Tag Archives: Dystopia

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Divergent was just published in April 2011, and yes, it is another YA dystopian thriller. A few of my co-workers had read it and loved it (loved it!), and one insisted that I check it out.  And I have to say – I’m very glad I did.  I’ve just emerged from two straight days of reading (it would have been faster if I didn’t have a 6 month old to look after)… one of those marathons where I feel itchy and cranky when I’m not reading.  I love when a book sweeps me away like this, even though it makes me grouchy or completely useless for anything else.

Ok, the story.  I was actually not completely sold on the premise, as it seemed to be too overwrought when I first heard it.  But I’m learning that there might be no such thing as too implausible in this genre.  In this world, the people of the city (a future Chicago) are separated into five factions, each reflecting a virtue: Candor (honesty), Abnegation (selflessness), Dauntless (bravery), Amity (peacefulness) and Erudite (intelligence).  Fair enough – but my mind immediately went wondered why anyone would do this.  How does it make sense to organize a society in this way?  Who does it benefit – and if it’s meant to be fair and functional, then is it really a dystopia?  Moreover, the central point of the novel – that everyone is a mix of these virtues, or that they should be mixed, seems so obvious as to defy comment.  I mean, shouldn’t a good dystopia point out something that’s wrong with our society?  Take something that’s true of us today and exaggerate it?  Or point to a path we seem to be on, and show how it could lead to evil?  For example: destruction of the environment (Chrysalids, City of Ember, The Dirt Eaters); rule by a stifling dictatorship (1984, Hunger Games), or stifling people’s creativity and human spirit (The Giver and most of the above).  No one has ever actually proposed dividing society up by virtues – so I wasn’t sure what exactly Divergent was a critique of.  It must be just another grab at a crazy premise to get a book published, I thought.

Then I started reading, and within the first three pages, I pretty much forgot all my objections.  The writing is great – tense and terse.  The economy of language perfectly captures this character who begins as a member of the ascetic Abnegation faction:

“There is one mirror in my house.  It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs.  Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair.”

Immediately gripping – and as it went on, I realized that it doesn’t suffer from the same problem as many of the books I’ve been reading have.  Roth doesn’t tell us who the character is, and what her hidden side is right away – she lets us discover it through details.  And the same for the other characters.  Usually we realize something before the main character does because of the careful placement of these clues.  In some cases the giveaway is too obvious (as in the love story), but on the whole it works very well.  It’s the old rule of showing not telling, and I wish more YA (and other) authors would remember it.

So the plot: the main character Beatrice is a sixteen-year-old member of the Abnegation faction, though she’s never felt selfless enough to completely fit in with her family or faction.  At age sixteen, everyone in her society is tested to see which of the five factions they belong in – then they must make a choice about which one they want to spend the rest of their lives in.  For some, this might mean leaving their birth faction and their families forever. But Beatrice is an exception – she is divergent, and displays the qualities of multiple factions: Abnegation, Dauntless and Erudite.  She must now keep this dangerous secret and choose which of these faction she will belong to.  Despite the pain of leaving home, Beatrice chooses Dauntless, and launches herself on a truly challenging path to become an initiate in a society that prizes bravery and danger above all else.  To succeed, she must face her greatest fears, but always hide her true self.

And of course there’s a love story.

So there you have it – great action, great writing, great driving plot (the ending was a little weak: there were all the usual questions about how villans always manage to let the good guys slip out of their grasp), and fantastic characters.  Definitely get this one if you are looking for a Hunger Games follow-up – so far it’s hands-down the best alternative I’ve read.

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The Predicteds by Christine Seifert

A huge wave of dystopian novels aimed at teens is making its way on the market, attempting to cash in on the popularity of The Hunger Games.  The Predicteds is one of the most recent offerings in this genre (available Sept 2011).  I was actually kind of excited by this one’s arresting premise: imagine a test exists that can tell you who will commit a violent crime or become a drug addict, or become a teenage mom. How would we treat people who are predicted for these actions?

Daphne Wright has just moved to a small town whose high school students have recently been profiled with just this kind of test (which is an amazing co-incidence given that her mom helped create the test, but left the project because of moral objections over how the test was being used.  You think she’d want to avoid the selected communities where the test was piloted).  Not only is the town full of rednecks and a fair portion of narrow-minded citizens, all hell breaks loose once the predicted lists are released.  The kicker is that Jesse, the tall, handsome guy Daphne has fallen in love with, is predicted as a violent offender.  Added to that are the rumours that he stalked a former girlfiend, and accusations that he was involved in the violent assault of another girl (actually a very close friend of his).  Daphne is (of course) torn between her feelings for Jesse and her fear that the charges might be true.

