Amy and her parents are frozen cargo aboard a generation ship bound for Centauri-Earth. In 350 years they will be awakened to build humanity’s first colony on a new planet. 300 years into the voyage, the crew — many generations born and raised and died on the ship — are led by a series of tyrannical rulers known as Eldest. The first Eldest took control after “the Plague,” and there have been so many generations since that no one knows anything about the ship beyond what Eldest tells them, which ain’t much. Elder, the successor-in-training, is exploring forbidden parts of the ship when he discovers Amy and the rest of the frozen colonists. Then there’s a mistake, and Amy is unplugged 50 years too soon. There’s no putting her back. How will she fit into the ship’s regimented world?
In many ways, this is fairly standard dystopian fiction: the closed society, the despotic leader, the mind control. There’s some typical preachy Big Brother talk (“religion is the opiate” etc., “difference sows discord,” yadda). It is a quite successful example of the genre; I felt trapped in the claustrophobia of the ship under Eldest’s restrictions, and by being kept as in the dark as the characters are. Of course there has to be a romance, but it takes an appropriate back seat.
As in the best dystopias, there are some big revelations that make the original Eldest’s seizure of power seem possibly sensible. Unfortunately, the resolution of these issues is way too easy. It’s a YA SF convention to have the teenagers resolve not just their personal problems but the world’s problems. Sometimes that’s plausible, but in this case… I have my doubts. The reason we don’t actually put teenagers in charge of everything is that they don’t have the experience to think through all the implications, or to temper idealism with a touch of healthy misanthropy. Overall, though, this is pretty solid science fiction.
It is also one of the most crushing tragedies I’ve read in a long time, to the point where I’m not really able to be objective about the rest of it. Amy left her entire life behind, the adult she would grow up to be on Earth, so that she could be with her parents as they fulfilled their lifelong dream of starting a new colony. But she’s awakened 50 years too soon; by the time she sees them again (not to mention land and sky), she’ll be an old woman.
How do you reframe your life after a devastating loss? How do you get to a place where your life has meaning and joy again? How do you come to believe that what will happen next is worth waiting to see? This book is very much about waiting, and different characters have very different responses to it — Amy, Elder, Eldest, the still-frozen colonists, the whole ship. A lot of time has to pass between now and the goal that means the world to you (in this case literally); how do you cross that bridge of time?
(I’ve been thinking about all of these questions a lot lately because of some stuff going on in my own life, so when I finished the book a few weeks ago it was either the perfect time or the wrong time. Either way, it completely wrecked me.)