I am Divergent
The latest greatest craze for young adult novels is Divergent by Veronica Roth. It is well loved by more than just teenage girls (though I am not entirely certain on the breadth of its audience). Divergent is described as a well-written dystopian future with a richly created female lead. As I said, I have only heard positive things about this book. So, with some trepidation I plunged into the futuristic world of crumbling cities, segregated populace and randomly running trains.
Divergent is set in an unspecified city – though according to the back it is meant to be Chicago. I am not American, so likely I missed all the obvious references. For reasons, definitely not explained, society as we know it has crumbled and been replaced by five competing factions that have until the start of the story managed to work peacefully and effectively together. Each faction is dominated by a single personality trait: honesty, selflessness, happiness, intelligence and bravery. Each faction is responsible for a different aspect of life in a functioning society: Candor = the legal system, Abnegation = government and all volunteer organizations, Amity = farming and health care, Erudite = research and development, and Dauntless = security.
At the age of sixteen each member of society takes an aptitude test which is a short series of hypothetical scenarios in a virtual reality setting. Using a process of elimination the results will tell the person which faction they belong in. After the test, the sixteen-year-olds then choose the faction they would like to belong to. Strangely this Choosing Ceremony involves cutting your palm with a shared knife and dropping blood into a bowl representing one of the five factions.
My first question was why? Why do they need to physically shed blood during the Choosing? Yes, I get that it is symbolic. The words that hold up society are Faction before Family. By bleeding for your faction you are binding your blood with theirs. Still, it seems unnecessary.
While most children will stay in the faction they were raised, those that leave for new factions are then condemned by their families and taunted by their new faction. I don’t really understand this reaction as it seems to run counter to the Choosing Ceremony and Testing. If you don’t want your children to change factions, then why give them a choice in the beginning?
After the Choosing, the sixteen-year-olds undergo Initiation. Again, I don’t know why we have a redundant set-up. The person has already been tested via some system whose results are not generally called into question. The young person has then made their choice. What is the purpose of Initiation? The flimsy excuse that it is the factions’ chance to weed out its members seems contrived. It is clearly an excuse to bully the Initiates, to put them through hazing rites.
So we follow our young female protagonist from the life she has been raised to the aggressive chaos of the Dauntless Pit. The cult of the Dauntless styles itself as a cross between military discipline and aggression and punk rebellion. They wear black. They are heavily tattooed, pierced, and dyed. They do crazy, bad-ass stunts that would normally be considered stupid. Ostensibly to prove how brave they are, the Dauntless will jump on and off moving trains. They will fight each other using their fists, guns, knives or any other weapon. They will theoretically face their fears. Everything about them is aggressive and often violent. They drink until drunk. They yell loudly. They jump off really high buildings to ride zip-cords. And they apparently only see violence as evidence of fearlessness.
Wow, don’t they sound cool?
Well, not really. Bravery or fearlessness is not marked by the ease in which you can kill another person. Just because you can pound the flesh of your opponent into the ground doesn’t mean you are dauntless. It is a very limited view on the concept. Now, to show some fairness the author obliquely mentions this was not always the way the Dauntless worked. However, the manner in which she concludes the story with a very violent night of executions ending with their protagonist easily killing dozens of people seems to celebrate the violence of the faction.
One thing that struck me in this world: who controls the trains and why do they never stop? It seems like such a simple question, almost inconsequential. However, the fact that there is no answer really starts to demonstrate the incompletion of the story’s world. I am not even going to question the serum or the fact that the protagonist inexplicably finds herself drawn into the greater conflict. I will not ask why the male lead randomly is attracted to our female protagonist – because presumably that can happen in real life. Of course this is a perfect relationship in which he truly understands her, though they don’t spend a great deal of time talking. I will not even question the timeline. In only one month’s time, our decisive protagonist becomes an expert in hand-to-hand combat and the most amazing marksman. All this while still recovering from a number of very serious injuries – I think she might be a relative of Wolverine.
There are two final things I would like to bring up in this incoherent ramble.
First, it is obvious from the start these factions are cults. There is no better way to describe the uniformity of action and thought demanded by the factions. It makes you wonder again how they started and how they had been getting along for so long before our book starts. It is makes me question the initiation process once more. Initiates that fail this process are kicked out of the faction (or the case of the Dauntless are likely dead) to become Factionless. The factionless are the homeless in this futuristic world. Why? I suppose they must all have failed their initiation. Strangely enough they also serve a purpose performing jobs that no one else wants. So why do they continue to accept the abuse they are given? Why does the Abnegation not incorporate them back into the factions? Perhaps the answers to some of the questions are answered in the other two books of this trilogy.
Second, how does being Divergent give you super powers? Just because your test results are inconclusive (you show equal aptitude for two or more factions), you suddenly can perform actions faster and better than anyone else. If anything, I could see this being a hindrance, you are not so focused. Instead those who are divergent can recognize they are in simulations (a trait unique to them) and they are harder to mind-control (which apparently is the purpose of each cult – I mean faction). This is stupid. There is – at least there shouldn’t be – anything special about our female protagonist. However, in fact she is special, super-powered because of her divergent nature. It is rather amusing as we start to learn there are a number of divergent people living in this world. But don’t tell anyone.
Divergent bears a strong resemblance to the Hunger Games. Both narratives are told first person, present tense from the female protagonist’s perspective. Both involve poorly structured dystopian societies. Both books celebrate and glorify violence and the killing of others. They both end in the slaughter of a number of characters. Tris in Divergent is more decisive than Katnis in the Hunger Games. I find both characters waver between bland and unlikeable – perhaps a reflection of my ancient age.
In summary: Divergent is a silly story with serious flaws of character, plot and world building. That said, it is far better written than Twilight (the lowest of low). Having read the story, I still don’t understand why people who are not sixteen like it.