Overanalyzing Divergent: We Need to Talk About Allegiant

I love dystopian teen novels.

Yes. Oh, yes. 

The rest of the world is getting sick of the dystopian fantasy genre by now, but I still wake up every morning eager to read about teen angst, forced caste systems and cartoonishly sinister governments, mostly because I live in a mayonnaise-white suburb with no post-apocalyptic biker gangs to speak of, and the only corrupt authority figures are the officials down at city hall who make us pay by the bag for garbage pickup. The crumbling ruins of a once-great city are a welcome escape. So when I heard about the Divergent trilogy, I disregarded the mixed reviews I'd heard and went out to get my hands on a copy of the books.



Specifically this one.

If you haven't read the book and don't want to know how it ends, turn back now.

Yes, there are spoilers ahead. 

Without going into too much detail, the first two books were pretty good. Were they timeless literary masterpieces? Nope. Did I expect them to be? Of course not. Divergent and Insurgent were exactly what I wanted - easy-to-read entertainment with a cool world structure, some neat characters, and good old-fashioned teen angst. Also noteworthy is the fact that the author, Veronica Roth, wrote the first book while on a school break in university, and picked up a movie deal at the same time as her degree. At twenty-five years old, she's got a bestselling trilogy, millions of fans, a movie series and a bright future as a writer. And that's admirable.

But then there's Allegiant.

Let's back up a bit first - the Divergent trilogy takes place in a future, post-apocalyptic Chicago, where all the characters are the descendants of the survivors of an enormous war. After the war, society divided into five 'Factions' based on which human trait each group thought most necessary for preventing another war, because dividing into groups based on ideology has always been humanity's most effective strategy for preventing war. The five Factions are Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite, and you can figure out which trait each faction prizes by looking those words up in the dictionary. The protagonist, Beatrice Prior, lives in this Faction system as an Abnegation child. All children live in their parents' faction until they are sixteen, when they take a hallucination-based aptitude test that shows them which faction they 'truly' belong in. They then go through a show of 'choosing' which faction they'll live in for the rest of their lives; they are not obligated to pick their aptitude test result, but if they don't, they are essentially doomed to a life of misery surrounded by people they feel no connection with. Yay. 

So, in essence, the entire world of Divergent takes place in a giant, post-apocalyptic high school.

Then, of course, there are the Divergent, who can't be placed in one category on the aptitude test (among other vague, nebulous powers). Tris is Divergent, but spends most of the series hiding that fact; in her world, the Divergent are hunted down and murdered just for existing. 

So... it's Nazi high school.

Then in Alligiant, Tris is shocked to wander outside Chicago and discover that her entire world was more or less a science experiment, and the only life she'd known was a huge lie. And that's a perfectly fine way to end a story... if you can pull it off right. Allegiant just fell short for me, for a couple of big reasons:

That's not quite how genes work. 

Genetics come up a lot in science fiction and dystopia. And why shouldn't they? There are all sorts of interesting moral dilemmas that can be explored through the use of DNA technology in novels; Aldous Huxley's Brave New World explored the evils of genetic experimentation 70 years before we'd sequenced the human genome, and genetics-based stories have been picking up steam ever since. But with great science, comes a great responsibility to explain it correctly.There's a fantastic rule of thumb about using genetics in science fiction; if the word 'genetics' in your story can be replaced with the word 'magic' or 'voodoo' without changing anything, you are using it wrong.

Above: a scientist optimizes a buffer solution for a polymerase chain reaction.

In Allegiant, the word 'genetics' could be replaced with the word 'pepperoni', and the story still wouldn't change. See, in the third book, Tris is finally given a gene-based explanation for the factions, the Divergent, and the structure of the only world she's ever known. Hundreds of years ago, scientists took the human genome for a joy ride in an attempt to create superhumans with perfect personalities, and accidentally created a flawed race of violent people who, for some strange reason, didn't like being treated as damaged, second-class subhumans and went to war with the 'unmodified' humans. Tris' world in Chicago was set up after the war as a gigantic 'gene therapy' experiment that rounded up thousands of the defeated 'damaged' humans and attempted to fix their genes. After a few generations of interbreeding, the scientists figured, the genetic damage would heal itself and healthy, 'Divergent' people would be created. Because that's how gene splicing works.

You've gone too far, science.


Let's start with the biggest, most obvious problem: you can't create healthy genes by interbreeding damaged ones. It'll never work. I can highlight this with a real-world example. Hemophilia is a hereditary blood disease that prevents the blood from clotting. People with the disease can bleed to death from something as simple as a scraped knee, because it just doesn't scab over. The disorder is caused by a mutation (or "damage") to the X chromosome, which is why you rarely see it in females. Since females have two copies of the X chromosome, their healthy copy takes over and they live normal lives, unaware that they carry a deadly disease in their genes. When a male has the mutation, however, there is no backup X chromosome, and he experiences the full effects of the disorder. Now, chances are, most of the people reading this have never met a person with hemophilia, and they never will. It's rare to the point of being almost unheard of. So what happens when you take a population of people with the hemophilia gene and have them interbreed for generations? Do you think their damaged genes heal themselves? Not according to the royal families of almost every European nation, whose inbreeding turned the rare disease into an uncontrollable epidemic that put an end to most of their bloodlines.

