At the start of January I had a list of books that made an impression on me in 2020. However, I didn’t quite get to writing it up (just like last year!). It seemed right to finish it by the 2021 halfway point (where does the time go?). Maybe I’ll be more timely with 2021 books in 2022.
A different reading experience
Last year I was working from home for most of the year, and that changed what I read and thus what I’ve recommended. In previous years much of my reading has been done on the train going to and from work, which meant I had a dedicated block of time allocated each day. In the first few months of working from home I struggled to replicate that. I enjoyed the books I was reading, but I had other things on and they didn’t compel me to read large sections.
In later months that meant that I was far more systematic in the kinds of books I read. There was more fiction, and there was more conscious choice of page turners. I gave myself more permission to read for hours at a time if a book grabbed me, knowing that it would be balanced by days when I didn’t read much.
There were books that came highly recommended and which I’d intended to read for years, and mostly they justified the recommendation. If it weren’t for the fact that some of them I read many books in a series this list would be far longer.
Why can’t you write shorter reviews?
I think my book review posts have got longer each year. Why do I write at such length? Well, part of it is just that all my posts have grown longer (I actually wrote about that in my last post).
And perhaps an amusing quote from The Name of the Wind (one of this year’s recommendations) is relevant here:
“I tend to think too much, Bast. My greatest successes came from decisions I made when I stopped thinking and simply did what felt right. Even if there was no good explanation for what I did.” He smiled wistfully. “Even if there were very good reasons for me not to do what I did.”
Bast ran a hand along the side of his face. “So you’re trying to avoid second-guessing yourself?”
Kote hesitated. “You could say that,” he admitted.
“I could say that, Reshi,” Bast said smugly. “You, on the other hand, would complicate things needlessly.”
However, there’s a method to the madness: Whether or not the reviews are too long, I firmly believe mere recommendations aren’t enough without context. Feel free to skim through them or completely skip them, but I would never want to present a list of a dozen books from 2020 and go “Well, if you like one of them you’ll probably like all of them”.
Take for example this list: I struggle to see much in common between Small Gods and The Broken Earth Trilogy, though they probably both fit into the larger Sci-Fi / Fantasy genre. It may be that both appeal to people who have come out of oppressive religion. But for me I enjoyed them for very different reasons.
Some of my readers may like both, some one, some the other. Perhaps some neither. If I can’t say what it is about each one that appeals to me, how can others know which ones might appeal to their particular background and interests?
The same applies to things like humour: Both the Book World and The Story of God made me laugh uncontrollably, but I don’t think they have a lot in common. For one much of the humour lies in a knowledge of literature, while for the other it lies in a knowledge of the Bible. Perhaps both are still funny without their respective backgrounds - I’m not sure. But for me that is part of why they work.
As a result, the complete list may well show a lot about me. For example, I would judge that at least half the books in this list are there in part because of my religious upbringing and subsequent rejection of religion.
When I wrote about the Pennine Way, a colleague compared my writing to that of Cheryl Strayed. I’d already heard interesting things about Wild and thought about reading it, but last year I actually did.
And I’ll just say at the outset I think said colleague flatters me. Her writing is beautiful and, I would say, completely different from mine. And part of that is that her reasons for hiking were very different from mine (or, for that matter, from those of Awol, one of my inspirations).
Like Awol, there are experiences I recognise from my own hiking. But there was so much more. She had lost her mother to cancer several years before, and struggled finding her way forward. From the Prologue:
I was alone. I was barefoot. I was twenty-six years old and an orphan too. An actual stray, a stranger had observed a couple of weeks before, when I’d told him my name and explained how very loose I was in the world. My father left my life when I was six. My mother died when I was twenty-two. In the wake of her death, my stepfather morphed from the person I considered my dad into a man I only occasionally recognized. My two siblings scattered in their grief, in spite of my efforts to hold us together, until I gave up and scattered as well.
I’d ranged and roamed and railed—from Minnesota to New York to Oregon and all across the West—until at last I found myself, bootless, in the summer of 1995, not so much loose in the world as bound to it.
It was a world I’d never been to and yet had known was there all along, one I’d staggered to in sorrow and confusion and fear and hope. A world I thought would both make me into the woman I knew I could become and turn me back into the girl I’d once been. A world that measured two feet wide and 2,663 miles long.
