Monday, August 11, 2014

Divergent (Divergent #1) by Veronica Roth

The city is divided among five factions: the selfless Abnegation, the brave Dauntless, the intellectual Erudite, the compassionate Amity and the honest Candor. Every child chooses their faction at the age of 16 after being guided by their test which shows where their tendency lies.

Abnegation-born Tris’s test was inconclusive. She has the traits of more than one faction; she is a Divergent, something she is urged to keep hidden for the sake of her life.

She joins the Dauntless and has to struggle with the vastly different culture there and hope to pass their rigorous, dangerous and arduous tests to earn her place among them – all while concealing her difference.

But in the city tensions between the factions are flaring and the very thing the factions were created to prevent – war – is looming.

At first glance, the world setting for this dystopia seems quite ridiculous to a level of parody. The factions take their “virtues” to such extremes that not only would it be nearly impossible to live according to their principles – but it wouldn’t be advisable to do so either. The factions themselves are ludicrously simplistic, have a ridiculously narrow view of humanity and frequently twist their “virtues” to mean things that are completely nonsensical (like the Dauntless apparently conflating “courage” and “cruelty” to say nothing of “suicidally reckless”); the whole concept of factions ignores the sheer complexity of humanity and the impossibility of dividing people down such simple lines. Even the test they all take is laughable in its simplicity (they picked up the cheese! That means they’re Amity… or hungry… and the poor lactose intolerant would-be Amity are out of luck).

This world setting doesn’t work – cannot work. This society is more than a little ludicrous. The flaws are huge, there are far too many people who fall through the cracks (and there are so many, huge cracks) and it would be a deeply terrible way to try and actually run things.

But I think it’s supposed to be. While the story focuses on Tris’s story and why she doesn’t fit into the world (with a heavy dollop of super-chosen-one-specialness), in the background there’s an ongoing theme that this society doesn’t really work – and that the steps that are taken to make it work are dubious to say the least. We have an entire group of people, the factionless, who are just jettisoned from the system, ignored and regarded with contempt by much of the rest of society (even if it is pitying contempt). We see how much the Dauntless faction has completely twisted and warped what it means to be Dauntless to create a twisted parody of what it once was. It’s shown repeatedly – and even told – that the reason most people fit into these simplistic factions is because they’re basically brainwashed from birth. Of course they’re going to choose the appropriate, simplistic choices on the test because that choice been hammered into their heads from the moment they’re born – hence the rarity and remarkability of faction transfers. The “Divergent” are less people who have aptitude in more than one virtue, but are more reasonably people who have resisted or avoided their familial brainwashing (then with a dollop of Chosen One on top). We see how people exploit the system – an Abnegation abusive father gets away with it because how could one of the selfless do such a thing? A Candor manages to cause all kinds of trouble without consequence because no-one believes he could possibly be lying. And, yes, the Erudite may be up to naughty shenanigans, but the fact that no other faction has a say in government other than Abnegation is deeply flawed and questionable.

We see the flaws in the system – mainly in Dauntless who, even without the twisted sadism and bullying, seem to think that “courage” means “strength” and “bravery” is synonymous with “recklessness”. Even Tris herself has moments of “bravery” which reap more like being a thrill seeker.

Not only does the system fail as a society, it utterly fails in what it was trying to achieve – peace. And that’s not just clear by the plot itself and the conflict that develops; it’s clear from the very moment any faction thinks of another faction. This society has created 5 mutually antagonistic cults who are each sure of their own unique superiority and each of which regard the others with contempt, anger and even hatred (and yes, that includes Abnegation – look at Tris’s father considering leaving Abnegation a betrayal). This system for peace contains the inherent seed of the next conflict precisely because it wasn’t created as a system. Five factions came together each with their own visions for how permanent peace can be maintained – but each of those visions only works if their vision is the ONLY vision. The system wasn’t created to have five factions, the system was created to try and bring these five factions together. They were never meant to work together – but you had five sides with irredeemable disagreements

This world setting is broken – and it’s meant to be. This is not a flaw in the story, I think.

