The Norman Transcript

July 7, 2014

Dystopian societies in the pages of ‘Divergent’ and ‘Alas, Babylon’


The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — By Mary Newport

Transcript Staff Writer

Divergent (2011)

Veronica Roth's hit novel, “Divergent,” whirls readers into a dystopian society segregated by personalty traits. Members must define themselves as honest, selfless, brave, peaceful or intelligent. To lack a defining trait – or have more than one – is a death sentence. The premise is fetching, but diluted by the wash of teen dystopia works on the market.

What makes it stand out is the take-charge protagonist, Tris. On the eve of picking her faction, Tris is torn between what she wants and what her family wants for her – but she isn't the kind to sit around moaning about it. Where many main characters stumble into adventure or are pulled into conflict by greater forces, Tris is a vivid individual who pushes the action instead of waiting for it. She dives headfirst into her future, where secret plots, crazy stunts and near-death experiences are daily occurrences.

Tris's leap-before-looking attitude is an apt reflection of the book itself. The pace is fast and action-packed, with a refreshing lack of introspective moralizing. Roth leaves it to readers to weigh the merits of her characters' actions; the characters themselves are too busy jumping onto trains, off buildings and into trouble.

Roth also knows how to build a budding teen romance readers can root for. It fits into the action seamlessly, without being unnecessarily soppy or awkwardly sexy. Even better, it's realistic – Tris doesn't have every male in the book falling at her feet; she has romantic ups and downs like anyone else.

The only downside to the constant action is that scenes that should be emotionally gripping feel a bit rushed, and Tris sometimes comes off as cold in the face of death. This may, however, simply be the price for refusing to slow down. All in all, “Divergent” is a nail-biting, page-turning, edge-of-your-seat thrill ride neatly packed into less than 500 pages.

Read if: You like The Hunger Games, parkour and capture the flag.

Don't read if: You're afraid of heights or teenagers.

“Alas, Babylon” (1959)



The premise of Harry Hart Frank's 1959 classic "Alas, Babylon" will be familiar to many readers. The dangerous powder keg of American-Russian relations finally ignites. Russia strikes with nuclear missiles, and in the space of an hour hundreds of American cities are burned from the face of the earth.

Frank meant to give America a warning by painting a vivid picture of a holocaust too big to be imagined. He tried to show personal fear through the eyes of a small town that survives the first flames of war but slowly strangles in a world bereft of order. His work strikes deeper than he intended. "Alas, Babylon" is not a book about war but a book about people, one that transcends time and place to show how individuals break down or grow up as civilization crumbles to ash around them. Readers will recognize their friends, neighbors and selves as the citizens scrabble for food and security in a world where money and the rule of law mean nothing.

The worst threat the town faces is not starvation, radiation or rampant disease -- it is each other. In the face of war, some men become dogs, which makes "Alas, Babylon" an uncomfortable read in more ways than one. The book is unflinching in its portrayal of racial tension and male attitudes toward women in the 1950s, lines that are sharply revealed as desperation strips away the civilized veneer.

"Alas, Babylon" is raw, passionate and moving. It was one of the first post-apocalyptic novels about nuclear warfare, and decades later it's still in print and on Amazon's best-seller list. Anyone who reads it will see why.

Read it if: You've ever wondered how war would affect you personally.

Don't read it if: You enjoy censored books.

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