The dystopian young-adult novel, Divergent, written by the then-22 year-old, Veronica Roth was, to put it mildly, a success. Sequels were printed. A four-movie deal was signed. I’m still trying hard not to hate her.
But I have to admit, I enjoyed her book Divergent. I place Roth in the tradition of Jack London and those authors who know how to tell a good adventure story and keep your heart racing. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever read a female author whose novel was so mercilessly suspenseful and relentlessly violent, with action sequence following hard upon action sequence, like a good Indiana Jones movie (yes, they did once make those). There is a love interest, of course, but that doesn’t get syrupy til close to the end, and it’s not that many pages to suffer through.
Not so unusual is the basic plot of the story: in the future, after some cataclysm, a high-tech, totalitarian regime has come to rule over the sheepish descendants of the survivors. The people themselves have been split into different populations. On the surface, the new civilization appears successful, but in actuality, something is terribly wrong. The people are afflicted, though many of them scarcely recognize the true state of their plight, and even those that do, choose to go along to get along. Then along comes a girl on the cusp of womanhood. She is severely tested by adversity and forced by circumstances to make hard choices, ultimately emerging as the people’s champion. Her very existence is an existential threat to the government.
But that’s just the bare lumber. Roth takes this basic construction material and, using her immense creativity, turns it into something of her own. Roth is obviously a skilled writer. Perhaps her greatest quality is her adeptness at building tension (one of the most difficult jobs of the craft; many of the well-respected authors of the literary-journal world could take a lesson or three from Ms Roth). The book is for the most part tautly told– if Roth would have streamlined the action-to-action thrill ride of this story anymore, it would have been a sheer drop from front cover to back. I would have probably vomited. That said, I thought Roth was guilty of the occasional descriptive redundancy when it came to character mannerisms.
At the heart of Divergent, is a story about Identity. Tris is the aforementioned cuspy womangirl, and she is at that age when a young person begins to make the decisions which will determine what sort of person she will become. This type of story is valid for any setting involving young human beings… it could be set in the time of Augustus or in the time of flying cars, it doesn’t matter. Our emergence into adulthood is a time of determining who we are. If our look into the mirror shows a person we don’t really want to be, then we must have the intelligence to figure-out how to change, and the strength to make the change. The mere fact that most people never fundamentally change, gives you an idea of how hard the task of remaking oneself can be.
What fascinates me most about Divergent and young-adult stories like it, is the similar themes emerging time and again. So many of the great future-world stories written for young people today picture a society that is militaristic, spying, and controlling. The society created and maintained by adults is nothing short of EVIL.
This utter loathing for society as a whole is something new in modern kid-lit. Tales popular with older children have often been about rebellion against authority– parental or otherwise. And they have often had despicable adults as characters, terrible individuals the children must overcome… be it Charles Dickens or Robert Louis Stephenson or Roald Dahl. But these despicable adults were bad apples. The society as a whole was always benign, with the number of GOOD adults– intelligent and caring ones– being in preponderance. There are always exceptions of course. J.D. Salinger painted a “phony” adult society, and the world Mark Twain plopped Huck Finn into was certainly no colony of angels. But in general, the children or young adults in these books were not living within a society-wide Hell.
But something has changed in the last few decades. Today, such society-is-evil books have become commonplace. And not just that– they are often the books that are really catching the kids’ imagination and interesting them. This is very telling to me, in terms of putting a finger on the general zeitgeist of the times. It seems obvious to me that, at some level, young people sense that the current world order is not only rotten at its core– but it’s only going to get worse– way worse.
In today’s popular dystopian tales, the parents are often, themselves, dupes of the society, or else utterly emasculated by it. It is only the children who are any longer in a position to attempt to change the world, only they who still see the difference between living and merely surviving.
The children in these tales often start-out accepting their world as given (as all children do), but then events occur which cause them to look askance, to ask questions, to doubt. They begin to learn things about the world they may wish they had never discovered. They gain access to secret and forbidden knowledge, have epiphanies. They are disillusioned– not the adjective, but the verb.
I can’t help but wonder– noting how popular these types of stories have become– if there is not some message to glean from these fantasy projections, some subconscious message we are attempting to send to ourselves.
For that matter… What are we doing to our children’s psyches that they are DRAWN to these tales of societal corruption. Do they see farther than we do? Do they have some special foresight or inkling about the world we are preparing for them to inherit? Perhaps to them, the future is now. After all, kids today already exist in a tightly controlled, tightly monitored, militaristic, and sinister world. Anti-terrorist lockdown has been initiated– Who needs dystopia?
What I’m trying to say is… I’m worried that these stories –harmless enough tales of teen rebellion, disillusionment, and identity-discovery– are SYMBOLS of a deeper problem. Perhaps, repressed in the subconsciousness of today’s youths, already exists the fear of their all-but-certain totalitarian-state future. Does some part them, at an almost genetic level, long for barefoot play, for traipsing through the woods, for chasing through meadows and fishing in brooks? Do they ache, poor little ones, for fresh air and sunlight and that mythological past of liberty and self-reliance? Do they long in their hearts already to break free from this coming bleakness?
Oh, we grown-ups have become so acclimated to it all. We’re like plants which have altered our morphology in order to fit into the pot where we’ve been placed. The sky for us is no longer the heavens– it is a gridwork of satellites. We do not jaunt through sunbeams and refreshing breezes on our way to our neighbors’ welcoming homes– we sleepwalk through a cloud of electromagnetic energy and clingy billcollectors.
We humans, we spend our entire youth being told what we can’t do, circumscribed with strict boundaries, held to expectations, fenced off from this, chained to that… It is no wonder then that, for any generation or culture, the most precious ideal and dream to all young people is freedom. Order and Security and all of their restraints are willingly and wildly thrown to the wind. Achieving freedom is all that matters. And thank God, too, for I’m sure their attitude serves as a necessary counterweight to the older-adult tendency toward Security and Routine.
Stories of rebellion are and thus always will be naturally appealing to young people. But the young-adult books of today are not typical tales of escape, adventure, and freedom. And they are certainly a far cry from those gleaming, optimistic science fiction stories of yesteryear.
These modern, insanely popular dystopias speak a special message to our age.
Again… it comes down to Identity. These tales offer us a chance to see ourselves– not as we might be, not as we will be– but as we already are.
And don’t even get me started about the whole Vampire / Zombie stories thing…