What is a flaw is consigning all of this in the background to focus so closely on Tris’s personal story. That’s not to say that Tris’s personal story isn’t a good medium to show this world and its flaws – it certainly is (and has, albeit far more background than I’d like). Her story also shows her own considerable character growth, her relationships with other people and the difficulty of balancing the different parts of herself, her differing loyalties, deciding exactly what she wants in life in a society that has such strict limits on what you can and cannot be. Through her eyes we also see how the system hurts her friends as well – not just her because of her Divergence – but many of her friends and acquaintances are unjustly hurt by the system while others use it to their own cruel advantage.

I also liked how everyone wasn’t flawless, especially Tris. She has moments of jealousy and anger, she holds grudges, she resents people, sometimes she “forgives” people because she knows its useful to do so. Similarly her friends aren’t perfect – they do things that are unfair, when they break under the strain they don’t do so decorously. They can be cruel, competitive, vindictive even bitter and nasty. They aren’t perfect, but they are very much people

These aren’t flaws in the book nor the flaw of following Tris so closely. The problem is the romance and the very nature of the Divergent.

The first is the most obvious – it’s an annoying distraction that doesn’t need to be there. I don’t see why Four can’t have respected Tris, seen Tris’s potential, recognied his and Tris’s shared history and generally worked with Tris without us having the love interest distraction. It ended up implying this is why Four was interested in Tris – attraction rather than her potential – and adds to the dual annoying tropes that close opposite sex friends cannot exist and that a female protagonist simply must have a love interest. It consumes far too much attention and takes the focus from all the awesome complexity I mentioned in the beginning.

As does the Divergence. It slaps a big dollop of super-special-chosen-one status all over the character. All off the world building complexity and her personal story of growth and development is now forced into another story of how special and unique the protagonist is – even with a level of special woo-woo that emerges at the end of the book. Gah, it’s just so unnecessary – we could have had this system exposed, the corruption, the conflict and Tris and Four working to stop the dastardly plan all without the Divergence element. Rather than being a story of two people in a flawed system trying to fight against a terrible evil, it becomes a story of the super-unique Divergent in a world that Just Doesn’t Understand Them, with the super-special power that allows them to be the saviour.

It frustrates me because this book could have been so much more with just a few changes – but the Chosen One and Fraught Romance stomp their big, unnecessary feet all over an excellent story of a broken dystopia and Tris’s struggle to find her place within it and try to stop its worst abuses.

Diversitywise, I think we have some minor POC who I vaguely remember in passing as POC but didn’t stick in my mind too much and Christina, a POC and Tris’s best friend. She’s not a bad character, not at all, I don’t think any of the characters in this book are, they’re all very human, flawed but not too caricature-ish (ok, some of the bad guys are… lacking in subtlety). She’s not overly well developed – but then, no character is except Tris herself. She’s not a bad character at all – but only one clear POC isn’t great inclusion in this future Chicago. There were no LGBT people at all. There were other female characters, though though, Christina and Tris’s mother both feature strongly in the plot and there were no women who Tris hated on sight because FEMALE.

I also have a problem with how the Erudite vs Abnegation conflict is presented. The Erudite, who prefer science and knowledge are evil, selfish, genocidal manipulators – oh the peril of valuing intellect. The whole idea that seeking knowledge is linked to ego, greed and arrogance is really pushed hard. Ok, every faction has been warped, I guess – but then we have Abnegation, the super-good, utterly selfless ones and, tellingly, the only faction that seemed to contain overtly religious people and who consider curiosity to be wrong. Curiosity is selfish in their eyes. Well, we have subtext here – nah, we have text, it’s not subtle enough for subtext! Beware evil science and questioning and knowledge! The good and selfless don’t ask questions, don’t seek to learn, just put their faith in their faction and stay free from the evil machinations of the intellectual. Yeah…  I see what you did there. The book didn’t quite yell “faith in Jesus will save your from the evil machinations of those who dare to think!” but it didn’t miss it by much!

This book has a lot of potential and I can see it, I really can. But I also have to push aside some pretty unnecessary distractions to get at that potential. It’s like a great book was written and someone came in afterwards and declared that there simply has to be these tropes present, there must be a romance and there must be a Chosen One and even if the story would be immensely better without them, it must be so. Throw in some problematic messages and it just missed what it could have been. We ended with… a decent book. It could have been great