Saturday, January 19, 2013

Recent Reading - Review(ish) of Beth Revis' *Across the Universe* trilogy

I met Beth Revis when she came to the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival this fall and since I'm a closet sci-fi lover (always have been), I picked up the first of her books and got it signed. However, I loaned it to my father, the reason I'm a sci-fi reader in the first place, before I had a chance to read it myself. He especially likes sci-fi written by women with strong female characters. So, it wasn't until I went to visit my parents this Christmas that I got the book back and read it.

The absolute best way to read a trilogy? Start with book one (Across the Universe) less than a month before the third book's (Shades of Earth) release date! (I did this with the Hunger Games series too.) The book ends with a cliff-hanger? Fine. I'll pick up (or download onto my Nook) the next one.

Here's what I liked about the series...

As with any YA book or series, the main characters are teens (naturally) and, as protagonists, must act and drive the plot with their choices. They (and others) must suffer the consequences of these choices and learn from them. But the teens/children must be the actors. So many YA books take place in (boarding) schools, or in like-age grouped arenas, or authors choose orphaned/abandoned protagonists because there is this pesky problems in real life of adults being in charge, and that undermines the protagonist's ability to act independently. As a parent, I am not keen on the parents-being-killed-off method of solving this plot problem. I admire what Revis does in the first novel that keeps this same formula, yet keeps the parents alive: they're frozen. They're as good as dead, but they're not, freeing Amy to make decisions on her own. Elder, though, doesn't have parents. This many seem to follow the more traditional formula, but Amy and Elder are the youngest people on the ship. Here Revis puts them right back into the situation she just avoided by not having parents present. It's a nice twist.

Amy is clearly the main character despite chapters written from alternating points of view.  Even though Elder is the one who will eventually become the leader of this ship, it is interesting to note that she is not merely his "side-kick" nor is he hers.  For being the youngest ones on the ship, though, they are forced to make some heavy decisions for themselves and for everyone else.

There is a nice tension in book two between normal/abnormal, people's roles in life, where dreamers and artists belong in society, the importance of hiding and revealing information, leadership... Revis does not delve deeply into the many big issues her books touch upon (especially A Million Suns), but she does raise many good questions that are worth discussing.  I became particularly interested in the role that singular and collective dreams make in the direction a society takes.  Partially because so many of us right now are dreaming of a society free from gun violence, free from hunger and poverty... one where we trust that the government is being transparent and caring for all its people without lies, half and hidden truths.  So, in the three days I had to wait for book three to release, I read the play Comic Potential by Alan Ayckbourn. This quote (from a "robot" or actoid) jumped out at me, because it fit so nicely the choice Amy and Elder have to make at the end of the second book.  Further, because my mind works this way, I couldn't get the idea of the koi fish swimming through a field of stars.  That too seemed to visually sum up A Million Suns  for me.  Here's the result.

One of the true gifts of sci-fi is there are truths about our current existence that can only be highlighted by the audacity of circumstances presented in the fantastical.

But onto the recently released Shades of Earth and back to my original point.  Amy's parents wake up in book three.  (This is not a big spoiler, we all knew it was coming from the first chapter of book one.)  Once again, Revis turns the convention on its head.  She effectively removes the overarching parental influence from the first two books and we see Amy move abruptly into adulthood in many ways.. then, boom, her parents return.  The autonomy that scared her so much is now the rug jerked from under her feet.

What we see now is the difficult situation I believe many parents and teens feel.  Amy and her parents clearly love each other and are relieved/delighted to see each other again.  But there is the inevitable tension.  Who knows what is best for whom? Amy has had to make difficult and important decisions in their frozen absence, and they don't know about it or value it.  Teens today also have to make big decisions for themselves (especially when parental figures are absent) that their parents may also not know about -- or know to value.  In this way, Revis gets it right and real.  How much better would things have gone if Amy's father had trusted Amy and Elder as competent leaders?  How much better if he himself had been a trustworthy leader... As a mother staring down the barrel at soon-to-be-teenaged children, this is a "note-to-self."  Trust, honesty and transparency are vital in this relay-race where I will have to hand over the baton.

Another thing I appreciate so much about the Across the Universe trilogy was the change of landscapes.  So often in sci-fi, I feel the author spends so much time creating her universe that she gets stuck there, even when the dynamic plot has run its course.  Book after book unfold in the same "universe" just because the author is compelled to let us in on the back story, history, continents she invented, but the plots of the previous books didn't land upon et cetera ad nauseam.  Not so in this case.  We start on the confines of the ship Godspeed, but the third book brings an entirely new landscape, an entirely new universe that isn't what we'd been led to believe it was.  Now, will I be upset if Revis returns to Centauri-Earth for another trilogy and the inevitable clash with Fed-Ex?  Not in the least. 

Stay tuned for my mash-up of thoughts on The Elegance of Hedgehogs by Muriel Barbery, Deathless by Catherynne Valente, and A New Kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren.  Yes, all in one post.

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