A world called the Pacific Crest Trail.
And all those things are beautifully woven into the tale. She was even less prepared than I was and undertaking a much harder hike, but through a thousand miles she made it work. And the final result is a memoir not just of hiking but of life.
And the conclusion gets me every time:
After he drove away, I leaned my head back and closed my eyes against the sun as the tears I’d expected earlier at the bridge began to seep from my eyes. Thank you, I thought over and over again. Thank you. Not just for the long walk, but for everything I could feel finally gathered up inside of me; for everything the trail had taught me and everything I couldn’t yet know, though I felt it somehow already contained within me. How I’d never see the man in the BMW again, but how in four years I’d cross the Bridge of the Gods with another man and marry him in a spot almost visible from where I now sat. How in nine years that man and I would have a son named Carver, and a year and a half after that, a daughter named Bobbi. How in fifteen years I’d bring my family to this same white bench and the four of us would eat ice-cream cones while I told them the story of the time I’d been here once before, when I’d finished walking a long way on something called the Pacific Crest Trail. And how it would be only then that the meaning of my hike would unfold inside of me, the secret I’d always told myself finally revealed.
21 Lessons for the 21st Century
Yuval Harari Noah significantly changed my view of the world with Sapiens and Homo Deus. So when I heard about 21 Lessons I was always likely to read it.
Where Sapiens dealt with the past and Homo Deus with a more distant future, this one is more focused on the present and near future. Take for example these quotes from the introduction:
In a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power. In theory, anybody can join the debate about the future of humanity, but it is so hard to maintain a clear vision. Frequently, we don’t even notice that a debate is going on, or what the key questions are. Billions of us can hardly afford the luxury of investigating, because we have more pressing things to do: we have to go to work, take care of the kids, or look after elderly parents. Unfortunately, history gives no discounts. If the future of humanity is decided in your absence, because you are too busy feeding and clothing your kids – you and they will not be exempt from the consequences. This is very unfair; but who said history was fair?
Perhaps most importantly, artificial intelligence and biotechnology are giving humanity the power to reshape and re-engineer life. Very soon somebody will have to decide how to use this power – based on some implicit or explicit story about the meaning of life. Philosophers are very patient people, but engineers are far less patient, and investors are the least patient of all. If you don’t know what to do with the power to engineer life, market forces will not wait a thousand years for you to come up with an answer. The invisible hand of the market will force upon you its own blind reply. Unless you are happy to entrust the future of life to the mercy of quarterly revenue reports, you need a clear idea what life is all about.
The revolutions in biotech and infotech will give us control of the world inside us, and will enable us to engineer and manufacture life. We will learn how to design brains, extend lives and kill thoughts at our discretion. Nobody knows what the consequences will be. Humans were always far better at inventing tools than using them wisely. It is easier to manipulate a river by building a dam across it than it is to predict all the complex consequences this will have for the wider ecological system. Similarly, it will be easier to redirect the flow of our minds than to divine what it will do to our personal psychology or to our social systems.
In the past, we have gained the power to manipulate the world around us and to reshape the entire planet, but because we didn’t understand the complexity of the global ecology, the changes we made inadvertently disrupted the entire ecological system and now we face an ecological collapse. In the coming century biotech and infotech will give us the power to manipulate the world inside us and reshape ourselves, but because we don’t understand the complexity of our own minds, the changes we will make might upset our mental system to such an extent that it too might break down.
And much of that reminds me of Homo Deus, while quotes like this are pure Sapiens:
In fact, humans have always lived in the age of post-truth. Homo sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions. Ever since the Stone Age, self-reinforcing myths have served to unite human collectives. Indeed, Homo sapiens conquered this planet thanks above all to the unique human ability to create and spread fictions. We are the only mammals that can cooperate with numerous strangers because only we can invent fictional stories, spread them around, and convince millions of others to believe in them. As long as everybody believes in the same fictions, we all obey the same laws, and can thereby cooperate effectively.
I don’t think it’s changed my view of the world in the same way as the first two, but it’s still thought-provoking and quotable and worth reading. It covers a wide range of subjects, from immigration to nationalism to religion to Facebook, touching on truth and story, justice and community and meaning and meditation and so much more. His criticisms of religion in particular are both harsh and well justified.
