Allegiant Guest Post: A Better Answer to Divergent Questions

Science and the Factions by Chana McCarthy

Full disclosure — So far I’ve only skimmed through Allegiant since the story just failed to grab me.  I’ll look for inspiration from John and HogPro readers to see if a close reading is worth the time.

I loved Divergent. Tris and Tobias were strong, well-drawn characters and their growing love story was compelling.  The idea of the Factions was absolutely fascinating and my interest in life in the varied Factions even carried me through Insurgent (though I thought it a weaker book).

Any work of fantasy or science fiction has to be plausible enough for a reader to suspend disbelief; this is particularly challenging for authors who attempt multi-volume series.  Every ‘alien’ world begs certain questions.  The Harry Potter reader has to be able to believe that witches and wizards are roaming around contemporary London without us Muggles being any the wiser.  JK Rowling accomplished this with the Statute of Secrecy and the self-segregation of Wizarding kind.  Indeed these simple plot devices provide much of the ongoing humor in the Harry Potter series (consider one of my favorite chapters, The Other Minister).

The world of Divergent raises three basic questions:

1. Why was everyone in Chicago isolated from the outside world?
2. How did the Faction system evolve — or alternatively why was it imposed?
3. Why were the Factionless and Divergent considered a threat?

Allegiant postulates that the system arose out of a failed genetic experiment, but this answer is quite implausible and leaves Question 3 largely unanswered. It is unfortunate that Roth (a very talented, but young writer) seems to have done too little research and apparently never ran her ideas past any one trained in biology and/or medicine.  In fact there is a very simple, scientifically possible answer to the three questions that would have given the series a more interesting direction.

Starting with Question 1: The most logical reason to isolate a population is to escape an epidemic.  It is easy to imagine that a global pandemic, such as the Black Plague or the 1918 flu might have hit the world; and it is equally plausible that a few quarantined sub-populations might have survived.

Question 2: Why the Factions?  Let us imagine that the pandemic’s pathogen caused mass insanity, a rapid mental decline into violence.  In a truly deadly pandemic the pathogen spreads incredibly fast and scientists would have had little time to make progress in understanding the disease; still, a few observations might have been possible.  For example, it might have been observed that individuals with certain very strong character traits (abnegation, courage, etc) showed immunity; monastic communities, New Age communes, or military groups like the Navy Seals might have demonstrated unexpected resilience.

Was there a genetic component (such as a linkage of traits to some immune system factor) or did those character traits somehow enable victims to fend off the infection-linked insanity?  In a real pandemic it’s unlikely that any one would have had time figure it out, but it is logical to assume that survivors would flee to quarantined communities, and knowing about the research on character-linked protection, would have set about encouraging the development of those traits, by selection and training.

These assumptions also lead quite logically to a reason why Factionless and Divergent would be considered dangerous: people lacking those strong character traits might be vulnerable to infection and might even be a reservoir population in which a latent infection could take root again.

A scientifically believable explanation like this would have taken the series in a more satisfying direction: What was the real history behind the Factions? Were there other groups that survived?  Did anyone out there know why the traits conferred immunity?  Was the pathogen still active and was it still as deadly?  Could Divergent and Factionless be immunized and reintegrated? Does Tris volunteer to be the test subject who is deliberately infected with the dread disease? Great fun and all sorts of terrific ways the plot could twist and turn while still incorporating powerful themes of choice, courage and self-sacrifice.

Instead Roth writes herself into a corner in Insurgent and by Allegiant she is forced to fall back on a bizarre, proliferating arsenal of magical serums and a bewildering number of factions, sub-factions, GPs and GDs, all seemingly bent on out-plotting and out-fighting each other to no particular purpose.  The world of Allegiant most closely resembles the Congo, or perhaps contemporary Egypt — and be honest — when was the last time you cared enough to try and figure out those failed states?

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