Ask Alexei Romanov how that worked out for him.

Another huge problem is that the faction system they've set up is actually brilliantly designed to create more extreme behavioral problems, not more balanced individuals. The people at the Bureau allege that they are trying to breed more Divergent people - that is, people who don't fit into the polarized faction system, and instead display a range of different strengths of character. Their actions say they're trying to do just the opposite. Think about it... each faction prizes its own characteristic trait above all else - to the point that those individuals with the most extreme traits are held up as leaders and role models - and the series acknowledges that there is some genetic basis to these traits. It also shows us that there is zero interbreeding between members of different factions. Figuring out how biology plays out from there isn't exactly brain surgery. It's basic sexual selection; the people in Dauntless who show the most courage are going to be the most successful, and they'll have the best chances of finding a (similarly courageous) mate. The people who are least courageous will die, or at the very least, die alone. With each passing generation, you're going to get more and more extreme personalities, with more and more extreme "genetic damage", until your entire faction has been bred with such flagrant disregard for personal safety that they all Lemming off the Hancock Building... and the same goes for all the other factions. Compounding this is the fact that the 'healthy' Divergents all end up killed, homeless, or removed from the simulation. If breeding extreme traits out of the population is the Bureau's goal, they literally could not have found a worse way to go about it.

People in the city will still die if she resets the Bureau.

For those of you with no reading retention (and those of you who haven't read the book, but don't give one bedazzled fuck about spoilers), Tris and Tobias face a huge dilemma in the third book. By this point in the story, there are three groups with competing interests who are starting to clash: there's the Factionless, who want to see the faction system disbanded; there are the Allegiant, who want to see the faction system preserved; and there is the Bureau, who want the city of Chicago to not be razed to the ground while its inhabitants murder each other. Evelyn, the leader of the Factionless, decides halfway through the book that it's her way or the highway, and she resolves to just murder the shit out of anyone who gets in her way.

Effective problem solving!

The Bureau can't allow half the population of Chicago die in a senseless war, so they're faced with a choice: either shut the experiment down completely, debrief everyone involved, and set them up with 'normal' lives outside the city, or crop-dust the inhabitants with a memory serum that will make them forget the war and quietly return to their Faction lives. They choose the latter. Tris and her friends have enough time and connections to get into the city and inoculate all of their loved ones against the serum so that they won't forget all about them when it hits. But that's not enough for Tris. Oh, no. She decides that making an entire population forget their lives is such an egregious, amoral act, she immediately turns around and tries to do the exact same thing to the Bureau employees themselves. Because apparently, stealing someone's memories and identities is wrong unless you personally approve of it.

That's some Jaden Smith-level philosophy right there.

So Tris and Tobias plan an elaborate and dangerous heist, in which they will prevent the gassing of Chicago by stealing the serum and gassing the Bureau instead. But I think they're forgetting something - if Chicago doesn't get its memory reset, all the people they love are going to die in the war the reset was meant to prevent. Seriously. With everyone at the Bureau wandering around in a post-amnesia daze, there will be no way to prevent Evelyn and her army from swooping in and murdering Joanne, Cara, Susan, and all the other people fighting against the Factionless' tyranny in Chicago. Their only plan to stop it is to put all their 'everyone not getting murdered' eggs in the same basket, and hope that Tobias's mother - who feels so strongly about her cause that she literally faked her own death and left her son in the hands of an abusive monster - will be suddenly overcome by a fit of maternal instict. Or memory serum - because remember, destroying people's memories is only wrong until Tris decides it's not. If that desperate plan fails, Tris and Tobias will be forced to stand there and watch it all on the security monitors, powerless to stop it.

Whoops.

Is essence, Tris is forced to make a choice between two evils. On the one hand, yes, people will forget most of their lives. They'll go back to living in an orderly, misguided society, under new identities with heads full of false memories. Those with loved ones outside the city will be spared, and they will still remember everything from before the reset. Everyone else will forget everything - including all the pain they've experienced, the horrors they've been through, the families they've lost and the murders they were forced to commit. They'll get a chance to start over and forget all the traumas they've been through. But in Tris' other choice, half of them will get gunned down by a crazy lady and her army of homeless people.

Yeah, I'd say Tris chose wrong.

Not everyone needs to die. 

There are two reasons for an author to kill off a character: plot or shock.

Or because you've cast Sean Bean to play him. That works too.