For the last few years this has been the book that I saw everyone recommend. And after reading it I can understand why. It’s quite a journey from her upbringing in fundamentalist religion and in a prepper family, so worried about government intervention that they didn’t even register her birth, to studying and eventually getting her doctorate at Cambridge University. And it’s a journey she tells well.
It’s about wondering what it might be like to have a normal life, and discovering for the first time things that most take for granted. It’s about trying to reconcile family pressures and expectations with what she has discovered about life. It’s about her broadening perspective, and being able to be her own authority and make her own choices.
Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create. If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind. This was the price I was being asked to pay, I understood that now. What my father wanted to cast from me wasn’t a demon: it was me.
The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds
This book is a story of research, of discovery, of finding how our minds work and ways they can be misled. But it’s also the story of two humans, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky: A story of collaboration, of friendship, of two very different people who, working together, could discover wonderful things. Many of the now classic cognitive biases were first demonstrated by them, bucking the conventional wisdom. And it turned out that those discoveries could then be applied in many different areas of life: economics, history, medicine, air safety, probably many more I’ve forgotten. And I think it’s the combination of those parts that makes it a great book.
Since I can’t do the scope of the book justice in a short summary, I’ll illustrate it with a personal story of my own. As it happened, this was the book I was reading when we went into second lockdown and case numbers in Melbourne continued to rise. It was fascinating reading the book and seeing what looked like the same cognitive quirks I was reading about playing out in real time.
In particular, their discovery that having a narrative to explain things makes that narrative seem more likely. I’m over-simplifying, but where I saw this was in who got the blame for rising case numbers. When lockdown first came in, it was people who were breaking lockdown rules who were spreading it. When masks became required, it was anti-maskers who were spreading it. Then when curfew came in, it was the curfew breakers who were spreading it. As far as I could tell the numbers didn’t support any of that, but once the narrative built it became the accepted wisdom. Similar was true of the persistent narrative that the main reason young people were getting Covid was because they were irresponsibly partying - yes, I’m sure some of that happened (in all age groups, not just young people), but there was also a lot of workplace transmission.
Without that, I don’t know I would have picked this book as a 2020 favourite. With that, I’m pretty sure it will always be part of my memory and experience of 2020. Not only was the book fascinating and enjoyable, but it directly affected my view of living through a pandemic.
The Story of God: A Biblical Comedy about Love (and Hate)
This was probably the book in 2020 that most frequently had me laughing out loud (though the BookWorld may have given it a run for its money).
I don’t know how many people would actually categorise it as non-fiction, but it is an interpretation of the Bible, which much of my family would be very quick to place in the “non-fiction” category. And in the sections on Genesis and Revelation in particular I’m convinced it’s as true as the Bible is. As it says:
a true storythe Bible
Over the years I’ve read the Bible many times. I’m still familiar with it. And it’s that that makes this book both hilarious and healing for me.
Part of what sets it apart is that even the most surprising things in it have chapter and verse against them. Sure, those verses wouldn’t usually be interpreted that way. Perhaps they were taken in an unexpected direction, or perhaps they were taken literally for comic effect. But the verses are there.
The story is the story of a God who could create a massive universe, then fixate on one world:
The universe was massive, filled with stars and galaxies and planets. There was probably life sprinkled through it, God thought, but quickly realized that didn’t matter to him at all. What happened in the rest of the universe was of zero interest to God.
No, he was interested in one world. The earth creatures who know and obey him were the main things - the only things. He was already thinking of them - how they would love him - how he would test them. (They would fail the test, he’d already decided. That was alright; he was excited about the idea of disciplining them for it.)
From the curious tale of creating trees before the rest of the universe to the multiple Jesuses of Revelation, from God’s love of BBQ to the bat-birds of the law, I think it really works. It’s got some of the things we ex-Christians criticise about the Bible, but it’s also got a compelling narrative.
It’s the story of a self-critical God. Of someone who doesn’t always understand the decisions he makes, but who has to be right. Of someone who enjoys smiting people or burning them up, but isn’t quite as all powerful or in control as he thinks.
I also read the sequel, The Trouble with God, which branched out from the Bible into the Koran, the Book of Mormon, and L Ron Hubbard’s writings. It was in the same style and definitely fun, but probably less so for me because I was less clear on the references.
