Novel * Veronica Roth * Y.A.T. Dystopia * 2012
Since we are dealing with the middle book of a defined trilogy, we are essentially dealing with the middle chunk of a larger story. As such, both the beginning and end are rather abrupt when taken on its own. I’m not going to bother re-explaining how the world of Insurgent is set up, but since we’re picking up pretty much exactly where Divergent left off, that world is all manner of disarray. Shit blew up real good in the last installment, and the first part of the book is basically just coming to terms with the aftermath. I continue to be impressed with Roth’s ability to keep her story moving rather than get sucked into some kind of overly descriptive morass of myopic navel-gazing about the end of their society. That said, there is an issue in this first section that I’m going to take a moment to address.
So, Beatrice, right? At the end of Divergent, she not only lost both of her parents in the Erudite/zombie-Dauntless attack, she was also forced to kill one of her best friends, Will. While he was totally acting outside of his own will at the time, and Tris acted completely in self-defense, she’s still pretty fucked up about it. Which is totally understandable! She’s only 16, and this is some seriously traumatic stuff she’s going through. Since we’re seeing everything through her point of view, obviously this entire first part of the book is seen through the lens of a girl who has lost both parents and her innocence in a single day. I’ve never killed anyone (YOU CAN’T PROVE ANYTHING), but I imagine that such an act takes a toll. Now, add to this already volatile emotional stew an equally messed-up boyfriend and you end up with a lot of teen angst. Frankly, it gets tiresome to read sometimes. The thing is, where I don’t put up with such nonsense in other stories, I feel that all the emotional turmoil is totally earned here. Also, much to Roth’s credit as a writer, she’s adept enough at pacing and action that just when the Tris-whining gets to be almost too much (which is, of course, how Tris herself feels), some shit pops off to distract everyone with quality violence. So far, so good.
The one thing I was hoping for with this book, which is to say a little more world-building, is something of a disappointment. Well, I’ll amend that to say my hope has been deferred. While Insurgent makes a point to spend insightful time with the other factions (Amity, Candor, Erudite, and the factionless), very little is mentioned about anything happening outside of Chicago, and at this point in the story such an absence is getting… conspicuous. Meanwhile, the world within the fence continues to crumble while our last free heroes battle the power-mad Erudite leader, Jeanine. And let me tell you a thing: that is not a scary name for your big, powerful villain. Jeanine has never struck fear in anyone. Jeanine is your mom’s friend who is into boxed wine and crafting with beads. Jeanine picked you up from soccer practice that one time your mom had to go bail dad out of jail, and totally didn’t judge them for it. Jeanine is a den mother, for crying out loud, and is more adept with pipe cleaners and googly eyes than she is with torture and mind-control. Uh, anyway, by the time this particular volume ends everything is total chaos, so let’s talk about that for a little bit.
There is an exchange towards the end of the book between Christina, Tris’ Dauntless buddy, and a young Erudite kid named Elia. It goes down thusly:
“Scrutiny’s not really our thing,” says Christina
“The how do you make things better?” the little girl asks.
“We don’t, really,” Christina says, sighing. “They kind of just keep getting worse.”
The little girl nods. “Entropy.”
“Entropy,” she chirps. “It’s the theory that all matter in the universe is gradually moving toward the same temperature. Also known as ‘heat death.’”
“Elia,” Carla says, “that is a gross oversimplification.”
Elia sticks out her tongue at Carla.
So, that’s probably the most adorable mention of entropy I’ve ever read, but it struck me as an odd thing to pop up in a conversational aside between action scenes. Carla, of course, is correct. There is a good deal to the concept of entropy than what is hinted at here, which is to say that while entropic forces are a real, sciency kind of thing, entropy is also an excellent literary metaphor. Most dystopias feature entropic ideas within their construction even if they’re not called out specifically as they are here. The idea is that society – any society – is doomed to rise and fall over time. This is borne out throughout history, so it makes sense to apply it to present and future tense as well. Most dystopian societies in fiction are set up to be knocked down, after all, although it should be noted that the society Roth has created has a key difference. Usually, within the dystopian framework, the society is created by those in power to solidify said power through harsh, repressive policies based on the totalitarian states of the mid-20th century. This society, however, seems at first to have been created by the people for the people. The factions were an attempt to essentially breed out humanity’s destructive personality traits by championing our better side. The power structure was even set up so that the group bred for selflessness would rule in the best interest of everyone, in order to avoid a Stalin situation within the society. Now, there’s obvious flaws in this set-up, as I’ve pointed out before, but the overall creation of the society seemed to be one of popular consent. The ending of Insurgent kinda fucked that idea up, huh?
It turns out that all of Chicago is an experiment. There are pretty much zero details about any of this, because Roth is a dick and just ends the book right there with everyone all like ‘whaaat?’ and yelling, which is what it felt like internally reading it, so well done I guess. Anyway, even without details, the reveal answers the question as to why Chicago is isolated, and in retrospect this has all been pretty well telegraphed. The ending is also illuminated by understanding that bit about entropy Roth so casually includes right before everything goes nuts. Everything and anything is built to decay, right down to our very atomic makeup. The more complicated the structure, the more devastating the collapse. Sometimes the end comes quickly, other times the end drags on for centuries, but in the end it always comes. The social experiment that was taking place in the devastated city of Chicago failed hard, but according to principals of entropy, failure was the only real plausible outcome. Humans are self-destructive because the universe is self-destructive, it’s hard-coded into existence. Yeah, don’t look down that path too long or you’ll turn into a black-turtleneck-wearing-poetry-reading-Arby’s-eating-Camus-reading bummer.
If the underlying truth of the universe is that everything eventually decays into nothingness, then we as conscious, self-aware beings should probably find worth and validation in other aspects of existence. This is why I enjoy that exchange so much, because all that horrible biz is tossed out flippantly by some little girl like whateva whatevs, grownups are lame. So look, I don’t know how this story is going to end. Some people whose opinions I value have already poisoned the well a bit by telling me that it doesn’t end great, but we shall see about that. I suspect, looking at this story through the concept of ‘entropy-lite’ that we’re in for some societal reconciliation mixed with a heavy dose of renewed hope for the human species. I don’t know, that’s usually how these things end. Like, yeah yeah, all matter will eventually cease to exist, but there’s plenty of cool shit here right now, so let’s pay attention to that. I guess we’ll see. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to read something that doesn’t feature 16 year old kids acting like they’re the first ones to ever fall in love.