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22 december 2011

Veronica Roth's Divergent is a strongly-plotted dystopian Young Adult novel. While it's reminiscent of several recent and classic trends on the dark side of juvenile literature, it develops its own energies and even has a philosophical moment or two. You find yourself afterwards in the mood for a sequel – and sequels there will assuredly be.

It's Chicago, some time in the next hundred years or so. An unspecified war has devastated large expanses of the North Side; the city is fenced around to keep people out (or in?); Lake Michigan has become marshland; and the Cubs still haven't won the World Series. Society has reached a temporary equilibrium by dividing Chicagoans into five "factions." In a way that grates on my stylistic senses, three are named with nouns (Amity, Candor, and Abnegation) and two with adjectives (Erudite and Dauntless). Factions live among themselves and work largely among themselves, with a minimum of cross-faction contact; they complement one another in keeping the city running. Families form only within factions; but at the age of 16, every citizen has the right to choose their faction for the rest of their life. School to that point has been the usual melange of books and teachers' dirty looks; afterwards, it becomes "initiation," a crash course in the secrets of your chosen faction.

In other words, this is a very complicated alternative world, and much of Divergent is devoted to exposition. But the plot is still headlong – in fact, such novels contain a lot of narrative exposition, where the "story" itself is propelled by the reader's desire to learn more and more about how the alternative world works. Roth does very well at this. She has 487 pages to create her entire dystopia and then knock it on its ass, and she does so with economy and energy.

The whole five-faction system is kind of makeshift, and you wonder how it holds together at all. Though soon enough, you learn that it really doesn't; it's spinning out of control from page 1. Protagonist Tris's mother explains: "Human beings as a whole cannot be good for long before the bad creeps back in and poisons us again" (441). It's an dubiously ideal society cobbled together from bits of other fictional dystopias: controlled life paths and stern rites of passage from The Giver, post-apocalyptic violence on the edge from The Hunger Games, weird all-encompassing simulations shot into the back of your neck from The Matrix. Much of the last quarter of the book consists of the kind of single-person shooting familiar from many a videogame universe. The Choosing Ceremony, where you are shunted into one of the five factions, has a touch of Harry Potter's Sorting Hat about it (though the kids' choice in Divergent is supposedly free), and Hogwarts is echoed again in the training for battle and violent games that Tris undergoes when she opts for the militaristic Dauntless over the public-service-oriented Abnegation.

In its psycho-social strengths and weaknesses, Roth's five-faction city is dramatically well-developed. I'm a little less convinced by its economic and technological infrastructure. Post-apocalyptic poverty is the order of the day. The city's skyscrapers lie mostly empty, a haunted playground for its apparently mostly teenage population. But everyone seems very well-fed. The power is on, and stuff works even in its ruined condition. And various items of technology are super-advanced, including vast computer networks and fiendish biofeedback simulation systems that allow the cunning Erudite faction to assemble a robotic clone army. Some of this background needed a little more thinking-through – or more likely, its plausibility will be established by more exposition in further volumes in a series.

Ursula K. LeGuin famously noted that all speculative fictions are really about our own world. So it is with Divergent. The factions resemble both highschool cliques and college majors. The Choosing Ceremony and subsequent harrowing training and "initiation" process stand for the anxieties of getting into college and surviving the hazing (social and academic) that is part of American upper-middle-class paths to success. Divergent's Chicago is obsessed with aptitude, psychometrics, and functionalism, but its democratic, meritocratic rhetoric is a veneer over naked self-interest; sounds like America in the 2010s. But in the course of translating real suburban angst into dystopian urban fiction, Roth raises some intriguing questions about intention and act. Tobias, Tris's mentor, tries to explain how the Dauntless faction she's joined is monitoring her suitability for membership:

Intentions are the only thing they care about. They try to make you think they care about what you do, but they don't. They don't want you to act a certain way. They want you to think a certain way. So you're easy to understand. So you won't pose a threat to them" (312).
That's a touch more profound than the usual psychologies of dystopian, or even general, Young Adult fiction.

Of course, Tris isn't listening very closely. The very next sentences:

He presses a hand to the wall next to my head and leans into it. His shirt is just tight enough that I can see his collarbone and the faint depression between his shoulder muscle and his bicep. (312)
OK, so we're also in a world that owes quite a bit to Twilight.

Roth, Veronica. Divergent. New York: Katherine Tegen [HarperCollins], 2011.