Dystopia is a society based on personality quizzes.

In Chicago of the future, society is divided up by virtues: Dauntless (courage), Erudite (intelligence), Candor (honesty), Abnegation (self-sacrifice), and Amity (peacefulness.) All sixteen-year-olds must take an unimaginative virtual reality test, whose scenarios consist of choosing a knife or a piece of cheese, seeing a girl threatened by a dog, and being accosted by a creepy guy on a train. They are then told which faction they’re suited for, but have the option of picking a different one. Once they join a faction, they must pass a series of tests or be kicked out and join the factionless underclass.

Beatrice is born into Abnegation, who wear gray and eat boring food and take the stairs rather than elevators. As is typical in these sorts of dystopias, no one ever has hobbies or interests or does or says anything unrelated to the subject of the dystopia, unless they are the spunky rebel heroine, in which case they can think rebellious thoughts and obsess about the handsome, distant jerk they love. It's also the standard "everyone is heterosexual, no one has a culture, and everyone is white except for one supporting character" contemporary YA dystopia.

Beatrice tests as Divergent – the rare person whose personality is not defined by a single trait. She is warned that she’ll be killed if this is discovered. (Being Divergent turns out to be somewhat less stupid than initially stated, I should note.)

She picks Dauntless. They turn out to be a bunch of idiots with no apparent social function, who spend their time beating each other up a la Fight Club, leaping off the trains which circle the city seven stories up for no apparent purpose and with no apparent power source, getting tattoos and piercings, and playing paintball. Yes. Paintball, the ultimate pursuit of the brave!

The heroine, now named Tris because that’s way cooler and edgier, becomes a perfect shot and a bad-ass fighter in one month of practicing without, as far as I could tell, being trained in any specific techniques. (Getting beaten into unconsciousness on a daily basis does not, in my opinion, constitute useful training.) She’s bullied because she’s cooler and braver than anyone, and she falls for one of her trainers, a boy named Four, even though they don’t interact much.

To me, the appeal of romance is interaction, not staring at the hero and then going off to contemplate him in solitude. The interaction they do have is underwhelming. For instance, Four is overcome with admiration at Tris’s intelligence when they’re playing paintball and it occurs to her to… climb a tall structure to spot the other team. Genius!

Ender’s Game, though flawed, kept coming to my mind as a novel which did a lot of these tropes better. “Maybe I should look for the enemy” is not convincing evidence of brilliance. “The enemy’s gate is down” does work as an example of thinking outside of the box. Also, while Card’s book too was heavily paintball-based, it was at least spiffed-up zero-g paintball, not the real thing. Why would I need to read a dystopia to get my fix of the exact same game I could walk outside and play for real?

Much of the plot of Divergent made no sense. Early on, Tris makes a shocking discovery about her mother. About 200 pages later, she makes the same shocking discovery all over again. Either this novel was never edited at all, or it was severely over-edited, to the point where no one could keep track of what had or hadn’t been cut or added. My guess is the latter. That sort of continuity glitch happens a lot in TV when there’s excessive interference by the network.

The whole book was full of similar glitches and holes:

If everyone can choose their faction, what’s the point of the tests?

How does this society function? Does it have an economy? What do the factionless do? Since Dauntless doesn’t seem to produce cops or soldiers, who does? If no one does, who’s keeping the factionless down?

What does Candor do other than tell people their new dress makes them look fat?

What’s the trial for Amity, the nice faction? Endurance Kumbaya?

Divergence actually means the ability to resist mind-control and to know when you’re in VR. Tris is warned repeatedly that she’ll be killed if she demonstrates that she’s Divergent. But in her last and very public stint in VR, she does just that… and no one notices.

Tris’s mother gives her an extremely urgent message for her brother. This is not mentioned again for about a month, and then Tris suddenly goes and delivers it. Why the delay?

Tris is capable of making a head shot in a combat situation. Given that, she should at least try for a leg shot when she is presented with a temporarily brainwashed buddy trying to kill her, rather than shooting him in the head just so she can angst about it. (Or even center of mass. At least give him a chance!)

Similarly, despite her stated badassitude, when confronted with her brainwashed boyfriend who is also trying to kill her, rather than fight like hell to disarm or disable him, she throws down her weapon and relies on the power of looooooove to bring him to his sense. Since she’s the heroine, it works.

Finally, Tris’s mother sacrifices herself heroically (and unnecessarily) before Tris’s eyes. About six hours later, so does her father. Fifteen minutes later, what’s the main thing on Tris’s mind? Her totally awesome boyfriend!

My biggest issue, though, was that the novel didn’t follow through on its own premise. If I buy a book about a personality quiz society, I want to find out how each society does its tests and organizes itself. And I want to have some means of sorting myself. We learn barely anything about the other factions, and the initial test is ludicrous.

The idea of being sorted into a category has enormous appeal. I too love online personality quizzes. (I am a Gryffindor and an INFP, and the character I most resemble on A Game of Thrones is Arya Stark.)

But these factions not only have no appeal (which, to be fair, is part of the point that Sorting Is Bad), but you can't even use the book to amuse yourself by figuring out in which one you belong. Without context, choosing a knife over a piece of cheese is the equivalent of choosing a triangle over a square. It's like that online test going around a while back which gave completely random personality diagnoses on the basis of questions like "Which hexagon is watching you?" But without the hilariously paranoia-inducing questions and images.


From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com

Yes, I like House of Stairs! I'm sure it helps that I first read it in high school. But it's much more about individuals under pressure than about the idiotic rules of a dystopian society. In fact, all you really learn about the society is that it does unethical experiments.

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