[Small Chirp] The importance of a socio-economically viable premise in dystopian world-building

Disclaimer: CanaryTheFirst was a pol-sci major. She did the title.

When SciFi loses the ‘Sci’

When the pull to finish a book is siren-song strong, I usually think it’s because I’m truly enjoying myself. That’s how the first Twilight book tricked me. Now I know that when I finish a book that quickly, putting some distance and time between me and it are the only way to tell whether the book was actually good (like The Hunger Games) or if my brain was so engaged in the train-wreck of a narrative that I couldn’t look away (like with Twilight). And now I find myself in the same predicament with Divergent.

On the one hand, I can’t stop talking about it. I just kept telling people about the premise. My roommate. My mom. Sometimes the cat when there was no one else around to listen. But I get the same reaction each time (even from the cat): that world just sounds stupid.

As I explained in my review, the world of Divergent is split into five factions, each favoring one aspect of human nature: Abnegation (selflessness), Dauntless (courage), Erudite (knowledge), Candor (honesty), and Amity (friendliness).  And that’s not to say that they tend to defer to that personality when times get tough. They eat/sleep/breathe it. To pick a faction, members of the Abnegation only wear grey, default to the other person in conversation and opinion, and are in charge of feeding and clothing the homeless. They display no other traits in public (or in private).

Mreeowl, said our cat at this point, and I had to agree. It’s a great and unique idea for a world.

But it is also flat-out untenable.  Human beings have a wide range of emotional potential by nature–and consist of every trait imaginable. That idea that we learned to live as single-emotion cells for generations on end? That we willingly chose to repress all emotions but one? In a world that’s otherwise almost exactly like our own? No, that’s a stroll too close to the far-fetched line.

On the other hand, Canary The First thinks I’m being elitist. Surely, if a book is an enjoyable read, then it is a good book on some level—you shouldn’t have to put time and distance between the read and the analysis.

To some extent she’s right. Divergent was certainly enjoyable; I’ve already recommended it to several people. But just because something is pleasant does not mean that it won’t nag at my mind until even the initial enjoyment is gone (I’m looking at you, Inception). If my brain has to shut down completely to enjoy the fun factor, then the book probably isn’t achieving on all levels.

So what about you, Canaries? Do you ever find yourselves wondering whether the author had done any thought experiments before writing a world? What other universes have dipped too far to the unbelievable for you?

8 thoughts on “[Small Chirp] The importance of a socio-economically viable premise in dystopian world-building

  1. That’s a hard one… But, I think I would have to say that I can forgive a lot if the characters are strong. Still… I think unfeasible plot elements would niggle at my mind enough to knock even an enjoyable, and otherwise well-written, story off my top-rated list.

  2. I think if you’re going to have something that contrived as a worldview, there better be a pretty good explanation as to how the natural expressiveness of humans was beaten out of them. If they could do that, then I’d probably suspend my disbelief.

    For me, that’s what it comes down to — how readily can I suspend. If it’s easy, then I usually fall right in. If I have to put myself through some mental yoga and STILL look the other way, then it’ll bug me the whole way through and I’ll never “buy into” the story. I’m with you.

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