Veronica Roth – Allegiant

allegiant-by-veronica-roth.jpg
You were so close, Veronica Roth! Allegiant doesn’t live up to the hidden brilliance of the beginning of the trilogy. It’s a step forward, though. Everything that was wrong with its predecessor is gone. The flaws stem from the author’s original limitations, but she’s always on the brink of doing something interesting.

The book quickly settles down after one or two shootouts. The main problem with Insurgent was how heavily it relied on action scenes. That novel barely had a plot and barely progressed the story. It could’ve easily been summed up and turned into 1-3 chapters in the beginning of this novel. This time Roth slows down and lets the characters and the world do the talking.

She’s still attached to exposition. One character primarily exists for spitting exposition and vanishes in the third quarter of the novel. Roth’s world is meaningful, though. What drives it are concepts relevant to everyday life. Even if she relies on info dumps, the information is often interesting to ponder.

The book contains a big twist that rips Roth’s world. Many will find it insulting. I find that it draws a big line between this book and the first one. Sequels shouldn’t just show what happens next. If that’s all they show then they’re useless. They should take the characters to a new direction, to try new structures and themes. The twist doesn’t turn the original themes in Divergent irrelevant. That one explored one subject, and this one explores new ones.

Roth’s new theme is interesting, but disastrously shallow. The question of genetics, nurture vs. nature is interesting. How do you explore scientific ideas in fiction? You actually don’t. Fiction is the opposite of science. It’s fictive, not real whereas science is concerned mainly with facts.

Any other dealing with scientific concepts must remember this. You never ask where a scientific fact is true or not, but how it would affect us if it were true. That’s a big, important distinction. If we find a way to mine the asteroids, how would it affect our consumption of resources? If we find we can travel faster than light or even teleport, how would it affect our perception of distances?

Roth asks this question about genetics. She asks how a society where people’s personalities are shaped by genes is like. Her society doesn’t actually answer this question, though. In fact, the scientific fact doesn’t come into play at all. If Roth wanted to ask this question, she first needed to create a world in which the ‘genetically ruined’ are truly different than the ‘genetically pure’.

Her world isn’t different than ours. It’s just racism all over again, only instead of having crackers and niggers it’s about ‘genetically pure’ and ‘genetically damaged’. The shallowness runs so deep that the differences don’t even exist. Now, I’m the first person who supports chucking away the idea of ‘race’. The idea of dividing humans into races is pseudoscientific, but every pseuodoscientific idea has some basis. People do have different colors. The ‘genetic damage’ in the book might as well not exist. Roth dismisses it as a bunch of charts and equations on a screen. This isn’t exploring an idea but denying it outright.

The whole conflict ends up as meaningless. It’s a bizarre type of meaninglessness. The villain has a system of facts and ideologies to work from, but since Roth erases these facts the poor thing ends up as delusional. He’s not senseless or understandable, but completely out of touch. He evokes more pity because Roth couldn’t give him anything to do.

She’s more successful exploring her other themes. The novel includes the 3rd time or so that everything turned out to be a lie and she addresses that. Characters don’t only react to new information, but react to the fact they’ve been told so many lies. Tobias’ point of view emphasizes this. He’s in constant doubts, never completely sure he’s doing the right thing. His confusion is refreshing, especially as a romantic lead. In the predecessors he was a bit of a mysterious bad boy and man of steel. Here, he’s the one who’s weaker emotionally. He’s the one who needs love, not the opposite. It’s nice to see male vulnerability in a romance.

Speaking of relationships, the romance doesn’t really develop but doesn’t get in the way. For a trilogy that obviously comes from the same school of Hunger Games and Twilight, it’s bizarre. There are kissing scenes and some fighting, but the romance is smoothly integrated to the story. In fact, it was actually necessary. Such an action-heavy story needs moments of tenderness. The relationship does suffer from blandness. Beyond the fact both Tris and Tobias are a warring type, there’s nothing to connect them. Still, the relationship is fairly balanced and healthy while having emotional ups and downs. It may be bland, but it’s more realistic than common dreck.