I’ve been intending to read some of Jasper Fforde’s BookWorld for years. Lockdown gave me a good opportunity to read the first six.
Imagine a world in which the Crimean War is still running, Wales is a Socialist Republic, Shakespeare and other literary types are highly important to the general public, Neanderthals and dodos have been brought back from the dead, time can be altered by the ChronoGuard, there is a Goliath mega-corporation and a Toast Marketing Board, and exorbitant taxes on cheese make smuggling common. Then imagine that the main protagonist, Thursday Next, is a Special Operations agent responsible for tracking down forged manuscripts, and also has the ability to jump into books and potentially alter them.
The result is zany and unpredictable and a lot of fun. However, it’s worth noting that it relies a lot on a wide range of literature. I’m sure there were jokes that I missed, and I don’t know how good it would be without knowing some of those classical references.
Jane Eyre was one of my 2019 books of the year, and at the start of The Eyre Affair that book concludes with Jane going to India with St John Rivers rather than marrying Mr Rochester. As a result, it’s hardly a surprise that by the end its ending has been changed to what we know as the true ending. But the way it gets there, and how it impacts Thursday’s own life, are both fun and fitting.
This happens many times through the series. You too can find out how Miss Havisham met her end, the tragic consequences of the vyrus that transformed Uriah Hope into Uriah Heep, how the Goliath Corporation planned to justify the sale of penguin meat, what Marianne Dashwood does when off duty, and why you should never ask Hamlet to order coffee.
It even twists in on itself. The BookWorld Thursday 1 - 4 and Thursday 5 are characters in the fifth book, while BookWorld Thursday Next is actually the protagonist of the sixth book.
Some of the fascination is the contrasts it draws between the real world and the book world. Take for example Hamlet’s words:
If the real world were a book, it would never find a publisher. Overlong, detailed to the point of distraction - and ultimately, without a major resolution.
Thanks, Hamlet! Good to know.
Or you could ask the BookWorld Thursday herself:
Literature is claimed to be a mirror of the world, but the Outlanders are fooling themselves. The BookWorld is as orderly as people in the RealWorld hope their own world to be — it isn’t a mirror, it’s an aspiration.
Finally, I was glad to be able to attend an author talk by Jasper Fforde at my local library. Well, when I say “attend”, this is 2020 we’re talking about. It was an online talk, and, while it may have been evening for us, he dialled in from Wales before breakfast. He was articulate and amusing and appreciative of his readers, and sometimes it’s good to be able to put a face and a voice to an author name.
The talk was mainly discussing his latest book, The Constant Rabbit, which I have since read and enjoyed. He called it his “Brexit anger book”, and the treatment of anthropomorphised rabbits in the book is largely inspired by his observations of xenophobia. It’s hard hitting in places, but also cleverly written and a lot of fun. Though it probably won’t go on my 2021 list just because I’ve already talked about it here…
I already mentioned the Discworld last year, and usually try not to mention the same series twice. However, this time it’s different, because to me Small Gods appeals for very different reasons. It’s a great story, and there are just so many wonderful quotes about religion.
It’s the story of the Great God Om in reduced circumstances while the religious hierarchy set up in his name flourishes. Of a true believer seeing how the sausage is made. Of the consequences of dogma. Of words twisted in the hands of people seeking power. Of people finding their place in the world:
No matter what your skills, there was a place for you in the Citadel.
And if your skill lay in asking the wrong kinds of questions or losing the right kinds of wars, the place might just be the furnaces of purity, or the Quisition’s pits of justice.
A place for everyone. And everyone in their place.
It has all of Terry Pratchett’s native wit and brilliance, but like much of his work contains serious messages. There is much here that I wish I could have seen and understood 10 or 15 years ago - not that I would have been ready for it back then, of course…
In particular, there was so much I recognised of how we were taught to accept the Bible - human words from many writers - as the infallible message of an omnipotent God. That we were meant to distrust our own experiences rather than distrust those words:
“He says here he went on a ship that sailed to an island on the edge and he looked over and-
“Lies,” said Vorbis evenly. “And it would make no difference even if they were not lies. Truth lies within, not without. In the words of the Great God Om, as delivered through his chosen prophets. Our eyes may deceive us, but our God never will.”
