Everything that rises must diverge.

Earlier in the day our kids invited me to join an action figure battle. My son began with a screaming frog that would build an army with only its voice. One soldier at a time, one shrill call at a time. My daughter formed a small battalion of medics. Insurmountable as a whole, you see, because if any one character was wounded, the others would step in at once and heal. That easy. My base was equally postmodern: an Iron Can controlled remotely by Iron Man. A Lego scout cruiser that launched into dubstep drive instead of warp drive. An energy shield powered by dice. Then I watched Divergent with my wife.

It is difficult to say which setting was more contrived: the five social divisions as detailed in the film, or the three-way brawl as created from scratch by two children and their space opera-geek father. As a writer and proud dad I would like to claim that our afternoon offered more preposterous rules and counter-intuition, but that might not be true.

For those readers not familiar with the Divergent plot, try one of these reviews (for example, Claudia Puig’s takedown for USA Today: “ironically for a film about non-conformity, it adheres to the playbook rather slavishly”). The only point we will add is the entirety of the dystopia: characters no longer carry wallets, amuse themselves with cell phones or check out hardbodies online. The Erudites are so tied up with thinking–and the Abnegations so occupied handing out food, the Candors so busy being candid–that a quick round of Xbox is out of the question.

Tattoos being the one exception. In the future there will be ink but no viral cat videos. And good riddance.

That the viewer spends so much time silently questioning logistics is unfortunate, because there is a great story inside the implausible totalitarianism and teen angst gone supernova (research opportunity: the number of viewers aged twenty and up who walked out when Tori said “You don’t fit into a category, they can’t control you”). If it takes a cast of beautiful Caucasians to offer up a YA metaphor for the caste system, so be it. Contrary to expectations, Shailene Woodley does not simply remove a pair of eyeglasses to reveal that—voila—Tris has been gorgeous all along. And rarely is a team of soldiers or law enforcement officials so open on the subject of fear. Indeed, in Divergent, the mark of successful warrior is one who does not shed her phobias too quickly or easily.

It is a familiar, engaging tale of resistance, done almost right. And that is why the viewer takes the repeated missteps so personally. The five-faction system is not just a house of cards, but an inverted pyramid of cards, glued together only by focus-group, age-specific symbolism (the plot owes its very existence to the fact that teenagers delight in stereotyping, but cannot stand being stereotyped in return). It is so regimented the narrative practically halts itself. Among our many questions: Once Tris chooses a faction, she chooses forever? And can never again see her parents? By law? If she fails in her training she will be cast out, forced to eat scraps from the street? And how exactly does that help stabilize the regime?

One more: why would an Abnegation ever marry another Abnegation?

The film tries to preempt our cross-examination of why? why? and why?. Enter the over-thinking Erudite, who faults human nature and our struggle for sovereignty: “The system removes the threat of anyone exercising their independent will.” But is the state-sponsored Aptitude Test not an official effort to quantify human nature into the five broad categories? And is the Choosing Ceremony not an official endorsement of independent will? If the answers to both questions are yes, then why are we here again?

There are two sequels in the works, and—though I have not read the books—it is a safe bet that the third film will see the entire system collapse. If so, credit the humble laws of gravity, not the end result of great character development and storytelling. If there is a message to writers here it is this: build us a new world. But live in it before we do. Walk around, kick the tires, have a Diet Coke. You just might find you filled the place with tripping hazards.


Review guidelines

As of May 6 I’m reviewing again. Being listed as Kindle Book Review’s first contact–and as their only nonfiction contact–certainly has its advantages. But after declining several New Age books and two consecutive success/wealth building books, I realize it’s time to be a little more specific with what authors should expect.

I have previously reviewed fiction: Love by Lucille Redmond was unbelievable, as was Woody Guthrie’s novel House of Earth. That said, I do not believe a relatively obscure fiction writer should offer reviews to another. There is too much temptation for review swapping: cooperatively, in the form of positive reviews, or punitively, in the form of negative ones. Ultimately neither of those would do us any favors, so please, do not submit fiction of any type.

