Divergent by Veronica Roth – A Visionary Fiction Alliance Book Review by Margaret Duarte

Same Umbrella, Different Factions

Violence aside, I would gladly welcome the dystopian sci-fi novel Divergent into our “faction” here at Visionary Fiction Alliance. Veronica Roth deserves her New York Times Bestselling Author status. She deserves her book’s 13,561 Amazon reviews (9,733 of which are five stars). She deserves her book sales of over eleven million. All these accolades are merited because Divergent is fast-paced, well told, and pumps out enough what-ifs and why-nots to satisfy the “Erudite” in all of us. In other words, Divergent is a fantastic read. The reason I cannot claim Divergent as visionary fiction is twofold:

  1. It does not explore the paranormal.
  2. It bypasses the spiritual.

Divergent is Devoid of the Paranormal

According to Hal Zina Bennett, publisher, writer, and expert on the genre of visionary fiction:

  • “…good visionary fiction takes us deep into the realm of mystery beyond the boundaries of our five senses.”
  • “The best characters in these (visionary) novels serve as mediators between the physical world we’re familiar with and the less familiar world of dreamtime—what C.G. Jung called the collective consciousness.”

As dystopian sci-fi, Divergent is categorized under the same speculative fiction umbrella as visionary fiction, but it differs from VF in that it does not include the paranormal, magical, or fantastic. Set in a futuristic Chicago, Divergent is played out in a world that has the same physical and biological rules as our own. The miracles that occur in Divergent are miracles of science, specifically computer and neuroscience, used in technologically-advanced—incredible, terrible—ways to control and manipulate faction members. Workings of the mind apply to the stimulation, rewiring, and control of the brain, including syringes with long needles plunged into the necks of “Dauntless” faction initiates to send mind-controlling serums and tracking devices into their veins. Tris, the protagonist, is always moving and choosing between worst-case scenarios, surviving via her two greatest talents: the ability to control her thoughts and the ability to forget about self—admirable qualities, but hardly paranormal. She spends no time connecting to anything even closely resembling the “collective consciousness” and only goes into “dreamtime” when forced to artificially by mind-controlling serums. Her survival depends on constantly purging her mind of doubt and fear. Either she’s telling herself, “This isn’t real” and “This is not about me,” or she’s not allowing herself to think at all. Everything about Divergent lies within the realm of the five senses and the scientifically possible (though in all hopes not probable) in the not-so-distant future.

Divergent Bypasses the Spiritual

Although God is mentioned four times by “Abnegation” faction members and Tris thinks fleetingly about God when she’s certain she’s going to die, no intelligent life-principle or transcendent intelligence is manifested, trusted, or relied upon in Divergent. The protagonist depends solely on their own wits, bravery, and power to fight human evil. If anything spiritual is going on, besides maybe Tris’s discovery that love and selflessness is all that matters, it’s never mentioned or referred to in this first novel of the Divergent trilogy. Even when in fear for her life (which happens a lot in the story), Tris does not resort to prayer or recognize an indwelling spirit operating through, for, or against her. Neither is she old enough or educated enough (leaning new things and trying to understand how everything works is the function of the “Erudite” faction) to reach deep within herself philosophically. Instead, she lets go of all thought and surrenders to pure instinct. Visionary fiction provides the kind of hope shouldered, at least in part, by a spiritual presence. Divergent, in contrast, provides little hope; and the little hope it does provide rests on the shoulders of a young and fragile protagonist one gunshot away from extinction. The futileness and emptiness of depending solely upon humans to save our world is summed up in the words of Tris’s mother, “Human beings as a whole cannot be good for long before bad creeps back in and poisons us again.” Yes, individual confidence, determination, and bravery are commendable attributes, but there’s a lot to be said for supplementing what we know—or think we know—with the mystical and esoteric knowledge of those who trekked the path before us. Wisdom of the ancients can add depth to our “modern” spiritual journey, a spiritual depth lacking in Divergent. That old knowledge is sacrificed for the new in the Divergent world is hinted at by Tris’s observation when visiting the main “Erudite” factor building, which, of course, is a library. “Bookcases seem to be decorative more than anything, because computers occupy the tables in the center of the room, and no one is reading. They stare at screens with tense eyes, focused.”

Beyond Physical Vision and Human Intellect

Don’t get me wrong, Divergent has much to say, especially about love and selflessness. As Tobias, Tris’s instructor and love interest, says:

  • “…it’s when you’re acting selflessly that you are at your bravest.”
  • “I have a theory that selflessness and bravery aren’t all that different. All your life you’ve been training to forget yourself, so when you’re in danger, it becomes your first instinct.”

