The problem isn’t teenagers in love; the problem is that adult writers who should know better can’t admit the absurdity of a 16 year-old saying “I want to be with you forever.” Beth Revis’ debut novel, Across The Universe, has some interesting ideas, combining a hodgepodge of classic science-fiction tropes into one plot, and throwing everything into a giant spaceship on a mission to a distant planet. By splitting the narrative between two first-person perspectives, Revis dodges a lot of the self-absorption that tends to come with adolescent narratives, and some of her threads show a fair bit of promise. Unfortunately, none of those threads ever come together, as so much of the book is spent wallowing in its heroes’ fawning.
This would be a lot less frustrating if Universe didn’t come so close to being interesting. A 16-year-old named Amy is frozen into cryogenic stasis along with her parents, for a 300-year trip on the galaxy-traveling Godspeed. Centuries later, another 16-year-old, a boy called Elder, is struggling aboard the Godspeed to learn the proper ways of leadership from Eldest, who runs the ship’s conscious human population with an iron hand. Something goes wrong, and Amy is unfrozen before her time. Worse, other sleepers are thawed as well, and die in the process. It’s up to Elder to uncover the lies he’s spent a lifetime learning, while Amy has to find out who’s killing the ship’s cargo of human popsicles, before her parents number among the victims.
There’s a lot to unpack here, from the mini-world of the Godspeed itself to the effect enforced culture and claustrophobia have on the ship’s population. Most of Revis’ ideas are cribbed from dystopian classics like Brave New World, but they’re put to good use when they’re used at all. There’s an exciting story to be told about the compromises made for the sake of safety, but it’s shortchanged in favor of a lot of overheated slop between two characters who are never given much chance to develop. Both are petulant and selfish, and while neither trait is unrealistic, their lack of depth makes them a distraction from an environment that’s never as fully realized as it should be. It doesn’t help that Revis’ prose is at its most floridly unconvincing when dealing in matters of the heart. Universe gains some momentum as it goes, and the romantic elements could be worse. But it spends too much time lost in its protagonists’ starry eyes.