Monday, February 20, 2017

Phandemonium- Across the Universe

This last Saturday, I made it out to Capricon for the first time—along with Windycon, one of Chicagoland's only regular SF conventions. Capricon is run by Phandemonium (or perhaps vice versa?), a book club I've occasionally been able to join, and at the con I dropped in for their discussion of Guest of Honor Beth Revis's first novel, Across the Universe (2011).

Across the Universe takes place aboard a generation starship (with a load of cryogenically-frozen passengers). It alternates between two viewpoints: Amy, the daughter of two of the cryo-stored specialists, who is unexpectedly awoken hundreds of years into the journey, and Elder, a member of the generational crew who is being trained to be their next leader. Looking to solve the mystery of who is murdering frozen passengers, the two discover a web of lies and deception aboard the ship.

Good discussion! Notes and probable spoilers below:

Maybe the first thing we should put out there is that this is YA as heck, going along with Capricon's theme this year. For me, at least—I don't read a ton of YA—that kind of puts an odd modulator on critique, but I didn't find it too off-putting.

We started the discussion by putting Across the Universe in the context of the "cryo/generation starship" sub-genre or trope, which is quite well established at this point. Explicit comparisons made to Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky (1941), the 1973 television show The Starlost (which is available online, though not *actually* recommended by the group) and the recent film Passengers (2016). Much discussion of Across the Universe re: Passengers, as they have a lot of points of congruence. Most of us hadn't seen Passengers due to its critical reception (rape normalization pitched as rom-com), and those who had confirmed that it's really quite terrible. "I hear Stockholm is lovely this time of year", as someone summarized the "happy ending" of Passengers. We also noted that Heinlein's generation ship-story is among the more wince-inducingly sexist of his oeuvre.

I'm not sure we even mentioned Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora (2015), but I found myself reflecting on it quite a bit relative to Across the Universe—being a kind of thorough destruction of "space travel is easy" tropes, but looking at deeper issues than interpersonal/social crises. Anytime Aurora comes up, by the way, I must mention the excellence of "The Hard Problem", the audiodrama project of one of its chapters.

We had major issues with a lot of the science, specifically the basic physics/celestial mechanics. At this point, it's like one of the *SF Cardinal Sins of Spaceflight*: acceleration and speed are two different things. When your engine stops (or slows down) in a frictionless environment, your ship doesn't stop or slow down. In a related quibble, if you want realism in your spacecraft, you need to think about gravity: the Godspeed isn't relying on acceleration to keep things on the floor (it's set up with the kind of sigh-inducing naval setup we can't seem to get away from), isn't spinning for centripetal pseudo-gravity (the main farming environment is a flat plane), and yet the novel seems to imply that the ship didn't have artificial gravity when designed/launched (there is an artificial gravity system used for personnel transport, but it was invented en route). All of these could be waved away (by most readers) as just kind of typical, non-story-relevant science fails...except that a big part of this novel centers on our plucky teens figuring out THE TRUTH of their situation, which means we as readers actually need the underlying mechanics to work, physically, in order for us to deduce anything usefully from the clues.
Ship image from the book's official website.
Hard SF is not what it's going for.
*Apparently*, this problem is exacerbated (or excused, depending on your viewpoint) by the sequels, in which revelations are made that throw out everything we learn in book one. The sequels sound kinda bonkers, to be honest, although we were assured by those who read them that they're fun.

We also had a bit of a plot-problem with the Orion identity "reveal"—it's painfully obvious who he is the entire time, and it's beyond credible that no-one would have noticed that for more than a decade, especially given that the ship's population is very small. Otherwise, we didn't have a lot of major plot complaints, with the exception that Elder is revealed to be an unreliable narrator on practically the last page—which kinds of throws our opinion of him askew. We liked the early characterization of Elder as willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the ship—"Steve Rogers jumps on the grenade moment"—so that reveal at the end is a weird moment. Not quite in Passengers-creepy territory, but definitely changes the dynamic.

Lots to talk about with sex and body issues here. We weren't sure what to make of how the near-rape is handled here: it immediately throws Amy into this child-like role, clutching her teddy bear, but then moves on from it very quickly. Even more disturbing, perhaps, considering this is YA, is how incredibly negative gynecological exams are presented—almost more traumatic than the sexual violence, which is not the message we'd ideally like teens to be getting. There's also just a great deal of body negativity—Amy is incredibly horrified by nudity, to the point that it changed how I viewed her character & the believability of the story. Also noted that there's a really deep conflation between what makes Amy uncomfortable and what's morally right here—it may be the case that a lot of the practices of the generation crew are ethically wrong, or unsustainable practically—but the primary *reasons* the novel gives is that they're gross from Amy's perspective.

This reminded me a lot of an odd thing I've noticed on rereading Brave New World (1932)—it mostly only works as a dystopia if you are grossed out by reproductive technology. This led into us talking about Across the Universe qua dystopia, and why so many modern dystopias require a "population crash" event as their starting point. (We noted that 1984 [1948] does not.) We quickly talked through a pretty good list of utopias & dystopias, touching on world-building techniques & stylistic weakpoints: Moore's Utopia (1516), Erewhon (1872) & Looking Backward (1888), Skinner's Walden II (1948), Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974), and Brunner's excellent (and often-overlooked) Stand on Zanzibar (1969) & The Sheep Look Up (1972).

Other little things we commented on:
  • We like the possible Easter egg that Amy's cryochamber is #42.
  • Kept mishearing "Eldest" as "Elvis", which tied in to our brief discussion of the Weekly World News.
  • Noted the near-future starting point (2036) and Amy's references to Post-Its and Hot Pockets.
  • Brief discussion of the brief, alternating viewpoint chapters & present-tense style. Not bad; not really sure what it accomplished as a stylistic choice. (Had me thinking of Gibson's The Peripheral [2014], which uses a similar chapter approach for a more discernible effect. See Chicago Nerds discussion notes for a bit of that.) Also noted that early on, before the timelines sync up, it seems possible that the two storylines are more separate.
  • Cryogenic mechanics, turkey re-freezing metaphors, and wondering how they cleaned out the cryopassengers of any potentially-disastrous pathogens.
  • "Frex" as both the cuss-word stand-in and the acronym for the giant corporation thingy (FRX).
  • Noted the Beatles-referencing title and that the novel is not to be confused with Julie Taymor's 2007 film. Also that from a astronomical perspective it's a bit misleading, since the Centauris are like, right next door. That in turn led me to quote one of my favorite e.e. cummings poems, though, so there's that.
  • Noted a strong parallel between the Phydus drug and the Reaver-producing "Pax" of Firefly/Serenity (2002/5).
Good discussion! In March, Phandemonium is discussing "The Humanoids" (1949) by Jack Williamson. March 19th, probably at 5pm, Cosi in Evanston, but check the Goat Droppings blog for possible changes.

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