However, from my perspective as a visionary fiction writer, one of the most important gifts we can give our readers comes from a world beyond physical vision and human intellect, a world that acknowledges and accepts the manifestation of some kind of unifying presence (be it omnipotent, omniscient, transcendent, or otherwise) in the lives of our characters. Besides telling a good story, VF enlightens and encourages readers to expand their awareness of greater possibilities. It helps them see the world in a new light and recognize dimensions of reality they commonly ignore. In the words of visionary fiction writer, Jodine Turner: Often relegated to the genre of Fantasy, Inspiration, or Spirituality, it (visionary fiction) contains elements of all three. But the story line is generally more concerned with the protagonist’s internal experiences, where non-logical methods – such as visions, dreams, psychic phenomena, past life remembrances, or forays into uncharted planes of existence – are the unique catalysts for radical shifts in perception. Characters explore alternative dimensions, sometimes willingly and sometimes not. They break from our everyday conditioned reality to glimpse a more enlightened doorway into unconventional perspectives. In a world riddled with fear, misunderstanding and lost hope, I believe there are people prepared to transcend the boundaries of their five senses and open to new thoughts and ideas. In other words, I believe the audience is ready for fiction that heals, empowers, and bridges differences.

By now you might be wondering which faction you would belong to: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, or Erudite. Why not take the faction quiz here to find out? According to my test results, the faction I have the greatest aptitude for is “Amity,” with “Erudite” coming in a close second. But would “Amity” be the faction I’d choose to enter for the rest of my life? Would I prioritize music, the arts, and happiness (Amity) over learning new things and understanding how everything works (Erudite)? Fortunately, that’s a question I’m not forced to answer. In this world, anyway.


26 thoughts on “Divergent by Veronica Roth – A Visionary Fiction Alliance Book Review by Margaret Duarte

  1. Victor E. Smith says:

    Thoughtful, well-written and provocative post, Margaret; and in the process you've blow the lid right off the Pandora's Box of VF and let a lot of the sacred cows out (how's that for mixing metaphors?). Had I the time to do so, I would read Divergent before I opened my mouth, but, discretion to the wind, here goes.

    It strikes me, just following the arguments in your review against it being VF, I could turn them around and make them arguments for. A couple of examples:
    – You say the book "bypasses the spiritual" but also that it has "much to say, especially about love and selflessness," two qualities that are held to be of supreme value in any spiritual system or individual.
    – You say "the miracles that occur in Divergent are miracles of science" as if miracles of science (Nature) are inferior to miracles contrary to nature. Some modern schools of spirituality, and some of science also, hold the vision that in the future spirituality and science will merge into Knowledge, all from the same source. Should we not include books that tend towards such a lofty vision?
    – You say Divergent "does not explore the paranormal" then quote from it: "All your life you’ve been training to forget yourself, so when you’re in danger, it becomes your first instinct.” Anyone who has mastered forgetting herself in the face of danger is certainly not normal in the human sense. I'd prefer to have that trick in my paranormal arsenal before ESP, clairvoyance, etc.

    That should serve to make my point (opinion only!) as the devil's advocate! Hope many others will chime in here and contribute to this discussion.

    Am also curious where the author takes all this in the other two volumes–from Amazon's reviews on the third book, Allegiant, it may go the way of Eliot's Ash Wednesday, ending "not with a bang, but a whimper." But that's way ahead of myself and Margaret's review.

    • margaretduarte says:

      Okay, Vic, here we go. Yes, DIVERENT has a lot to say about love and selflessness, and I wholeheartedly agree that both are qualities of supreme value in any spiritual system. In addition, love and selflessness are INVISIBLE REALITIES that lie outside the perceptions of our five senses and analytical minds.

      However, simply including these qualities in a novel's theme does not necessarily transform it into visionary fiction. I've read romance novels with some mighty fine examples of both qualities, and the genre of romance doesn't even begin to fit under the same umbrella as VF.

      As far as science goes, yes, VF is often a merging of science and spirituality, but the scientific atrocities performed on mankind in DIVERGENT are about as spiritual as the gas chambers during World War II. There's nothing "lofty" about scientific discoveries used to further selfishness and greed.

      And training one's mind to cancel out all but instinct in a near robotic way, may have some metaphysical aspects (in a mind-over-matter way), but again is not necessarily visionary. I see blank minds around me every day, especially while driving in traffic, and they scare the heck out of me.

      What I tried to do in this post is distinguish what makes a novel visionary rather than romance or sci-fi or fantasy or metaphysical. What sets VF apart?

