Divergent – Critical Thinking Skills as Super Power

After a long hiatus (during which I was doing an unfortunate amount of grad school things), I am back to my inquiries in speculative fiction and rhetoric with Veronica Roth’s 2011 young adult novel Divergent. Divergent was a favorite among Goodreads users in 2011, and the film adaptation comes out later this month.

The World: Set in post-apocalyptic Chicago, Divergent presents readers with a society divided based on what qualities or ideologies individuals hold most dear. The five factions — Abnegation, Candor, Dauntless, Erudite, and Amity — comprise people who have opted to live their lives committed to their faction’s guiding principle. Amity, commited to kindness and harmony, lives outside of town and tends the agricultural and water purification needs of the city, while Erudite, striving after knowledge, focus on scientific developments to keep food and water coming. Dauntless, whose guiding principle is bravery, take care of protecting the borders (though against what, no one knows). Abnegation, committed to selflessness, manages all goverment affairs (based on the assumption that power should be given to those who do not want it), while Candor, who value honesty, work to prevent corruption. Factions are supposed to be prized more highly than family ties, as an individual’s faction tells her who she truly is, and others can expect her to act in a predictable way based on her faction.

The Plot: We meet our protagonist, Tris, at the age of sixteen, right before she will choose her faction. Raised in Abnegation, Tris attends school with children from all factions where, at the end of their education, they are put through simulations to determine which faction they are most suited for. When Tris undergoes her simulation, she discovers that she is “divergent,” or suitable for multiple factions. Additionally, she is aware during simulations in ways that other are not. However, this ability might get her killed as divergent members of the population often disappear or die under mysterious circumstances once their divergence is discovered. While she is suitable for either Abnegation, Erudite, or Dauntless, Tris opts to join the Dauntless faction and spends the next few weeks training with other recruits. Though small and relatively weak when she begins, Tris rises through the ranks to graduate top of her initiation class. In the meantime, she also learns some family secrets and falls in love with one of her teachers, Four (so-called because he only has four fears, an highly valued characteristic in a faction that values bravery). However, the night after her graduation, all of Dauntless falls under a simulation (with the exception of a few key leaders) and begin invading the Abnegation part of the city, killing leaders and resistors along the way. As Four and Tris are both divergent and thus aware, it falls to them to do what they can to stop the massacre.

I have strong feelings in both directions about this novel. I’ll start with the bad because it’s easy and quick: I find the love story between Tris and Four annoying and uninteresting. I think this might be because it’s a stereotypical love story between teenagers with lots of “Does he like me or not?” It got old fast.

On the other hand, I really love that the super power of this world is, simply put, critical thinking skills. Tris, Four, and the other divergent are special because they can see the world around them from multiple viewpoints and take on multiple, sometimes conflicting, ideologies. And the fact that something as simple as taking on multiple perspectives can be a super power is a sharp warning about one possible future for us. In the subsequent novels (I’m currently listening to second of the trilogy, Insurgent, on audiobook), Roth explains that the faction system keeps people manageable by making them predictable; that is, keeping people committed to a single ideological framework is good for those in power (or those who are trying to come into power). And that reader can see each faction as having positive goals sharpens this critique, demonstrating that even values that we can agree are good are dangerous when they become a single focus. Of course, this kind of statement has been made frequently before. We’re familiar with the stories of those who pursue knowledge at the cost of human life, and we know why absolute honesty is not always the best policy. What Roth’s novel adds to this conversation is an illustration of how proponents of these values may interact. And while Tris’s rhetorical skills are not necessarily at the forefront of this first novel, I think they will become more important in the rest of the trilogy as she negotiates among various groups to stop a wannabe dictator from taking power.

The Scar – Agency and the Lack Thereof

China Mieville’s 2002 novel The Scar is a loose sequel to Perdido Street Station, set in Bas-Lag several months after the events of the previous novel. Like its predecessor, The Scar won the British Fantasy Award, and it was nominated for the Arthur C. Clark, the Philip K. Dick, and the Hugo awards.

