I watched Divergent when it happened to come up on HBO last week, mostly because the recliner I was in was far too comfortable to get up, the remote was on the other side of the room, and I knew for a fact that HBO2 had The Other Woman on for the fifth straight day, so there wasn’t much point in retrieving it since the rest of cable had moved on to Ow, My Balls several years ago. Plus the bottle of whiskey was within reach, so don’t you judge me, you don’t know my life.
It was not nearly as bad as I’d expected, but then if you take a breeze through some of the films I’ve reviewed (one of those Twilights, Hercules, and not one but two Alex Pettyfer joints) it’s obvious that my capacity for being disappointed in movies is as weak as an aging porn star’s gag reflex.
So while the construction of the world was idiotic and superficial, not even remotely passing even the most cursory of plausibility tests, it was still a better love story than Twilight and had some interesting bits and pieces. That’s why I love science fiction, because I find some enjoyment even in the most abysmally bad entrants into the genre. Every science fiction story by the very virtue of being set outside of our world, has something interesting to it, some bit of originality, if only for a paragraph out of six hundred pages. And that’s why I read them and watch them, because even forests fallen to rot have a gorgeous tree or two hidden in the wreckage.
In Divergent, that interesting bit for me was in the hallucination tests regarding their fears. Oh the fears themselves weren’t interesting, mostly pedantic things, and the suspension of disbelief itself breaks down because Tris’ biggest and most deeply seated fear at that point is to be outed as a divergent, which had it occurred to the writer would have made a fantastic element of the test. But then if the writing was that good, it’d fix about seventy other things in the movie first.
For those who haven’t the stomach to endure the film, here’s the deal. Society is divided into personality types, and anyone who doesn’t fit neatly into a box is labeled divergent and put into their own category historically involving an unmarked grave. Shailene Woodley is divergent because otherwise the movie would be grossly misnamed. She pretends to be in the dauntless category for reasons, which is the faction that alternates between fascist and brave defenders of the nonsensical social order. Anyway. For the fear tests, you’re given drugs, they pop you into hallucinations that embody your absolute worst fears: for some that’s being trapped and drowning, for others that’s being lit on fire, attacked by birds, dangling from a great height. Typical phobia sort of stuff. People who belong in dauntless fight to find a solution in their hallucinations. They do not give up, do not freeze up, and work the damn problem. Divergents are easy to spot because they go Neo, realize the hallucination isn’t real, and just break the rules. Because they’re special fucking snowflakes.
The fear tests though sparked my interest exactly because of how in the back of my mind at least, they riffed with decades old memories of Star Trek II. Because James T. Kirk would have had a few words of wisdom for Tris and her fellow divergents: they’re missing the damned point.
The final test of command school in the Star Trek universe is the Kobayashi Maru. The cadet is placed in command of their own ship in a simulation. And they lose. No matter what they do, they lose. An ambush is sprung, their entire crew dies, their ship destroyed. The cadet can retake the test as many times as they want. And no matter what, the same inevitability happens. Of course, the cadet can run, can decide to not even try to save the ship blaring a distress call from over the border. Sometimes the right thing to do is to die trying.
Of course, Kirk was the only student in the history of Starfleet to pass the test. Because he realized it was a no-win situation and hacked the computers and cheated. As an older Kirk lamented, he had never faced death because he had never believed in situations that can’t be conquered. He pulled the Neo before Neo was a sparkle in a Wachowski’s eye. Divergents, just like Kirk, don’t face their fears, don’t master them, they just avoid them.
Pulling that, whether you’re college Kirk or a hiding divergent, is a rebellion of the young. It’s thinking that being able to outsmart the test equates to understanding the material on the test. Smart kids are like this all the time. They’re able to figure out the answers without knowing any of the material, get their A’s without learning a thing. I’ve been there before, and it feels at the time like you’re sticking it to the system, like you’re smarter than the system, that you’re better than it. But most of the time it just means that you’re gaming the system instead of using it for what it has to offer. Brilliance and laziness are highly correlated for that exact reason, because each enables the other.
But at some point gaming the system doesn’t work anymore. Not because eventually you run into a system smarter than you, but because dodging is just procrastination, not winning. Until you stand and fight, until you accept the chance of failure, you can never actually succeed. What older Kirk realized was not that some situations are unwinnable or that we have to accept defeat, but that some beatings shouldn’t be avoided but taken. Stand it like a man, said the eminent Swearengen, and give some back.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.