Running Time: 10 hours
Narrated by: Lauren Ambrose and Carlos Santos
Original Publication Year: 2011
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Young Adult, Mystery/Suspense
Series: Across the Universe, Book 1
A generation ship, the Godspeed, travels from Earth with a terra forming mission on a new planet 300 years away. People with essential skills have been recruited to travel as frozen cargo, to be awakened upon touchdown on Centauri-Earth. Among those chosen are 17 year old Amy’s two parents. So although she is considered non-essential she is also frozen and provided a berth on the ship. But these frozen folks aren’t the only residents of Godspeed. The ship is also home to almost 3000 souls who operate the ship and live and have children and die onboard.
When Amy is violently awakened from her cryosleep 50 years before the ship is meant to land she finds a confusing and alien situation on the ship. The only people that act normally are in the mental ward of the ship's hospital and everyone is under the tyrannical rule of the ship's leader called Eldest. His successor Elder is about Amy’s age and is one of the first people she encounters upon waking. They become allies in a rebellion they don’t entirely realize they’re waging.
The framework for the book is alternating chapters between Amy and Elder’s perspectives which I think is pretty effective and gives you two different perspectives of what’s happening on the ship. The plot is centered on a number of mysteries and ethical questions raised by the unique situation. Very little on the ship is what it seems. As happened to Amy, someone is waking the cryo-sleepers too early seemingly with the intent of killing them (two die and a few others are rescued). Who is doing this and why? Why does everyone on Godspeed act almost mindless and without independence? Who is Elder exactly and why is Eldest so reluctant to teach him what he must know to succeed him? Who is the mysterious Orion who pops up from time to time? Is there ever a time when tyranny is okay? Is it ever okay to lie? Can people really live generations in a closed ship in space without going mad?
I am of two minds about this book which is a state I frequently find myself in when reading Young Adult fiction. I think the unhappy part of my reaction usually has to do with the protagonists who are usually teenagers. Because the primary audience for young adult books is teenagers the teenage protagonists are often validated in their actions and thoughts. Now I’ve been a teenager and I look back at being that age and I realize how completely ignorant and clueless I was about life and the world. For most teenagers, I think the world is a much more black and white place and the complexity of gray that comes with more experience and age is unrecognized. So when a teenage character is screeching about the black or the white of a situation when it is very clearly gray and yet the character is validated to a degree that their screechiness leads to some leadership position which no teenager ever should ever be given…well it irritates a bit. I do realize the most fool proof solution to my irritation is to stop reading YA but apparently I prefer reading it and then being persnickety. Sorry.
So the biggest offender amongst the protagonists of this book is Amy. From the moment she awakes she does nothing but screech at people about everything. She is indignant about everything, immediately and without reflection. Yes the stuff going down on the ship is extremely sketchy but she is holier than thou practically from moment one and is convinced (and validated) after only like 4 days on the ship that everything must change though we see her giving no thought ever to the complications or implications of her brave new world on the ship. And she calls her father Daddy. I know that is a convention in some families but for me it made her seem younger and more infantile than she was and I trusted her “leadership” less and less.
Elder is more bearable. While he has some very teenage qualities he is also more thoughtful and introspective about the situation on the ship. He more fully sees that the system put into place since the plague isn’t right, he also understands why it was done. The sorts of moral dilemmas he contemplates are much more interesting though I can see that the book needed the screeching Amy character to trigger and move things along. But might it not have been more interesting to see Elder come to the point of revolution on his own with perhaps some help from his friends on the mental ward? I’m not sure but he was definitely the more interesting characters then his counterpart Amy.
There were lots of elements that I thought were done really well. There was a lot to unravel and even though I guessed a number of things early it was still interesting to see how they played out. The true nature of Orion, even though I knew who he was almost from moment one, was a surprise. Eldest was an interesting character that in the end was painted as power hungry and corrupt, however some of the behavior we see from him indicate that he is a grayer character - that there is some struggle and torment. I think there is great potential for the future books.
A couple of nitpicks: 1) the shippers, or the scientists and engineers on the ship were not even touched on, I suspect because it would have been hard to fit them into the author's vision of the ship of mindless drones – it’s hard to suck out independent thought from people whose job it is to think and 2) it was a little unbelievable that Eldest would take zero to less than zero interest in protection of the cryo-sleepers once the murders begin. He takes no steps to safeguard them, leaving it conveniently to Elder, Amy and Harley to do an almost 100% ineffective job at guarding the cryo- area.
Finally, the narrators were okay. Lauren Ambrose had a little bit more flair with the reading but Amy was written sort of odd and whiny so it was hard to make her terribly convincing. I think Carlos Santos was a little deadpan in his reading but it wasn’t overly bothersome and I got used to him quickly. Both of them sounded convincingly like teenagers.