I have to say – part of me hated this book, and part of me very much enjoyed it.  I have a feeling it will appeal to a lot of teen readers – if you liked Numbers, or series like Prettys or Gossip Girl, this might be the right read for you.  The writing is uneven, but has some very nice moments like this one:

“It’s a bright Friday morning with only two weeks of school left, the briefest hint of summer freedom already in the air.  The month of May is always better than real summer, because when the day is done, when the sun sets, there will still be as many summer days left as there were in the morning.”  Isn’t that a nice thought?  Oh – and I’m not really supposed to quote that until I check it against the completed manuscript, but I can’t be bothered.

What really rubbed me the wrong way was the obviousness of it all.  Once the mystery was cleared up, there weren’t any questions, or profound thoughts to hold on to.  It essentially was another example of segregation – something that’s been covered by other books, but much more effectively. Moreover, the test made no sense.  I accept that in a dystopian novel one has to let some improbabilities go – and just assume that in the future things work differently, or that they’ve found technological fixes to certain problems.  But I honestly can’t imagine a test that would tell you someone is destined to become a teen mom.  Isn’t that more down to the frailty of birth control sometimes?  Whatever happened to chance?  Unfortunately, I found it all very muddled and poorly explained.

I also found the book to be infuriating in terms of the judgements it cast out.  The main character believes (and the plot seems to bear out) that these small town yokels are narrow-minded and quick to ostracize.  Maybe that’s how it is in small towns – but aren’t there good things too?  It seemed unrelentingly negative to me.  Also, the main character is extremely critical of shopping and clothes, but is constantly supplying us with details about people’s clothing and how their style works or doesn’t work.  In general, she has a massive superiority complex, and I have a hard time imagining why some of these people would give her the time of day.  She is constantly snipping at them in her head, but still spends all her time with them.  I’m quite sure that in another book the character would realize a) that these people are aweful and not worth spending time with, even if they are popular; or b) that they’re not so bad, and that she’s being a conceted ass for thinking so.  She sort of comes to both realizations – but again, I found it muddled.

Bottom line is, if you’re looking for a dystopian book with a nice romantic storyline, I would recommend Matched by Ally Condie well before this one (that a was a very clever book!).

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Gamerunner by B. R. Collins

Continuing my blitz of fall 2011 Bloomsbury UK titles, I just finished Gamerunner, a sci-fi dystopian thriller.  Rick is a teenage boy who has spent more of his life in the virtual world of the “Maze” than out of it.  He is a champion – able to run missions no one else can.  While the Maze is a rich and interactive 3D world (operated through Avatars – think Avatar), the real world is a grey wasteland with poisonous rain and a toxic atmosphere.  The early pages of the novel show off Rick’s prowess in the Maze, and reveal his rather privileged existence inside Crater’s skyscraper (Crater is the company that owns and operates the Maze).  But the mood soon turns to suspense/thriller as Maze designer and Rick’s dad, Daed, gives him an almost impossible assignment to go to the roots of the Maze.  Daed wars Rick to under no circumstances finish the Maze, but because Daed doesn’t inspire trust, and because Rick can’t resist the challenge, he does.  This puts Daed’s career in jeopardy, as well as their continued safety in the confines of the company’s compound.

And so it goes.  At every turn, Rick does something stupid to make a bad situation worse – harming those around him, or causing Daed to harm someone in order to protect Rick (or so it seems – Daed is a very well-drawn, enigmatic character who is either a sarcastic but devotedly self-sacrificing father, or a psychopathic control-freak protecting his own glory).  One of the characters even asks Rick to please “stop doing stupid things.”  But he can’t – as he proves over and over and over.  It’s kind of cute, but as a plot device, a character who can’t stop himself from doing stupid things only gets you so far.

The best bits of this novel are some of the secondary characters – Daed, etc.  Also interesting is Rick’s inability to operate or understand the real world after so much time spent in the Maze.  And the action is good.  What’s unfortunate and tiresome is the constant waffling.  The plot is basically RIck wandering back and forth through the compound (I would have liked more Maze scenes) wondering what to do, and invariably choosing the worst option.

In the end, Gamerunner has a a fascinating premise reminicent of Ender’s Game or Avatar, some good characters and an interesting moral greyness about everything, but is rather ruined by the lack of action and plot.

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