Roth is at her best when she’s addressing violence. She never took violence for granted despite relying on explosions to drive her story. The few action scenes in Allegiant leave an emotional impact. Sometimes characters do die so others will react, but it’s interesting. Tris and Tobias aren’t traditional in how they’re never completely desensitized to the violence. By the end of the novel they’re sick of it. They give up the explosive heroics for the low-key route. It’s not a complete subversion of our gore-obsessed heroic stories, but it’s something.

The main things all the good points have in common is that they’re not enough. Roth has these good ideas. She rejects some traditions and paves a way of her own, but she doesn’t progress. Her most glaring flaw is how empty her characters are. Her plot is a set of obstacles to overcome and she leaves little choices or opportunities for her characters to react. Even a linear role-playing game lets the player react differently, even if they only have one option. There’s no difference in tone or manner of speak between Tris’ chapters and Tobias’ chapters. No matter how many good ideas Roth has, her characters are so empty that it affects the final product. I can respect it from a distance, but I can’t get involved in it.

Allegiant is a good conclusion for the trilogy overall. It shifts the focus back to exploring ideas rather than explosive heroics, but Roth never goes full retard. The characters might as well not exist and the ideas are there without being developed or played with. It’s decent, more enjoyable than annoying but often it feels like a big tease.

2.5 genetically pure humans out of 5

Advertisements

Veronica Roth – Insurgent

insurgent-2110808660.jpg
Imagine if someone made a sequel to Brave New World and it consisted of people shooting each other.

Divergent is a smarter novel than people give it credit to. Every time it set clear heroes and villains, it pulled the rug and showed the other side. Cliches were there, but it was mostly a novel of no easy answers. The bad guys weren’t just power hungry, and Insurgent reminds us this a few times.

Most of the times, Insurgent is nothing but action scenes. These aren’t vivid or purposeful action scenes. Roth set out to write a trilogy, but she’s lost here. Tris’ journey mirrors Roth’s, but not in a clever way. Like Tris, Roth is busy going from place to place, looking for a purpose for this novel.

A sequel shouldn’t just continue the story. The criticism of ‘it doesn’t stand on its own’ doesn’t ask for the sequel to be completely accessible. Rather, something about it should separate it from what came before. Publishing it as a different book is easy. The author must find a reason for the story to be published in a whole new book.

Just look to Orson Scott Card. Speaker for the Dead is very different from Ender’s Game in terms of tone, ideas and even overall story. It’s a separate book because, despite continuing the story it works in different ways and has starts something new. This division goes so deep, even into the division into paragraph. We move to a new paragraph only when we conclude the ideas of the current one, or want to introduce something new.

The first novel had a clear ending, but this one just runs around without a direction. As an attempt to develop psychology, there’s potential there. Some criticized Tris for being ‘whiny’, but they are just silly people who wanted a power fantasy. Roth never forgets that violence and war are only glorious in action films. The horror of it all never escapes Tris, and it’s always in her mind and affects everything she does. The new tone is successful and makes for a fairly convincing psychology, but not enough.

Despite touching on PTSD a little, Tris is a boring heroine. For a novel about factions that represent personality traits, the characters are lacking. ‘Convenient’ isn’t the best word, since they do create conflict sometimes and have wants and needs. Their wants and needs are never their own, though. Some lost a family member, one person is sadistic and so forth. Mostly, though, all the personalities are tied to the story.

That’s not a compliment. A personality should be able to exist outside the story. Only Marcus can be transferred from this book into another one, and still be himself. Everyone else just serves an aspect of the plot. Jeanie doesn’t have a personality. While it’s nice that she’s revealed to be more than something to fight, having a different purpose isn’t enough to make a well-developed villain. She needs a personality that will separate her, a personality that makes her both villainous and understandable.

Roth barely tries to develop characters, though. Insurgent isn’t long because it’s filled with slow moments that should shed light on who these people are. Most of the pages are dedicated to wandering around and shooting some people up. Showing us how Amity and the Factionless live is necessary worldbuilding, but it’s not enough to create depth. They become curious surface details without significant meaning.

The worst offender is the structure and the abundance of action films. The definitive sign Roth was completely lost here is how the structure goes. It’s nothing but visiting the factions we haven’t seen yet, and with actions scenes in-between.

