Veronica Roth – Allegiant

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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

Ally Condie – Matched

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Describing Matched will make you run away. It’s the serious person’s worst nightmare. Think of every recent Young Adult cliche, and it’s here. Matched Is a story of an ordinary girl in an oppressive-benign society caught between the Stable Guy and Mysterious Dude. There isn’t even something underneath all these cliches to justify it. The novel doesn’t use these tropes in a new, original way.

Yet it’s charming and a pleasant read. Instead of being a chore, that type of novel that makes you visibly angry it’s fun. It’s as if someone stripped City of Bones of the overwriting and Divergent from the pretense. Matched never, for a second, pretends it’s important. It’s a band that gets on stage, kicks some catchy riffs for half an hour and gets off.

Is that worthy of praise? I don’t know. The novel’s roots are in a genre driven by meaning and depth. Dystopian literature doesn’t exist to romanticize revolutionary and shooting people. Dystopian is a genre of ideas. Matched isn’t interested in exploring its ideas even if the big organization is given a few moments to express itself. It cares more about its love story and the excitement of being a teenager.

Condie’s strength is that she never, for a second, pretends it’s anything other than a love story filled with teenage silliness. Every idea and symbol are explained, and it feels like Condie strips the wrappers to show us there isn’t a new idea here. It helps to refocus us, to remind us we’re not in here to explore the dystopia.

She can’t even come up with unique names. Her big organization is called the Society and everyone already said that its idea is basically The Giver. To her credit, it’s a better version of that book. That one was anti-communist agitprop. The Society in Matched still has plenty of inequality. Its flaws aren’t just sentimental, ‘equality makes us all boring’. It shows that in order for some people to live well, others have to sacrifice themselves.

Don’t let it fool you. These little bits are nothing like the romance which is the novel’s true purpose. Oddly, no matter how cliched it is, it’s successful. The story is focused and well-paced. Since it never pretends to be meaningful, it devotes all it sources to capturing those stupid feelings when you’re first in half.

The writing, if not unique, gets the point. There is a youthful energy and sentimentality to it. Cassia may not be developed or unique, but the writing does make her a believable teenager. In fact, the cliched ideas contribute to it. Teenagers are ignorant and their deep thoughts are often more passionate than deep. The writing has all this passion and none of the depth. Perhaps it’s an accident, but it’s fairly realistic.

Since Condie is concerned more with teenage life, the novel doesn’t punish the reader with action scenes. Action scenes rarely work in novels. They’re mostly vague descriptions about bullets flying and people screaming from pain. The story in Matched is more personal, more concerned with relationships developing and changing. That gives it a little humanity and puts it above novels like Divergent. Condie may not be able to develop these characters, but at least she treats them like human beings and let them act like ones. The novel’s focus on the characters’ emotions makes it more thrilling and engrossing than a long-winded blow-by-blow account of a fight.

It could’ve been profound, but it’s shallow. No one actually has a personality. The situation she creates rely on character interactions, though. So with enough passionate writing, she manages to create the illusion of character-driven story. At least it’s a better way to progress the story. Instead of jumping from action scene to action scene, each scene is a clear progression in the relationships.

The romance itself is the strongest part, but I’m not sure if it’s praiseworthy. Common criticism of teen romance don’t apply here. The two dudes are decent people. The mysterious guy is mysterious in a benign way. He knows more about the outside and he likes poetry, but he’s never aggressive or stalking. The love triangle almost makes sense. Cassia has a reason to be attracted to both of them since both have different, but good traits.

Is it good though? It’s fun and the youthful exciting is charming, but that’s all it has. The characters have no personality whatsoever. The world is slightly better than The Giver, but not by much. The storytelling is focused and not rambling, but it doesn’t lead to anywhere.

The charm of Matched is good enough to make it bearable. It’s a novel that takes all the YA tropes and knows how to make them work just enough. If you want a pure, silly YA novel with no depth that’s not annoying this is it. But, in a way, it feels like we’re praising the novel more for not being City of Bones.

3 dystopias out of 5

Veronica Roth – Divergent

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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