For readers of young adult fiction, whether you’re a teenager yourself or just like the genre, there have never been more choices. Dystopian YA fiction is a particularly trendy category these days. Science fiction writers have always imagined dystopias, or futuristic societies ruled by oppressive governments, where the freedoms we enjoy today have vanished. Recent series, such as Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Scott Westerfield’s Uglies, have brought the concept to a younger audience.
Across the Universe by Beth Revis also presents a dystopia, but with a twist. This oppressive society is located not on Earth, but on a spaceship called Godspeed, which is ferrying colonists to their new home orbiting another star. When the story opens, 16-year-old Amy is watching her parents become frozen for the journey, a torturous process. Her father gives her a choice of either staying on Earth or coming with them, asleep for hundreds of years. Amy chooses to brave the painful procedure.
The next voice that takes up the narration belongs to Elder, another 16-year old. He is slated to become the next leader of Godspeed. While Amy has been sleeping, generations of people have been born and lived out their lives in the confined world of the spaceship, performing the thousands of tasks necessary to keep Godspeed on course toward its faraway destination. Elder and the other workers aren’t even aware of the frozen colonists in the hold below where they live — until Elder stumbles upon this secret just in time to rescue Amy, who has been mysteriously awakened.
Amy finds that the society on Godspeed is very different from the one she knew on Earth. The workers, who have come to look alike over the generations, treat her with suspicion and hostility because of her conspicuous red hair. Amy soon notices that the workers all behave alike too, and those who don’t — people who are creative or artistic — are confined to a hospital and kept on drugs. She instantly dislikes this “new world order” and wonders why Elder, as the next leader, doesn’t do more to change it.
Across the Universe is a murder mystery as well. Someone — perhaps the same person who unfroze Amy — is murdering the colonists as they sleep. Amy, worried that her parents may become the next victims, teams up with Elder to discover who the killer is. Together, they uncover the ship’s many sinister secrets as they try to solve the murders.
This fresh novel has a lot going for it. The spaceship setting helps it stand out from the crowded pack of YA novels. The murder-mystery plot adds suspense, culminating in several twists at the climax. The dystopian society on Godspeed, and the question of whether Elder and Amy should try to change it, adds moral complexity to the theme. And, of course, romance is budding between Elder and Amy, although this love connection seemed forced at times. But they have no other options — everyone else is either much older or much younger than the two of them — which makes even their young love another strange side effect of the confined shipboard society.
Across the Universe is a fast-paced page turner, composed of short, snappy chapters that alternate between Amy’s and Elder’s points of view. Although it is the first installment in a planned series, Across the Universe is also a satisfying standalone read, with a tidy conclusion. Parents should note that there are some graphic scenes depicting sex and even an attempted rape that, while germane to the plot, may not be appropriate for younger readers.
Across the Universe does a good job of depicting what it must be like to be trapped on a spaceship, with no one to help you but yourself. I hope it inspires teens to read more science fiction.