[contains essentially no spoilers]

I've been slightly obsessed with the movie Divergent since I saw it. It's a bizarre mix of utterly cliched teen coming-of-age, relatively rote (if bizarre and original) dystopia, and actual unusual narrative choices. I've remarked for a long time, it's perhaps the only movie where the totalitarian government's black-clothes-wearing, aggressive, violent enforcers are the good guys. Our hero wants to be one of them, without a trace of irony.

I don't totally like the comparison, but it's also worth pointing out that The Matrix does a similar thing – the violent, cop-killing, black-wearing extremists are the good guys. Not as part of a larger, "isn't life so complicated?" surprise story – it's just a facet of the story they wanted to tell about their characters.

Perhaps that captures why I've been fascinated with this movie, despite not being sure it's particularly good. It's not bad, certainly, but I heard the book is better, establishes a clearer tone, and is a better character study, so I've given it a shot.

It's probably important to say there are some ideas any reader should keep an eye on. The central conceit of the story is that people are divided into groups based on "core" virtues: selflessness, candor, fearlessness, intelligence, and friendliness. I'm not sure how core candor is as a virtue, but it doesn't really matter to the story – like all virtue essentialism, it ends up being a sick burn on almost everyone involved anyway. 4/5 of youngsters proudly self-select into the coward groups, and another (largely overlapping) 4/5 sort into idiot groups. It says a lot about how universal humility is in the world of Divergent, that people can recognize they aren't smart enough to build their lives around their intelligence, aren't honest enough to devote their lives to truth and fairness, and aren't nice enough to live a life of friendship and peace. People in Divergent have to either commit to a cult's lifestyle or admit, well, they aren't really virtuous after all.

That's the premise from which the book gets its name – that the people exhibiting more than one of those virtues is a threat to the state and is executed. And the more I think about it, the more I think, maybe that absurd nonsense premise is basically right.

Totalitarian governments ought to be fragile. The setting of the book and movie is a terrible place to live. So why wouldn't people fight back? Perhaps because they're not useful enough to do anything – but society needs some useful people. Surely someone would be brave enough to see the injustice and try and put a stop to it... unless, of course, you made sure brave people are never smart enough to find out how to do something without getting caught, never honest enough to confront a complex problem they've partially caused, never selfless enough to sacrifice their livelihood and place in the hierarchy, and never friendly enough to be inspired by someone else's sacrifice towards the goal of freedom. You'd also need to isolate the groups from each other, so teamwork is useless for these purposes. There are probably cheaper ways to have a totalitarian state, but perhaps none with an economy that has the growth needed for the disaster recovery needed in the book?

It's not totally laughable, I suppose – but they are basing national security on you correctly self-reporting a Myers-Briggs type, basically. It's not like it secretly makes sense.  

The book also sets Law as an institution against Government, making clear they are separate sources of power. That's an important idea, mostly forgotten these days, although it's got clear American influence (don't worry, it takes place in post-apocalyptic Chicago, so that's appropriate).

Tomorrow, I'll talk about the craft of the book – how it uses these ideas to compose a story.