While dismissing (without even bothering to read them) other religious books, such as the Qu’ran, that made similar claims:
It was the biggest non-magical library in the world. Half the philosophers of Ephebe seemed to live there now, and Omnia was even producing one or two of its own. And even priests were coming to spend some time in it, because of the collection of religious books. There were one thousand, two hundred and eighty-three religious books in there now, each one - according to itself - the only book any man need ever read. It was sort of nice to see them all together. As Didactylos used to say, you had to laugh.
And there are so many more quotes I’d love to include, but none of them seem so particularly suited to 2020 as this description of Chief Exquisitor Vorbis:
He didn’t menace. He never threatened. He just gave everyone the feeling that his personal space radiated several metres from his body, and that anyone approaching Vorbis was intruding on something important.
The Broken Earth trilogy
This trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin, was the first ever trilogy to win three consecutive Hugo Awards, from 2016 to 2018. And I think the accolades are well deserved.
One of the things that grabbed me early on was the world-building. In fact, right from the Prologue of The Fifth Season:
Yumenes is unique because here alone have human beings dared to build not for safety, not for comfort, not even for beauty, but for bravery. The city’s walls are a masterwork of delicate mosaics and embossing detailing its people’s long and brutal history. The clumping masses of its buildings are punctuated by great high towers like fingers of stone, hand-wrought lanterns powered by the modern marvel of hydroelectricity, delicately arching bridges woven of glass and audacity, and architectural structures called balconies that are so simple, yet so breathtakingly foolish, that no one has ever built them before in written history. (But much of history is unwritten. Remember this.) The streets are paved not with easy-to-replace cobbles, but with a smooth, unbroken, and miraculous substance the locals have dubbed asphalt. Even the shanties of Yumenes are daring, because they’re just thin-walled shacks that would blow over in a bad windstorm, let alone a shake. Yet they stand, as they have stood, for generations.
That prologue conveyed a sense of a world very different from ours, and yet it was a world that made sense and could be discovered and explored. Each instalment in the trilogy adds new characters, new species, and new information that helps piece together exactly how it got into the position it was in. And the final conclusion of The Stone Sky was different but far more satisfying than I was expecting.
However, it’s not just the world building. The dedication of The Fifth Season is:
For all those who have to fight for the respect that everyone else is given without question.
The main protagonist is part of a group of people called “orogenes”. As it turns out, they are people who are necessary to the running of the empire, but also feared and stigmatised and heavily controlled. They are oppressed from childhood and taught to view themselves as tools needing to be suppressed for their own good. And some of that is confronting, but it’s also important.
Brave New World
Brave New World is one of the classic dystopian novels I’ve intended to read for years and finally got round to. And I think it’s well worth it because it’s just disconcerting. The society presented feels wrong, but it’s much harder to put a finger on what’s wrong with it and why it’s wrong than, say, 1984 or Fahrenheit 451.
It’s set in the Ford era (marked by the introduction of the Model T), and often consciously inverts Christian symbols and morality. There are many Ford themed offices and symbols (including the ‘T’ replacing the cross). The society is based on conspicuous consumption, and encourages promiscuity while discouraging emotional attachment, parenthood, or anything approaching individuality.
It’s a world in which everyone is happy - or at least almost everyone. People are specially prepared from the embryo for the roles they will fulfil, and the focus is always on the community, not the individual.
And it’s this quote that struck me most (talking about our time):
There was something called liberalism… Liberty to be inefficient and miserable. Freedom to be a round peg in a square hole.
It’s well worth reading because there’s far more to the tale than that, but yes, that is the freedom I want, because I know that increased freedom after leaving religion brought me happiness.
The Last Migration
It was early August last year. Not only had we been in a second lockdown for a month, but a new and shiny curfew had just been introduced. I hadn’t been to any talks for months, either online or in person, so when Melbourne Writer’s Festival moved online I took the chance to look at the program. One of the featured author interviews was about this book with the author, Charlotte McConaghy.
I listened in almost on a whim: It sounded like it might be interesting, but I had no intention of reading the book. However, the interview fascinated me, and within a few weeks I’d read the book and added it to this list.