      Let me take some comments (out of context) made in an email to me from Hal Zina Bennet, who in my opinion is an expert on visionary fiction: "…stories like this (visionary fiction) were not just entertaining; they provided perceptions (not just moral lessons) beyond everyday reality; they were rooted in the visionary, not because they were imaginative and clever stories but because the teller had glimpsed a truth beyond everyday reality." And he said, "You can have a 'traditional' story that seems very similar to a visionary story, told simply from rote, or derived from imagination, which is not visionary. It's awfully difficult to distinguish one from another unless the listener or reader also has a touch of the visionary."

      I'll save the rest of what Hal Zina Bennett said for a future post, since putting it under comments doesn't serve it justice.

      Anyway, thanks, Mr. Devil's Advocate. You certainly got my mind churning. Hope you do the same for some of our other readers.

      • Victor E. Smith says:

        Excellent rebuttal, Margaret. As the DA, will have to review the arguments further. I still can see it both ways, which can be mighty dizzying. Glad to see this kicked up some conversation. We should turn it into a round table or something of that sort.

  2. Leonide Martin says:

    Really appreciate this astute analysis of Divergent by Margaret Duarte. It clarifies the qualities and intentions of visionary fiction, and shows what is not serving these purposes. I have not been drawn to read Divergent, perhaps an intuitive guidance, and this confirms my choice.

    • margaretduarte says:

      That's exactly what I was trying to do here, Leonide, clarify the qualities and intentions of VF and show what is NOT serving these purposes. Only time will tell if my post meets any degree of success. DIVERGENT left me feeling empty, not inspired. Possibly in the next two books in the Trilogy, hope will appear.

  3. Admin - Eleni says:

    A story need not be spiritual or paranormal to touch upon the evolution of human consciousness, which is what makes VF visionary. It could be told from a purely philosophical perspective. Ayn Rand’s Anthem, which reminds me of Plato’s, Allegory of the Cave—is very visionary in scope; however, there isn’t a touch of spirituality to it. What I do find intriguing is that some of these philosophically themed novels have an overt spiritual feel to them. I’ve often wondered if it might have to do with the authors tapping into the spiritual realm and have no idea of doing so. Although Ayn Rand was an atheist, she used Prometheus and Gaia to symbolize the characters’ evolutionary growth in Anthem. So while the characters are not tapping into the collective consciousness, Ayn Rand surely did!

    Rand was known as a writer who espoused capitalism, but as a reader, so many inner-truths were pulled out of me when I read her books. I picked up on the themes as opposed to the political messages she was trying to sell. A visionary author can't help but be visionary, even when they're trying hard to leave out the spiritual side of life! Hmmm…perhaps Margaret, you might be correct after all about a book needing to be spiritual to be visionary. I must ponder over this one a little more to judge the validity of my opening statement!

    I have never read Divergent, but I wonder how Tris changes after she deals with her fears and ridding her mind of doubts. How does she emerge from the experience? In what way has she changed and how does it effect the story world? Answering these questions might present a clearer picture. But I agree that selflessness and instinct are not enough to make a story visionary. It would be Tris's motivation, drive, how and why she's changing in the story that would determine the visionary angle.

    • Victor E. Smith says:

      Your post, Eleni, led me to a further question re the meaning of "visionary" in the sense of futuristic. Checked the dictionary on vision and this meaning jumped out: the act or power of anticipating that which will or may come to be. Note that some of the great prophets (prophecy is a paranormal ability), spiritual and secular, foretold some very dire scenarios in their times–even Jesus supposedly foretold the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world. Am wondering if the futuristic element should be a required, or at least qualifying, component for VF. And, yes, I realize this opens several further avenues for discussion.

      • Admin - Eleni says:

        We already have that covered in the definition:

        “The story oftentimes uses reincarnation, dreams, visions, paranormal events, psychic abilities, and other metaphysical plot devices.”

        Prophecy can fall under any of those categories, so we're covered in that department. Futuristic, in and of itself I think further limits the genre. If we place too much emphasis on what VF fiction should or shouldn't have, I think will do more harm than good. Such as in real life, too many rules hold us down and keep us from evolving on our own. Let the evolution of consciousness flow organically with the writer's personal visionary experience. Amen!

  4. margaretduarte says:

    Hi Eleni. In response to: "A story need not be spiritual or paranormal to touch upon the evolution of human consciousness, which is what makes VF visionary."

    I think one of the issues here might be how we define "spiritual." According to Wikipedia, the term "spirituality" lacks a definitive definition. Do we as visionary fiction writers define spirituality as the search for the sacred? If so, how do we define sacred? Is the sacred that which is set apart from the ordinary? If so, what exactly sets it apart and what makes this extraordinariness worthy of veneration?