The amount of action scenes are ridiculous and unnecessary. This is a Dystopian novel, not a Thriller. It’s meant to examine and question ideas with perhaps some psychological portraits. A few shootouts can be fun or even necessary, but they cannot be the center of the story.

Everything that happens in the story simply leads to the next action. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so sad. If the novel was meant to take the series in that direction, then it would be okay. The tone remains grim and the action scenes aren’t fun and blazes of glory. They just hammer on how terrible violence is. Roth’s treatment is more humane than exploitative, but that’s all she has.

The world becomes almost a self-parody of sorts. Everyone totes guns and everyone is ready to shoot. On paper, this doesn’t sound like a bad idea for a dystopia but when everyone has no existence outside of it, it becomes hard to believe. The only significant development happens at the end. Roth gets her old self back. The plot twists aren’t just a ‘surprise motherfucker’, but they change how we view the characters and the world. Sadly, by the time it arrives it’s too late. The novel was already clogged with random acts of senseless violence.

Since this is a Young Adult novel we get a romantic relationship, and it swings between truly whiny and interesting. There are no love triangles, which is great. It’s no longer about the pursuit of love, but how we handle it once we got it. The relationship doesn’t really progress, though. A communication breakdown makes both partners to come off as unpleasant people who shouldn’t be near each other. They have had much personality, so their relationship was hard to believe. Now there’s finally some content to their relationship, but it’s only a lack of trust. How can you have a relationship that only has lack of trust?

The editors were clearly nicer to Roth this time around. The book is bigger and the writing is more elaborate. It’s still very smooth and easy to read. Nothing about it is special. It’s utilitarian almost to a fault, lacking stylistic quirks that elevate the novel or help make the ideas come through. At least if you’re going to write a novel that goes nowhere and consists mainly of shoot-outs, make it easy to read.

Insurgent is pleasant, but mostly pointless and doesn’t go anywhere. Roth was lucky to make me interested enough the first time around, but I’m sure many dropped off here. The worst sequel you can make is not one that betrays expectations, but one that has no purpose to exist. Despite the occasional moments, Insurgent mostly goes nowhere but just jumps from shoot-out to shoot-out. It’s not a new direction or even a terrible direction. It’s no direction at all.

2 factions out of 5

Veronica Roth – Divergent

divergent
Hating the government is big business. Without a government we could hate, a lot of people will be out of job. I’m not just talking about scumbag officials. Imagine what Zack de la Rocha would do without hating the government. No one will listen to his pathetic attempts at rapping and lousy slogans. No one would buy his records. This is serious. Hating the government even mananges to pump some money into the publishing industry. Look at the Hunger Games.

Here we go. Here comes another review of Divergent that mentions The Hunger Games. I only do it because everyone else does, but that doesn’t make it right. The constant comparing of the two tells you more about how ignorant people are of the dystopia genre than about the books themselves. The Hunger Games was a heroic story about Defeating the Evil Government – no different than Star Wars. Divergent has little resemblance to it. It’s like a Young Adult version of Brave New World.

Roth wants to write about many things. She wants to examine ideas. She wants to write a love story. She wants to write an action-packed thriller. Sadly, she’s less successful than she deserves. There are plenty of moments where her approach to typical subjects are more unorthodox. Her love triangle, for example, is far more interesting and also tends to be more low key. Sometimes, she’s a carbon copy of contemporary YA. We’re talking about extended action sequences and love serving as deux ex machine.

There is potential in this premise. Roth wants to examine these ideologies. There is a satirical edge here, with how Erudite wear glasses to look smart or how the Dauntless try to look like metalheads. She manages to create distinct enough cultures that make us question and examine these ideas, rather than accept them as good or bad.

The Dauntless take the center stage, and this quality appears often there. The Dauntless are sometimes painted as unnecessarily cruel. At other times, the harshness and cruelty is reasonable. How can you become fearless without actually facing your fears? She doesn’t take the easy way out. She doesn’t separate the Dauntless to kindhearted people and to ruthless sadists, but presents that cruelty from two angles.

