Across the Universe, Beth Revis’s debut young adult novel, is the story of the first ship that sets out from Earth to colonize a planet around another star system. Told from the perspectives of two characters, Amy and Elder, the story combines science fiction with mystery, romance, and dystopia.
The story begins with Amy as she watches her parents undergo a terrifying and painful cryogenic freezing process. It has been their lifelong dream to join the first interstellar mission though space, and now they are going on a 300-year voyage to a new planet, Centauri-Earth. Amy’s mother, a botanist, will help to terraform the new world, and her father, a member of the military, will take part in the mission’s leadership. Amy has promised to come with them, but just before her father is frozen, he tells her that she does not have to keep this promise; she can choose to stay on Earth if she would rather do so. When he is locked in ice, Amy decides to go. Although she will miss her friends and her boyfriend, who will all be dead by the time she wakes up, she allows herself to be frozen and loaded onto the ship.
In Chapter 2, the narrative jumps to Elder, a sixteen-year-old boy who will be the next leader of the generation ship Godspeed. At first, Godspeed is hard to recognize as the same ship that carries Amy. Elder is concerned with the living, unfrozen people who keep the ship running and produce food to keep themselves alive on the voyage to Centauri-Earth. He is also concerned with his teacher, the ship’s current leader, Eldest.
Eldest acts like a kind, grandfatherly man in the presence of his people. However, he is angry and cold-hearted in private. Eldest is suspicious of Elder, constantly accusing the boy of being unfit to lead. This is partly because there was another Elder before the current one. That former Elder rebelled against Eldest’s leadership and ended up dying under mysterious circumstances.
When readers first meet Elder, he is angry. Eldest keeps many secrets about the ship, and Elder does not feel he is learning enough about the leadership role he will soon adopt. In a fit of rebellion, Elder presses a mysterious button, and a retracting cover reveals a window. Elder has spent his whole life confined within the metal walls of the ship, and he is amazed at the beauty of the stars outside. Then a crack appears in the center of the window. Elder panics, believing the ship is about to be opened to space. He throws a switch to seal off the top level of the ship, Keeper Level, from the densely populated Shipper and Feeder Levels below. Shortly afterward, he realizes there is no real danger. The “window” is just a screen, and the "stars" are just little light bulbs.
When Eldest finds out that Elder has seen the “window” screen, he is furious at first—but then he realizes that Elder was planning to sacrifice himself in order to save the people below. Eldest says then that Elder has shown true leadership, even if he was interfering with things he should not have touched. He refuses to explain why the screen exists, telling Elder that it is for the people. Elder does not understand; he and Eldest are the only people allowed on the Keeper Level.
Eldest teaches Elder a lesson about leadership. He focuses on maintaining peace and preventing mutiny. Eldest maintains that only a society without discord can survive all the way to Centauri-Earth, where they will land in 50 more years. According to Eldest, the causes of discord are difference, lack of a strong central leader, and individual thought. To keep the peace, Eldest maintains a submissive, monoethnic population with himself as the central decision-maker. Eldest constantly reminds Elder that he, too, will have to assume this central role in the future.
One day, Elder is in the Resource Center, a library of sorts on the Feeder Level, when a strange worker named Orion mentions that the ship has a fourth level Elder does not yet know about. Curious, Elder goes to this extra level and finds a huge, open room full of small doors. He opens a door and finds a coffin-like box containing a frozen girl. Elder has the monoethnic brown skin common to all of the people who currently live on Godspeed, but the girl is Caucasian with red hair. He finds her beautiful and fascinating, but he does not get to look at her long. He is soon discovered by Doc, the ship’s doctor, who reports Elder’s discovery to Eldest. In the argument that follows, Elder demands to know why the ship has a whole level full of frozen people, but both men refuse to explain.
Shortly after this, somebody unplugs the girl—Amy—and allows her to thaw. She almost dies, but with Elder’s help, Doc manages to save her. Amy cannot be refrozen because the process is too likely to kill her. Amy soon learns that by the time her parents wake up, she will be older than they are. She is devastated.
Amy finds life on Godspeed claustrophobic and confusing. She is constantly upset by the placid, emotionless way most people behave. The only people who seem normal to her are Elder and those who live in the hospital’s mental ward. Strangely, all of them, including Elder, insist that they are crazy. They all take mental drugs called Inhibitors to curb their strong impulses.
The age distribution on the ship seems strange to Amy, too. Nearly everyone on the ship is 20, 40, or 60 years old. A new generation is born...
(The entire section is 2220 words.)