    If we do NOT define the spiritual as the search for the sacred, then how DO we define it? Wikipedia goes on to say that "the use of the term 'spirituality' has changed throughout the ages. In modern times spirituality is often separated from Abrahamic religions and connotes a blend of humanistic psychology with mystical and esoteric traditions and eastern religions aimed at personal well-being and personal development."

    Are we more focused on the personal well-being and personal development side of spirituality?

    The question is: How, exactly, do we as visionary writers define spirituality?

    If we're talking about feeling uplifted after reading a book, that covers many genres and many bases. If we're talking about the character's life changing in a way that makes it more expansive, happy, better, this also covers many genres and bases. Plus, many non VF stories have paranormal experiences.

    We can't be ALL INCLUSIVE.

    How do we distinguish ourselves from the many other genres listed under the umbrella of speculative fiction, including sci-fi and metaphysical?

    What EXACTLLY sets us apart?

    I believe it is a combination of the spiritual (non material) and growth-in-consciousness components, which leads back to the questions. How do we define spirituality and how do we define growth in consciousness?

    You made a good point when you said: "What I do find intriguing is that some of these philosophically themed novels have an overt spiritual feel to them. I’ve often wondered if it might have to do with the authors tapping into the spiritual realm and have no idea of doing so." Maybe this is where we need to search for the missing pieces to put the puzzle of visionary fiction together.

    Thanks for adding to this thought-provoking conversation.

    • Victor E. Smith says:

      You nailed the question: How, exactly, do we as visionary writers define spirituality? In its broadest sense, spiritual simply means non-material. Every thought–good, bad, or indifferent–is thus spiritual by nature. Consciousness too is basically all spiritual, brain theories of cognition aside. Quantum physics is now getting close to proving that the underlying "substance" of everything is likely spiritual.

      For VF we have to narrow spiritual down to more specific qualifying components that separate our genre from other related forms of fiction that have a spiritual component. One approach would be to start with what visionary fiction is not (Jung nails this quite well) and get agreement on that, then proceed forward from there.

    • margaretduarte says:

      Oh my gosh, yes, Loretta. Talk about a divergence of opinion! I'm thinking of doing a follow-up post titled "In the Eye of the Beholder." Likely each visionary fiction writer has his or her own opinion of what visionary and spirituality, even paranormal and magical, means to them. As I said in an email to fellow VFA visionaries, this post has really gotten me to thinking about what is and what is not VF. Right now I'm leaning toward it being more about the attitude of the writer than the story itself. Feel free to use the comment section of our posts to share your own views and opinions. One of our goals at VFA is to encourage dialogue about this genre that is still not a completed puzzle. I currently feel sort of "factionless." Maybe vf writers are DIVERGENTS and belong here because we don't fit anywhere else. Welcome to the discussion.

  5. visionaryfictionauth says:

    I love the discussion spurred by your article, Margaret. Thank you for bringing up all of the important questions that have arisen.

    I think trying to define spirituality is an eternal task and a centuries old question. This is not something I think we can do at the VFA. However, what i think what we can do is try to capture what spirituality means in Visionary Fiction.

    Because you are a VF author whom I respect, I honor your opinion that Divergent is not truly VF. If it doesn't feel like VF, doesn't smell like VF, doesn't taste like VF, it is probably not VF. And we still need some sort of more linear delineation, which is what our goal is.

    And, I agree with Vic. Some of the examples you illustrated for the purpose of disqualifying them as something spiritual, may have been spiritual indeed. They hold the qualities of spiritual, maybe spiritual growth, without the overt label as such. A rose by any other name…

    • margaretduarte says:

      Thanks Jodine for your input. If nothing else, this post has definitely spurred comment and thought about, yes, "what spirituality means in visionary fiction." I sometimes wonder if, as a visionary fiction writer, I am "faction-less," or even "divergent." Maybe I classify myself as a VF writer because I don't fit comfortably anywhere else. Or maybe I should just say that I write books that see the world through a different lens and are dedicated to making the world a better place. As Hal Zina Bennett said "visionary fiction like beauty is in the eyes of the beholder."