Divergent often reads like a critique of splitting into ideological camps. Anyone who talked with people who are proud of being left/rightwingers knows how damaging these camps are to good discourse. By choosing sides, you no longer have a mind of your own. You have to agree with everything that side says and disagree with everything the other side stands for. That’s why you get secular right-wingers who are hesitant to admit they’re all for gay marriage because they won’t want to come off as leftists.

It’s not a desire to destroy and rebuild. It’s a desire to improve what already is. Young people are often angry (which makes them appreciate rock music) and we want, to quote Fight Club, “to destroy something beautiful”. I appreciate this more mature outlook, but it doesn’t appear enough.

She tries to make ideologies clash, but her clash makes little sense. How does the desire for knowledge clashes with selflessness?

She paints the Erudite as hungry for power, but none of it comes naturally from their ideology. The pursuit of knowledge doesn’t automatically result in megalomania. Often, the more you learn the more you realize you don’t know. You end up feeling smaller. People who pursue knowledge are often too busy researching and learning than exercising control. Learning is receiving. There are studies that prove suicide is more common among intelligent people.

The Abnegation or the Dauntless faction are more fit to slide to megalomania. The ideology of Abnegation includes the suppression of the invidiual. The only way to do it is to exercise some sort of control over him so he won’t try to act on his natural impulses. Roth is aware of that. This is where Marcus’ character comes in, but it’s a small moment.

The Dauntless are less fit, but are a good possibility. The slide from testing bravery to needless cruelty is addressed, but it’s used more to draw lines between Good Guy Four and Bad Guy Eric. Eric’s ideas can have some merit. He can be a bit of an Antichrist Superstar, a rejected person who works hard to escape from failure only to end up in ruins. His main role degenerates to be the Bad to Four’s Good. Maybe it’s fine if you’re a woman and the romance speaks to you more. As a male, I’m more interested in Eric’s attempt to make up for his failures.

This is a big hole that’s hard to ignore, because that’s what instigates the climax. She doesn’t go full retard and claims the pursuit of knowledge is bad, in and of itself. It’s just the desire to overpower that’s apperantly at fault, or something. She never makes it clear enough. She just attatches a bland desire for power to create an enemy.

What came before swings from interesting to bland. The initiatition arc gives us a pretty ordinary high school story with a Bullying Gang that exists only so we would hate it. It’s a jarring transition from a variety of viewpoints to people who are cruel because they’re cruel. I have faced real bullies, the kind that did it only because they could and Roth’s portrayal is lackluster.

Since this is a world where everyone is driven by the faction’s ideas, senseless cruelty is out of place. Even as an exploration of senseless cruelty, it fails. What is frightening about bullies is that they’re sure they are in the right. When a teacher asked one of my bullies, he said he did it because it was fun. Yet there is no sense of fun in Peter’s bullying that should remind us of how we love to shoot heads in Borderlands. He does it only to move the plot forward and so we’ll have someone to hate. It’s like the corrupt businessman who we hate because he has more money than us.

There are sometimes glimpses into character development. Al’s arc is good and lifts up the love triangle a bit. He’s he typical good, but unattractive guy. He’s kindhearted and nice, but he also has no spark of sexuality in him. It’s a moment where Tris is allowed to be a dumb teenageer, and we’re invited to understand even if we disagree. Al is also not portrayed as just a Love Interest but a human with a separate life. He’s allowed to make choices, to be vulnerable, to show affection and to take matters into his own hands even if it’s a tragic ending.

Tris is also a far more interesting protagonist than Katniss. Roth actually makes her go through tough choices and question her worldview. She doesn’t give her too many shortcuts. It’s not like how Collins allowed Katniss to never kill an ‘innocent’ person. Tris makes plenty of mistakes. That’s a small improvement, but not enough. She lacks a defining feature. There is something about being Divergent, but here it’s hinted that it’s biological, so perhaps it’s external. It’s not something she acts upon. She just gets up one day and people tell her, whoa, you’re Divergent!

The copy I read also came with the manifestos of each faction. That’s the best part. They’re each written in different style that suits the ideology (Amity all have anecdots. Erudite have lists). They each make a convincing case, but they’re also very absolute and strict. They’re ripe of finding holes in them. This can be a fun exercise. This is probably what Roth wanted, but it didn’t turn out too well. Maybe the next go round will be better.

2.5 factions out of 5