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

Veronica Roth – Insurgent

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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

Orson Scott Card – Speaker for the Dead

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Scott Card still puzzles me. Here, he’s beyond the power of editors. The writing is more dense, with more inner monologues and more pointless words. Nothing about it is terrible, but it does reek of an inexperienced author who can’t edit himself.

Authors who can’t edit themselves will let their worldview seep into the novel. If they lack critical thinking. then expect all the Good Guys to hold their opinion and all the Bad Guys to disagree with them. The novel won’t raise questions or confront the difficulty of its subject matter. At best, it will give the illusion of realism using cheap techniques like ‘surprise deaths’.

Where’s the bigotry, though? I mean, Scott Card is a homophobe and very strictly religious. This only goes to show you how bizarre and full of contradiction the human mind are. Religion and homophobia are, justifiably, close-minded dogmatic ideas. They’re about limiting our options, and won’t be held by people who try to think deeply.

Card broke the stereotype on Ender’s Game, and here he continues. In fact, if you didn’t know his background you wouldn’t guess Card holds such views.

It’s ironic I’m judging Card like this, in a review of a novel where judgment is a big theme. The religious theme of forgiveness is here, and just like in the previous novel Card doesn’t take the easy way out. He’s always looking at a subject from both sides, always willing to accept both the good and the bad involved. The best moment is the actual ‘speaking’.

Evil doesn’t exist in the real world. Everyone is convinced they’re right. We need morality and to mark some actions as wrong, but we must be wary of branding people as just ‘sick assholes’ and be done with it. It’s important to understand why they do what they do. This way we won’t go down that path, and we will be able to prevent it.

Murder is considered one of the most horrible things you can do, and Card uses it cleverly to make us question what is evil. From the viewpoint of an organism that doesn’t really die when they’re killed, there’s no such thing as murder. So when they do the same to you, can you really brand them as evil? They sure they were doing you good, bringing you to your next life.

His desire to understand people, the idea that we should see people as people through their flaws reflects in the characters. They’re all flawed humans, doing what they think is best. Some of them are crueler than others, but each has a reason for what they do. Some Card clearly disagrees with, like the religious zealotry of Quim or the Bishop. They never slide into the unlikeable. They never become wrenches in the gears of the plot that the heroes have to get rid of. Like everyone else, they have a worldview of their own that they adjust as they learn new things. Card never converts them to their side, but lets them learn like people do.

It sounds fun and deep, but it never goes as deep as it should. The biggest challenge is to take a true scumbag, a person who disregarded everyone else and make them sympathetic. Not every cruel person is a tragic case and could be redeemed. Some people do use their power for pleasure while hurting others. Some people are so extreme in their views they cannot be changes. He confronted the reality of inevitable violence in Ender’s Game, but here he’s hesitant. The novel has a bigger plot, a wider scope and states its subject matter more clearly. Yet it doesn’t match what came before for depth. Despite the simple plot, Ender’s Game did go much further.

The story itself is great though. The writing is more dense and a little more rambling. The easy flow of Ender’s Game is gone and Card has no stylistic quirks, but it’s readable. It also helps Card tends to ramble on the novel’s focus, its characters. The prose is otherwise is easy to read. Plain utilitarianism has its place, especially when everything surrounding it is good enough.

For a very famous series, its structure is vastly different than stereotypical sci-fi. Science fiction is burdened with the stigma that it’s all technobabble, silly worldbuilding and too much exposition. I even talked to some people who think sci-fi is all about new technologies.

Speaker for the Dead is a character-driven novel where gadgets take a secondary place. The best sci-fi comes up with meaningful technologies or aliens. They don’t ask how a new technology can function, but how it will affect society. The effect of technology is more central. It doesn’t bore us with how space travel works, but we constantly see how the lack of aging affects relationships. How the big computer network functions doesn’t matter. What does is that it creates a new ‘currency’, a new way to hold power without weapons. The new biology is also a symbol of such ideas. The whole ‘third life’ thing creates a situation in which killing is different, where ‘symbiosis’ is taken to the next level. Card is more concerned how such a difference in biology breeds different cultures, how they clash rather than the plain mechanics of it.

It’s also a perfect example of how a sequel should be. Books in a series should be separated for a specific reason. When we say a sequel should ‘stand on its own’, we don’t mean that it should be accessible for those who didn’t read the predecessors. ‘Stands on its own’ means the sequel is a work with its own unique qualities. It has its own style, themes and structure that separates it. A sequel shouldn’t just show us what happens next but offer something new. Speaker is different in many ways – prose, structure, characters, atmosphere – than Ender’s Game, and all that justifies its existence.

The flaws are negligible. It doesn’t scale the heights of Ender’s Game because it’s not as willing to face the darkness and it rambles more. These prevent it from being a masterpiece, but it’s still a great sci-fi story. It’s a story of ideas and characters, using setting, technology and aliens to raise questions instead of spitting technobabble. Whatever views Card holds, his story is multi-layered and doesn’t preach dogma but encourages understanding the unfamiliar. Hopefully, the good stuff doesn’t stop here.

4 dysfunctional families out of 5