    • Victor E. Smith says:

      Seems important that VF authors differentiate between VF as a genre/super-genre according to Carl Jung's definition, a very big tent that includes most fiction that is not Realism, and VF as a Marketing Category, which MUST soon be clearly defined as a form of writing with a set of distinguishing characteristics. In the latter, VF can either be the work's main Category or its secondary Category, depending on the marketing conditions, author/publisher choice for emphasis, and actual mix of genre material. I believe too many of us are getting caught up in "many books have visionary elements," which is true, and the ensuing philosophical arguments. For marketing purpose, we have to be able to name off the chief characteristics; enough are in the book, it is VF; if no, not VF. My own researched choice of common characteristic is explained in A Case for Visionary Fiction, Part 2: What Goes into the Bucket? Obtaining general consensus on the characteristics of VF AS A MARKETING CATEGORY has to be the Alliance's top priority.

  6. Jim Murdoch says:

    Very good. I have neither read Divergent nor seen the movie, but what you say about Visionary Fiction makes me feel I am in the right group. "Often relegated to the genre of Fantasy, Inspiration, or Spirituality, it (visionary fiction) contains elements of all three." Thanks.

    • margaretduarte says:

      Hi Jim. Welcome to VFA. I visited your website and believe your work (metaphysical fantasy), may indeed find a home here. Your novel PONTIUS PILATE AND THE SWISS MOUNTAIN sounds fascinating. Feel free to submit a post for consideration here with your views on how your work fits into the VF genre. Each member's view helps clarify VF as a genre. As Vic says above, VF as a Marketing Category "MUST soon be clearly defined as a form of writing with a set of distinguishing characteristics."

  7. margaretduarte says:

    By the way, I'm reading a non-fiction book by Hal Zina Bennett called THE LENS OF PERCEPTION, which I believe can help us more clearly define VF as a genre. VF perceives the world through a unique "lens of perception." Our job is to clarify what that lens is.

  8. Klaus Schilling says:

    But is Divergent one of those show-dont-tell novels I dislike so much, or one of the great good old preachy novels?

  9. margaretduarte says:

    Hi Klaus. I'm not sure I understand what you mean by show-don't tell novels, but Divergent is definitely not preachy. It's pretty much action-packed, and does show what can happen when a faction of our society, devoid of all forms of spirituality (though this is not preached about in the film) and driven by greed and self-interest, takes an initially well-intended idea to its extremes and abuses its power. Unfortunately, this dystopian work of sci-fi leaves viewers with little to tag hope onto. I felt depressed after reading the book and seeing the movie, thinking, oh my, life in this world means nothing.

  10. Tahlia Newland says:

    I've read a lot of fiction with metaphysical and visionary elements that don't call themselves visionary or even metaphysical but I wouldn't put Divergent into that category. Yes, it has moments where deeper motivations and values are commented on, but it's not about a seeker on the spiritual path and, for me, that is what makes visionary fiction visionary.

    • margaretduarte says:

      Good point, Tahlia. That's what I mean about Divergent bypassing the spiritual. By spiritual, I don't mean religious. I mean, as you say, a seeker on a spiritual path. And I didn't sense that in Divergent. Thus, I can't claim it as Visionary Fiction.

  11. Samuel Ewing says:

    I watched the movie a few days ago. The perspective that cam to my mind was that in order to create a a harmonious ( society of conformists) society; one starts with finding out the personality/utility aspect that is most dominant in a person. This reminded strongly of Myers-Briggs, William Sheldon's somatotypes, etc. Once they are identified/ separated into groups of the same type, sent to specific micro-societies to live in, they can be easily controlled/subjugated for the elite that rules at the top. Also, the movie indicates that certain types feel superior to other types; rather than facing the reality that they are slaves. The city, of course has all the components of a slave colony, prison camp, lab rats in a test group, note the "tests" being performed. Advanced Dr. Mengele? It is hinted that the Divergent are more versatile, creative, pragmatic, and possibly the superior ones, thus, the elite's need to destroy them. Spoiler alert, the sequel, Insurgent, appears to hint at this Divergent, as the harassed new elite emerging from the various factions. What does visionary conceptions have to do with this? Not much. This is about the collective vs. the individual, the philosophy of ethics and morals, the issues of the good/bad of elites that are called factions, Plato's Republic, Brave New World, about manipulating humans as social animals through their emotions and technologies resembling advanced Pavlov's dog. High tech slavery. ****Personally, I prefer Patrick McGoohans television series, The Prisoner, where you have No. # 6, the example of a Randian Superman/Prophet type dealing with all of the issues in Divergent and Insurgent and more.

    Samuel Ewing

    • margaretduarte says:

      "What does visionary conceptions have to do with this? Not much. This is about the collective vs. the individual, the philosophy of ethics and morals, the issues of the good/bad of elites that are called factions, Plato’s Republic, Brave New World, about manipulating humans as social animals through their emotions and technologies resembling advanced Pavlov’s dog. High tech slavery." Well said, Samuel.


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