RogerBW's Blog

Divergent, Veronica Roth 28 February 2014

Young adult novel, read because a film based on it is coming out soon and I want to be able to complain about the film-making separately from the writing. (And because last time I did this I read The Hunger Games, which I quite enjoyed.) Here be spoilers.

In an unspecified future after a major war, all of humanity – or at least all of humanity in what used to be Chicago, since we have no perspective further afield – has been divided into five "factions".

The only background we're given for this is that the survivors of the war each picked a thing they thought was responsible for evil, and decided to eradicate it. So the Amity don't do aggression; the Erudite don't do ignorance; the Candor don't do lying; the Abnegation don't do selfishness; and the Dauntless don't do cowardice.

You may note that these definitions are entirely negative. And this is in a piece of propaganda being given out by the people who run the system! (You may also be distracted by the faction names being different parts of speech, and indeed having the initial letters AACDE rather than ABCDE. Couldn't Amity have been renamed Benevolence? But then you would be rather too much like me.)

What these factions are in practice is a set of five stereotyped attitudes for the heroine to rebel against; as in The Hunger Games, the oppressive society really makes no sense except as the thing that the heroine fights against. The Abnegation are joyless religious types who provide all the leaders and administrators; Amity are always friendly and happy, and seem to be farmers and counsellors; Candor practice something like Radical Honesty, and are lawyers (!) and judges; Dauntless are macho idiots and adrenalin junkies who provide warriors; and Erudite are cold unemotional people who are teachers and researchers.

Ah yes, Erudite. Even before they are revealed as the villains of the book, their portrayal is entirely negative. I know there's a lot of anti-intellectualism in American society these days, but to find people being derided merely because they're in the "smart" faction still surprises me. The only times we meet Erudite they're pointlessly rude or actively hostile, and none of them is ever mentioned in any sort of positive light. All the other factions have nice and nasty people in them. Erudite is special.

But of course our heroine can't fit neatly into this faction system. She's brought up in Abnegation, though she seems to abandon its religious formalities without a backward glance. At age 16, along with everyone else of that age, she has to choose a faction to spend the rest of her life in; before that there are aptitude tests.

And this is where my credulity really gets strained. There's a "simulation serum" which briefly provides a full-immersion neural interface, which I suppose is fair enough. But on the basis of a small number of choices made inside the VR simulation, almost everyone can be readily and simply classified into one of these five personality types. Only the really super special (like our heroine) are even slightly suited for more than one faction, and they are (whisper it) Divergent. And this is regarded as highly dangerous, though quite why isn't clear until relatively late in the book, and then it seems to be something of quite recent vintage. (Some of these questions may be answered in later volumes of the trilogy, which I haven't yet read.)

Anyway, our heroine is brought up in Abnegation and moves into Dauntless. At which point I didn't throw down the book, because I was reading an electronic copy and Kobos aren't cheap, but I did utter a cry of disbelief: yes, this adolescent girl is leaving the joyless grey world where she spent her childhood and hanging with the cool daring kids. I wonder if this could possibly be a metaphor for something. (When we later discover that her mother used to be Dauntless and moved to Abnegation, this feeling is only reinforced. Pity you can only change factions once in your life.)

There's a long initiation sequence, during which our heroine competes against the other people trying to get into Dauntless; some will fail and become factionless for life (which relegates them to underpaid grunt work or homelessness), some will die. There's lots of adolescent bullying and competitiveness, and our heroine gradually learns to be self-interested.

There are trains, apparently; something like the El. They seem to run purely for the Dauntless to be able to jump on and off while they're moving. Nobody else ever uses them; this is explicit. (But hardly anyone has cars; that's also explicit. And yet people have to travel to work and school, and somehow manage this. No sign of bicycles either.)

There's a hint that the faction system used to work better than it does now, but pretty much everybody seems to spend all their time deriding the other factions and trying to avoid their characteristic personality traits. So the Dauntless, with whom we spend most of our time, actively try not to be selfless, friendly, open or smart. Yeah, that's going to end well. But really, this seems to me an inevitable result of the faction system; the only surprise is that it's lasted long enough to get established at all rather than coming apart in a short war.

It does all come apart in a short war, but only because the Erudite have worked out a way of mind-controlling the Dauntless and using them to slaughter all the Abnegation (with a half-hearted PR blitz to justify it to the others). Of course our super special Divergent heroine is one of the few people immune to the mind control, and gets to be heroic. And to see both her parents gunned down in front of her just as she's coming to realise how cool they really were. (Aroogah, aroogah, metaphor alert.) I wonder how bad she'll feel about that in the next book.

Actually the bit of this that works best for me is the heroine at first not realising, and then not admitting to herself, that she's fallen in love with one of the other Dauntless. That's quite subtly drawn, and works well. But the bad guys are cardboard cut-outs, the tech makes no particular sense (and I say this as someone who's enjoyed the In Death series), and the worldbuilding fundamentally doesn't satisfy; there's no feeling that this world exists outside the set across which the heroine is currently striding. She's a reasonably strong female character, and I guess that's good, but I'd like it if she had more personality of her own rather than being a cipher for the reader to project her own appearance, hopes and dreams into.

It will probably do better as a film than as a book, since a film can at least carry the viewer along with spectacle, and there's plenty of that.

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