As part of my never-ending quest to find some YA science-fiction to use in my introduction to sociology class (I currently use the Hunger Games), and based on a student recommendation, I read Veronica Roth’s Divergent, the first volume of a trilogy. I am trying to anticipate the time where Hunger Games’s shelf life will have expired and I will have to move on to some other materials.
The reason why I pick YA scifi is because I teach at a community college and therefore cannot assume that my students will easily read at college level. It is bothersome but I have to meet my students where they are. The other requirement for a book to be “eligible” to become course material is that there has to be enough social stuff in it.
There has to be fairly substantial developments on culture, history of the society (especially in the case of dystopia, readers have to know what happened), social structure, deviance, stratification and power through institutions, at least. it is usually not hard to find some resocialization as it is often the basis for drama. If a book is all plot and story and no or limited social background, then, it won’t work for me. That is why Hunger Games works so well for this.
The goal is for students to apply sociological concepts and theories to a “foreign” society, without having to rely on their common categories of understanding and without moral judgement while reading something entertaining and interesting (as opposed to textbooks which are a chore to read even for me).
Unfortunately, Divergent will not make the list. I initially picked it up because the premise seemed promising: a indeterminate futuristic society located in what is today Chicago, a dystopian context and a strangely reorganized society according to five factions involving different value systems and behavior as well as functions for the system as a whole:
- Abnegation (selflessness)
- Dauntless (bravery)
- Erudite (knowledge)
- Amity (peace)
- Candor (honesty)
The factions live somewhat separately (although children attend the same schools). They are socialized into their faction of birth. But at the age of 16, they get evaluated as to which faction they are best suited for and they get to choose where they want to spend the rest of their lives. The test is usually straightforward but a few individuals are divergent (a never spoken word), that is, they do not fit neatly into one faction. Once they have chosen their faction, teenagers get initiated into it (and the actual substance of the initiation is determined by the characteristics of the faction: service for Abnegation, violence and risk-taking for Dauntless).
Those who fail the initiation join the ranks of the bottom of society: the factionless. Factionless live in poverty as they have no place in society. Members of Abnegation (who control the government, since they are selfless) provide some charity, but otherwise, factionless live on the margin, as an underclass.
Each faction then, has its own culture, clothing, symbols, ways of speaking, walking, behaving, its own structure (Amity being the most egalitarian and democratic faction). Absolute loyalty is expected from faction members (“Faction before blood”) and a certain amount of ethnocentrism is expected.
The story itself follows Abnegation member Beatrice as she turns 16 and therefore goes through the sorting mechanism to determine her faction. Things start going bad when her test is inconclusive, making her a divergent, and get worse when she chooses to transfer to the Dauntless faction and her brother chooses the Erudite as it is assumed, in most cases, that children will choose their faction of origin. As with Hunger Games, I liked the idea of a strong female character.
So far so good, and you can see why I was excited about this book. Alas, as good as the premise was, the treatment ended up being quite shallow. First off, one can tell that this society is the product of some major disaster but that is never explained. There is basically no history provided. That is a big chunk of context missing. Maybe this will come in the second and third books in the trilogy but for something to be usable in class, the information has to come in the first book because I can’t make students read a full trilogy (and the third one is not even out yet).
All we get is this:
““Decades ago our ancestors realized that it is not political ideology, religious belief, race, or nationalism that is to blame for a warring world. Rather, they determined that it was the fault of human personality— of humankind’s inclination toward evil, in whatever form that is. They divided into factions that sought to eradicate those qualities they believed responsible for the world’s disarray.”
“Those who blamed aggression formed Amity.”
The Amity exchange smiles. They are dressed comfortably, in red or yellow. Every time I see them, they seem kind, loving, free. But joining them has never been an option for me.
“Those who blamed ignorance became the Erudite.”
Ruling out Erudite was the only part of my choice that was easy.
“Those who blamed duplicity created Candor.”
I have never liked Candor.
“Those who blamed selfishness made Abnegation.”
I blame selfishness; I do.
“And those who blamed cowardice were the Dauntless.”
“Working together, these five factions have lived in peace for many years, each contributing to a different sector of society. Abnegation has fulfilled our need for selfless leaders in government; Candor has provided us with trustworthy and sound leaders in law; Erudite has supplied us with intelligent teachers and researchers; Amity has given us understanding counselors and caretakers; and Dauntless provides us with protection from threats both within and without. But the reach of each faction is not limited to these areas. We give one another far more than can be adequately summarized. In our factions, we find meaning, we find purpose, we find life.”” (42-3)
And that’s pretty much it.
Then, as soon as Beatrice joins her new Dauntless faction, it is all story, action and not much else as most of the book is her initiation (the book is about 500 pages long), but one narrative shift around page 410, which is so predictable and trite as to leave the last 90 pages or so relatively uninteresting. The initiation itself gets repetitive at some point since it’s all about conquering one’s fears and getting used to the daredevil ways of the Dauntless.
There is some interesting stuff about the friendships / hostility that develop between the initiates, some in-group / out-group dynamics but that remains at the superficial levels.
And there is the thing that was already so deadly boring in Hunger Games that is present here as well: the romantic / love interest. Good grief, can’t we have a 16 year old girl in a book without her obsessing about which guy she loves and is in love with her? This stuff goes on and on (no sex, though, the author is a bit on the Jesus-y side, see the acknowledgement page). Pages and pages of boring navel-gazing of the “he loves me / he loves me not”, “but if he loves me, why is he so mean to me!!” variety. It is so tedious (it was not bad in the Hunger Games, but it got to dreadful levels in Catching Fire and Mockingjay).
Another aspect that makes this heroin no Katniss Everdeen is the fact that, until she switches factions, she has led a relatively privileged, if a bit bland, life and has had none of the hardship that roughened Katniss. This renders her more superficial.
So, my enthusiasm for the book progressively evaporated as I got to the end. I am not even sure I’ll read the rest of the trilogy (unless reviews drag me back into it). There is definitely not enough social substance in it to make it a viable reading for class.
This book as the Hollywood treatment written all over it though.
And so, the search continues…