be on your ship than on this ship, any day! =)