Veronica Roth’s Divergent is set to become a movie in the coming year, so I set out to dig into the story behind the film.
Divergent is set in the divided ruins of future Chicago, where Lake Michigan has become a marsh and tiny enclaves of society live in the ruins, divided by their take on human nature. There are five schools of thought about how to solve the world’s problems. Children like Beatrice are tested at sixteen years old and then they have to choose a faction, but Beatrice is divergent, the tests don’t work on her, and if the world finds out that she doesn’t fit, they will kill her for it.
Veronica Roth’s debut novel is strong medicine. It is a real treat to see a new author take such a strong young woman and give her such a strong narrative voice. Beatrice avoids the twin traps of most female roles in action stories. She is not passive and helpless like Bella from Twilight, or unpleasantly aggressive like most female leads written by male authors.
Roth’s dystopian future is often difficult for modern sensibilities to process. Modern America extends childhood into the twenties, and Roth’s world has young men and women choosing adult paths at sixteen. There are conflicts and consequences that have serious consequences, and sometimes my stomach squirmed at the thought of kids that young going through what they did. That is not to say that Roth broke my suspension of disbelief. On the contrary, my visceral reaction was evidence that I was genuinely invested in the story by this point.
Roth’s world-building skills are strong, and she maintained the classical literary criterion called unity of story. Through most of the story I thought that there were several unnecessary side trails in the early chapters, and found out towards the end that I was wrong. That was well done and a real treat.
Roth’s dystopia incorporates a mental technology called simulation. People in their world have a mechanism to create, manipulate, and monitor perfect computer-controlled hallucinations in people who have been injected with a serum. Simulation is used for testing and training new faction initiates.
I very much enjoyed Roth’s concepts of the Factions, the pursuits of peace that sprung up from various world views. Dramatic exaggeration takes of the five worldviews to extremes. The Dauntless blame cowardice for war and seek courage. The Erudite blame ignorance and seek knowledge. The Abnegation blame selfishness and see service. The Amity blame division and seek harmony. The Candor blame dishonesty and seek forthrightness. I thought it interesting that a few side comments hint that Abnegation are the only faction to have religious members.
Roth’s opening novel does many things well. Middle teens are difficult characters to write well, a balance of innocence and potential, but old enough to make mistakes, perceive the world around them. Beatrice threads the needle without acting too old for her years like too many oversexed teen novels to mention, or unbelievably innocent and helpless. Roth doesn’t just use the factions to point out different world views about peace and justice. She also uses them to point out the weaknesses between the factions, how their world views go wrong. Dauntless bravery can be cruel and brutal. Erudite knowledge can lead to condescension and manipulation. Amity’s quest for unity may sacrifice right and justice to avoid the appearance of conflict. Abnegation service leads to self-destructive extremes. Candor honesty can become abusively rude, or a tool for greater deception. Then there are the Factionless, those who cannot win a place and are used for cheap labor then abandoned by the upper classes, a condemnation of the system as well as the system itself.
There are excellent relational and character questions asked in this story. Where does loyalty to family lie in a divided world? How does one carry childhood principles through into the new world of adulthood? Do the strong protect the weak or prey upon them? Where does the line between service and self-destruction lie? How can you form friendship and loyalty bonds with your competitors? How can you hope to change a corrupt system if you will not participate in it? There is also romance of the best kind here, the kind that is about caring and feeling as opposed to feeling people up. There is genuine courage, self-sacrifice, and hints of much deeper things hidden in the world around.
Critics have blasted the later books for failing to live up to the promise of the first novel, but even critics of the later novels acknowledge that Divergent stands above the rest.