The Plot: Bellis Coldwine, a former lover of Isaac Grimnebulin, has been forced to flee New Crozubon as all of Isaac’s friends and acquaintances begin disappearing, courtesy of the New Crozubon militia. Bellis books passage to a New Crozubon colony by working as a translator, but on the way her ship is commandeered by a New Crozubon spy and then by pirates. Bellis, the passengers and crew, and the ship are taken to Armada, a city constructed of other stolen ships and led by a pair of sinister figures called the Lovers. As this pair constructs schemes within schemes and persuades public opinion to their side, Bellis works with the New Crozubon spy to get a message back home.

I really like novels that feature “constrained cities”: cities that occupy a single (albiet large) building, cities that a hemmed in by external forces like nature, cities that occupy space ships/space stations, etc. So I found Armada completely fascinating, the details about social organization in the confined space, descriptions of living quarters carved out of what were formerly functional ship spaces, the public garden that had been built by raiding parties traveling to shore to steal dirt, and so on and so forth. What I like about these constrained cities is how often we see social structure affecting and being affected by physical structures; for example, what we think of as a family unit changes when there isn’t enough room for each group of husband, wife, and children to have their own quarters. Armada didn’t disappoint; in a city where the primary income is brought in through piracy, the residents have developed particular ways of divvying up the spoils, including those humans who are brought into residency against their will. Each riding has its own rulers and policies since the city has grown too big to be managed as a unified whole, as we see when the Lovers begin trying to do just that.

Bellis Coldwine was an interesting heroine. I found her immediately appealing because of the way she carefully considers her options in various situations: “Bellis sat still. She was not intimidated by this man, but she had  no power over him, none at all. She tried to work out what was most likely to engage his sympathy, make him acquiesce” (14-5). In the same way, she considers how others, especially the Lovers, are using language to persuade others. She is, in short, a rhetorician, weighing her available means of persuasion and analyzing the means of others throughout the novel as she navigates her way back to New Crozubon. If you read my posts about Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, and Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, you know that representations of rhetors and rhetoric in fiction is one of my primary concerns, and I really consider The Scar a win for rhetoric.

I kept thinking, though, as I was reading, that this novel seemed to be less political than Perdido Street Station; while the social organization of Armada is interesting, it also seems very tied to a particular physical organization and, consequently, has few implications for “real life”. I’ve decided, though, that this novel is just as political, but in a different way; rather than being a story about people getting together to do something, this is a story about not having agency. Bellis realizes at the end of the adventure (for lack of a better word) that she had been a tool the whole time, first of one man, then another. While she did influence the events that happened, she could not do so in any kind of informed or strategic way, because she never had enough information to really know what she was doing, even when she was very good at doing it. And Bellis was very good at persuading others, manipulating some events to (what she thought was) her advantage. When Bellis realizes that she had no real agency in the events, though, she simply accepts this, since her “service” does ultimately earn her a ride back to New Crozubon (so does that count as agency? I feel so conflicted…). It is Bellis’s reaction to this revelation that made me feel a bit, well, cold toward her; I found that I had been pulled into sympathizing with Bellis more than maybe I should have because I immediately grabbed onto what I saw as our commonalities (“You’re a rhetorician?! I’m a rhetorician too! We should hang out sometime!”). Her utilitarian reaction to being a pawn, though, rankles my sense of justice even as it caters to my cynicism. At the same time, the ambiguity I feel toward her now (she can be a right bitch at moments) makes her even better as a character, and I can think of few female fantasy characters written by men who have impressed me this much.

One last thing that I would like to note is that I think in this novel we see some inklings of Embassytown in Bellis’s work as a translator. She is frequently admonished to pay no attention to what she is translating, to only let the words flow through her, but this is, of course, impossible until she begins translating the abstract scientific language of Kruach Aum. That is, the language can only flow through her if it is language she doesn’t understand in the first place — if it isn’t really language to her at all because she cannot interpret it.


Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang – Cloning, Socialism, and the Individual

The blurb on the cover of my copy of Kate Wilhelm’s 1976 novel Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, my second book in the Worlds Without End Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge, claims that it is the most important novel about cloning ever. I was skeptical at first, but by the end of the novel I was pretty convinced that Wilhelm was doing something unique with the issue of cloning, engaging with the ethical issues from a different direction. At the same time, I’m still struggling with how to understand the final message of the text, whether Wilhelm wants us to celebrate the “individual” or understand that the “individual” is constructed out of a particular set of circumstances.

The Plot: David and his family begin reading the signs of the coming apocalypse with enough time to prepare an elaborate medical facility and living space for many people, including farmland and livestock. It quickly becomes apparent that the spreading plague and chemical fallout is making many of the inhabitants of the compound, both human and animal, sterile, and David and his fellow biologists design a plan for maintaining the human race via cloning. However, as the clones grow and develop, it becomes increasingly clear that they are incredibly alien from their human elders; rather than distinguishing themselves as individuals, clones understand the cloned siblings collectively to constitute a unit, and the mental development, including telepathy, reflects this. As the human elders die off, the clones set up a new society, but when the clones send off an exploratory party made up of individuals from different sibling sets, the traits of individuality begin to reappear, eventually resulting in the casting out of one woman and her further imprisonment upon becoming pregnant. Her son, Mark, is the protagonist on the last third of the novel, as the clones begin to exhibit signs of depletion in creative thinking and problem-solving skills and Mark begins his own plans to save the human race.

The novel’s division into three sections with multiple perspectives is interesting insofar as it does and does not allow us to enter the hive-mind of the clone sibling group. The hive-mind of sibling groups is difficult to represent through the kind of limited third person point-of-view that Wilhelm uses; it is almost as if as soon as Wilhelm becomes narrating from their point-of-view, the cloned characters begin separating from their siblings. And, this is exactly what is happening, though not necessarily because of Wilhelm’s narrating; instead, Wilhelm can only tell the story from the point-of-view of characters who are coming closer to the “individual” that we understand. Since part of the argument of the novel seems to be that the kind of hive-mind that is the consequence of human cloning is a bad thing, the reader not seeing things from the clones point of view works well.

Of course, hive-mind isn’t entirely a correct description; at first, the sibling groups themselves might be understood as individuals with many bodies. Increasingly, though, the clones become unable to function without someone to give them directions. The younger clones are unable to make meaning of abstract representations or conceive of anything that isn’t already in being. Wilhelm seems to be suggesting that individualization is key in problem-solving because it forces us to imagine what is going on in other’s minds in order to participate in social activities; because the clones are telepathic, they never develop these skills. Interestingly, the evolution of telepathy does not seem to affect the clones ability to use language, or even really seem to change the language they use. However, as the younger clones lose the ability to conceive of abstracts, they begin to see Mark’s ability to construct stories as something magical. One might even go so far as to say that rhetoric, or at least the canon of invention, is held in high regard within the discourse of this novel.

I’m still troubled by the ending. On the one hand, I can see where Rachel Hyland at GeekSpeak is coming from when she writes, “mostly it’s kind of a treatise on the value of individual liberties, almost an anti-Socialism manifesto, certainly a passionate argument against conformity.” It’s hard to miss the dystopic socialism of the clones, especially when they’re primary philosophy is this: “There is not individual, there is only the community […] What is right for the community is right even unto death for the individual. There is no one, there is only the whole.” At the same time, the necessity of the individual seems to be born out of particular circumstances; several times throughout the novel, Wilhelm alludes to pioneers and suggests that given the circumstances (i.e. human civilization crumbling and the clones having to rebuild the infrastructure), the ideology of the individual is the most effective for bringing about the changes the characters seem to want. Josh Wimmer at io9.com attributes the clones’ downfall not to their socialist practices but to their overriding need for safety, perhaps because the loss of a sibling is such a traumatic experience for the whole sibling group. This primary desire is not conducive to the kinds of activities and practices that must happen in order to revive something like civilization.

In the end, I’m pretty sure that Hyland is right, that the authorial audience for this text is one that would accept the argument that individuals and their rights are just better than socialist constructions. While I’m not persuaded of that, I am fairly convinced that “socialism” of varying degrees requires a certain kind of infrastructure, and that infrastructure is often built by the ideology of the individual.