Dystopia isn’t really my favorite genre, but I can easily name ones that I like. What I definitely don’t like, however, is a dystopia that seems to forget it’s a dystopia halfway through.
(Contains spoilers for Divergent. Based solely on the first book.)
Now, let me start with the premise of Divergent. The implausible origin story believed by the people of Chicago is basically that after a big war, everyone suddenly forgot that cultures, religions, and nations can cause people to do things against their nature, and instead decided that the only cause of evil that they needed to worry about was flaws in human nature itself. And they divided into five factions that each blamed just one specific flaw; each faction devoted itself to the virtue opposite that flaw, again to the exclusion of all else. But children born into one faction are allowed to choose another when they turn 16.
So this isn’t the kind of dystopia that’s based on an exaggeration of current trends. (In reality, there is more criticism of ideas and organizations and less of human nature than there was in the past.) This in itself doesn’t necessarily make it a bad story, but I’m having trouble thinking of a dystopia that’s less socially relevant.
Now, here’s where things get weird. The faction that Tris was originally born into, Abnegation, are basically a cross between communists and a cult. They wear all grey, live in identical homes, and otherwise enforce conformity on each other. They are the only one of the five factions whose policies actually intentionally make things more dystopian. And they are the ones currently in power; most government positions aren’t even open to anyone other than “the selfless”.
Meanwhile, one of the other factions is the Erudite. They’re the ones who talk about changing things, and about making things better for everyone. Obviously villains can lie and claim to be the good guys, but when the protagonist who doesn’t trust them is making excuses for all the known evil of her parents’ faction, and being outraged at comments that aren’t even suspicious, you end up expecting the obvious “twist” that the people she keeps calling bad actually do mean what they’re saying.
The “twist” never comes. Erudite grab the villain ball and use mind control on most of Dauntless (even though it seems hard to believe they’d have trouble getting willing supporters), and Abnegation become the helpless victims that Tris has to protect.
Keep in mind that the blurb does explicitly call the book a dystopia. And yet the plot is contrived to make the faction that rules the dystopia something to be protected. But the whole point of a dystopia is that it’s bad. I don’t think Tris is intended to be a villain protagonist, but no hero or anti-hero should ever be on the same side as the authorities in a dystopia. Plus the title, and description of what kind of person Tris is supposed to be, is Divergent, and yet she is still on the same side as the authority of a dystopia. It’s like I said at the beginning, like the book forgot that it was a dystopia.
There are a couple of other things about the book that just bug me. Tris kills one of her mind-controlled friends (and immediately rationalizes it, not angsting about it until well after the fact), which would be just an over-the-top shoot the dog moment: except it comes shortly after thinking she was glad she hadn’t killed someone who was an actual enemy. Those moments being in the same book is pretty weird, at least.
And then there’s a rather strange comment about religion. Tris says that not all of the Abnegation are religious, and that her father says (more or less) that the atheist ones are just as good as the rest…and Tris herself says she doesn’t what to think about that. What? Now, a flawed protagonist can be prejudiced as a result of having rotten parents, but when the protagonist and his or her parent disagree about something like this, something where it should be obvious who’s right but unfortunately a lot of real-life people get it wrong, the protagonist should generally be right. I just don’t think that a character who has prejudices that their parents (or whoever else they might have learned such things from) are known not to have can be considered remotely sympathetic or likable, not unless they learn differently later on, which doesn’t happen in this book because it’s never even mentioned again. And there’s not even anything to indicate that the author herself doesn’t agree more with Tris than her father, so the line ends up actually reinforcing prejudice.
And for some strange reason, it’s said that Candor and Dauntless don’t get along…even though it seems clear that total honesty requires quite a bit of courage.