Killing off a character for plot usually manifests itself in one of two ways - you might need that character to not be around for future events, or you might need to instill a personality change in a main character. In the first case, it goes something like, "We were counting on Timmy to do X thing, but now he's dead and we still need X thing done. Conflict!". Ned Stark up there is a great example - he had vital information about Joffrey's parentage that he was going to spread around; that information would have been really useful to a lot of people later in the books. Unfortunately, since Ned is too dead to gossip, the plot has gone in a different direction. In the second case, we get something like "Jim-Bob was always a passive person, but since Timmy died in a grain thresher, he's become angry and gluten-free". In other words, there is a tangible change in an important character because of the death. Think of Sirius Black from Harry Potter - his death may have affected later events in the series, but the main reason for killing him off was to give Harry more determination to succeed. In both cases, the character's death matters, and works to advance the story somehow.

Sirius's death also inspired the worst tribute haircut of all time.

If an author can't find a way to kill off a character for plot purposes, they do have something to fall back on: shock. In essence, you murder a character just to make the audience gasp and marvel at the heartless world you've created. Bonus points if it's a funny, beloved, gentle or otherwise likable character. The story isn't really better for this character being dead; the whole point is to get a knee-jerk emotional reaction from the reader. There were arguably a few deaths at the end of the Harry Potter series that only served to shock the reader - the story was almost at the end, and Rowling wanted to make sure you'd been given a swift kick to the heart before it was over.

Was this really necessary, J.K. Rowling?

The thing about shock deaths is that they work really well once or twice. Maybe three times if you're skilled. The readers' hearts break, they grieve, and they grip the pages a little tighter as they read on, hoping that their remaining favourite characters won't meet the same fate. If you need a way to make sure that your readers are good and attached to your characters, killing one of them tells the audience that 'hey, this is the kind of story where people die, and no one is safe. Better enjoy your beloved Jim-Bob while you can, because there's another grain thresher coming up in chapter 6 and he might be next." But, like novelty frozen yogurt shops and threesomes with former Spice Girls, there can be too much of a 'good' thing. When you write a story where virtually every character is guaranteed a horrible death at some point, readers check out. It's a basic survival instinct - why would anyone let themselves get attached to someone who is doomed to be shredded in a piece of farm equipment at some point or another? People care about the first death in a story - unless you've crafted a once-in-a-generation story like Harry Potter, no one cares about death #18. 

Incidentally, Death #18 in the Harry Potter series is Mrs. Abbott, Hannah Abbott's mother. So, no, you probably didn't care.

And that's one of the biggest problems with the Divergent series, Allegiant in particular - everyone dies. No, seriously. Take a look at this list of main characters from the books:

Tris Prior
Tobias Eaton
Christina
Will
Al
Peter
Edward
Molly
Eric
Jeanine
Tori 
Uriah
Lynn
Marlene
Shauna
Caleb
Andrew Prior
Natlie Prior
Marcus Eaton
Evelyn Johnson
Cara
Johanna
David
Nita
Matthew

Look at that list. Notice anything? Most of those characters are dead. The series ends with 13 dead main characters and 12 living ones. That's 52% of the main cast deceased. And of the characters who do live, one is crippled for life, one is wandering around in a haze of self-induced amnesia, and the rest are doing their best to ward off their suicidal thoughts long enough to eke out empty lives in the shadows of all the people they've lost. 

And the problem is, I don't care. 

When Al throws himself into the chasm in book one, that's tragic. He's a scared, lost kid with an uncertain future who made a big mistake he couldn't fix, and he succumbed to his despair. Sad. Will's death is also heartbreaking; he attacks Tris while under mind control and she's forced to fatally shoot him in self-defense, an action that haunts her for the rest of her life. Very sad. But by the time we hit Allegiant, things start getting ridiculous. In short, people die for the sole purpose of making the book dark. Tori is murdered in an ambush that is never really explained, just to prevent her from having a happy reunion with her long-lost brother George. Uriah is killed for the crime of standing near a wall, just to make sure Tobias breaks his promise to Zeke. In fact, Uriah's best friends, Lynn and Marlene, are killed for equally dubious reasons, making this the first book I've ever seen that resolves a love triangle by murdering everyone involved in it in unrelated incidents. And when the first-person series switched to a new narrator in Allegiant, I immediately figured that something terrible was looming for our protagonist.

Yeah, you should look worried.

Even the main character's death was senseless; she makes a noble sacrifice and survives impossible odds, only to be shot dead by a last-second plot twist, all to prove some abstract point about love and selflessness. She's the last character to die in the books (with the exception of David, who died an offscreen, Veronica Roth-confirmed death from his injuries); by the time she hits the ground, all of her friends are already dead. It's not shocking. It's not surprising. It's not even sad; I'd given up any attachment I'd had to the characters long ago and just started flipping through the pages, waiting to see how the next one would bite the dust. Their deaths went from tragic to ordinary.

And if there's one thing Dystopia shouldn't be, it's ordinary.

1 comment

  1. This is one of the best reviews I've ever read. You nailed it, everything wrong with Allegiant - the ridiculous backstory and the total bastardization of basic biology, the completely illogical plot, the senseless deaths that serve no actual story purpose, all of it. Bravo!

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