Given the opening paragraph, hopefully you are already discouraged from offering texts on New Age, success, self-help or investing. I have very specific, long-established views on the subjects of economics and cosmology, and they are not likely to change. It would be unfair to subject you to my biases. Please do not contact me for reviews on these subjects.

Politics or current events?  Maybe.  Is it well-researched and well-considered?  Or does it offer the reader little more than a glass of Kool-Aid?

Ultimately you should know a reviewer’s tastes before submitting anything, so by all means feel free to follow and interact with me on Twitter.  That’s more than some authors are willing, so here are the links to all of my nonfiction reviews, per category: music (1, 2, 3, 4 and 5), history (1, 2 and 3), science, philosophy and biography (1, 2). Aside from Lucille Redmond’s anthology of short stories, my favorite of these books was Lina and Serge: The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev: “If anything the pages turn too quickly, the story is too familiar.” Morrison forms a deep emotional attachment between reader and subject within the first few pages of the book.

A caveat: typographical errors and its/it’s mistakes are significant turn offs.  The well-written argument does not require huge font, red font, SHOUTING, slammer arrays!!!, or other visual delights to get its point across.  Clever interior page design is great, but if want a fourth or fifth star, the narrative needs to be content edited, copyedited, proofread and compelling.

One last request: patience.  As you can see I average about one review a month.  It will take me a week to consider your pitch, therefore a full PDF or ePub copy of your book will speed things along nicely.  Depending on length, I’ll need another two weeks to read and, finally, a week to write the review.

If you’re still reading, that’s wonderful.  We’re half-way there.  Reach out to at ASongForMagsa [at] gmail dotcom and we can discuss further.


Our favorite reader of all time (Dave K.) writes us about Book of Constants and My Wounded Specular:

The stories are, of course, great. Very deep, but subtly so. They’re the kinds of stories that teachers refer to in Philosopy classes. Like for instance, the way that past and present are like specular reflections of each other. (I admit I had to look up what specular meant.) And they both worked together really well, both being about how the past and future interact. I loved the idea that fortune telling would be the big taboo for C8s–and the bit about [SPOILER REMOVED!] was striking, and creepy. And it resounded with Vincent’s mute son as well–that he was the one that revealed the secret–or at least brought it to light–the actual revelation having to be done by Vincent himself (shades of Oedipus there!). And that his only word was Yes. There’s really a lot for a reader to dig into in these. And they’re touching too. Very cool.


Dave K. writes in with more remarks on C.E. Alexander’s collection of short stories The Music and the Spires. Buy here. Read more here.

Been reading some more. “Vibrant” was so wonderfully creepy. Nightmarish…. And Radio Wind is a great phrase (one I’m sorely tempted to appropriate). I have to read it again, I think there are things I missed–especially in the relationship between Bleibtreu and the guard.

Loved “Dogs and Baghdad”–maybe my favorite so far. At first I was kind of startled with the straight real world setting, but there’s still this sense of unreality permeating everything. Like the way everything is somehow mediated–the body painting through video, the conversations with Goose through translation, even the way that the feeding of the owl was somehow weirded out by the naming of the mice…. And then of course, that damn televised invisible war is hanging over everything. The story reminded me of good collage–with elements working together to produce a feeling rather than a thought. Did you ever see any of Rauschenberg’s combines? Some of them (like Odalisque, and Bed, and even Monogram) are kind of stunts, but some of them–Canyon for instance–are amazing. Very sad. And profound without being pretentious–which is something people don’t even try anymore. Anyway, I’m digging the book.


“I…really like the sense of dread and unease in both, and how it’s not so much a dread of physical violence so much as ontological violence. There’s a sense in both that reality is very thin.”
–Dave K., via email, about “A song for Magsa” and “Back and forth,” from the short story collection The music and the spires.

Ending the week on a high note. Thank you, Dave!

(Oh, and Elysium’s name change to The Lotusland? That’s yesterday’s news. We’re rolling with Bar Juchne, and that’s final. Maybe.)