The book is confronting - set in a near future world where many of our most iconic animals are extinct:
Nobody needs to be told of the extinction of the animals; for years now we’ve been watching news bulletins about habitat destruction and species after species being declared first endangered and then officially extinct. There are no more monkeys in the wild, no chimps or apes or gorillas, nor indeed any animal that once lived in rainforests. The big cats of the savannahs haven’t been seen in years, nor have any of the exotic creatures we once went on safari to glimpse. There are no bears in the once-frozen north, or reptiles in the too-hot south, and the last known wolf in the world died in captivity last winter. There is hardly anything wild left, and this is a fate we are, all of us, intimately aware of.
It is not our world, but it could be our world.
The epitaph is from Rumi:
Forget safety. Live where you fear to live.
And the author confirmed this was important to her view of the story. It’s about loss. About vulnerability. About wandering, and seeking a place to belong. About self-destruction. And even, surprising as it may seem, about hope.
In the words of the protagonist:
Once, when the animals were going, really and truly and not just in warnings of dark futures but now, right now, in mass extinctions we could see and feel, I decided to follow a bird over an ocean. Maybe I was hoping it would lead me to where they’d all fled, all those of its kind, all the creatures we thought we’d killed. Maybe I thought I’d discover whatever cruel thing drove me to leave people and places and everything, always. Or maybe I was just hoping the bird’s final migration would show me a place to belong.
Once, it was birds who gave birth to a fiercer me.
Confronting, yes, but the writing is also beautiful. Particularly in the final part. The conclusion has brought me to tears every time I have read it, including writing this post, but as well as sadness it contains a little hope.
As the author puts it in her acknowledgements:
Lastly I want to acknowledge the wild creatures of this earth and say that this book was written for them, out of sadness and regret for those that have been wiped out and for love of those that remain. I truly, deeply hope that the world without animals depicted in The Last Migration does not come to pass.
The Name of the Wind
The main character gets, in my view, one of the most memorable fictional introductions ever:
My name is Kvothe, pronounced nearly the same as ‘Quothe’. Names are important as they tell you a great deal about a person. I’ve had more names than anyone has a right to.
My first mentor called me E’lir because I was clever and I knew it. My first real lover called me Dulator because she liked the sound of it. I have been called Shadicar, Lightfinger, and Six-String. I have been called Kvothe the Bloodless, Kvothe the Arcane, and Kvothe Kingkiller. I have earned those names. Bought and paid for them.
But I was brought up as Kvothe. My father once told me it meant “to know.”
I have, of course, been called many other things. Most of them uncouth, although very few were unearned.
I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.
You may have heard of me.
And yet in the present he is an unregarded inn-keeper in hiding, broken, waiting for death. The world is falling apart, and he claims responsibility for it. He needs to tell his tale.
We know it to be a tragic tale, but part of the interest is how it gets there. And the beautiful language and amusing or thought-provoking epigrams along the way.
And there was Abenthy, my first real teacher. He taught me more than all the others set end to end. If not for him, I would never have become the man I am today.
I ask that you not hold it against him. He meant well.
It contains many reflections on the power of story, and the process of creating and telling stories. Of story spun out of control, of the intersection between Kvothe the legend and Kvothe the person.
It’s not just story. It talks of friendship and of enmity, of great skill and of self-sabotage. Of arcane arts, of music, of politics, of life.
At this point I should note: The tale is meant to be a trilogy. This book was published in 2007. The Wise Man’s Fear, which I’m now in the middle of, was published in March 2011 - over ten years ago. The third one has been frequently teased but never yet released. I hope the third one will be published one day and will live up to its billing, but I think the books are worth reading even if the trilogy is never completed.
Divergent is a dystopian coming of age tale set in a post-apocalyptic Chicago. The city is divided into five factions, and children must choose their faction at age 16. The factions are supposed to be more important than family ties - as the saying goes, faction before blood.
“Decades ago our ancestors realized that it is not political ideology, religious belief, race, or nationalism that is to blame for a warring world. Rather, they determined that it was the fault of human personality—of humankind’s inclination toward evil, in whatever form that is. They divided into factions that sought to eradicate those qualities they believed responsible for the world’s disarray.”
“Those who blamed aggression formed Amity.”
“Those who blamed ignorance became the Erudite.”
“Those who blamed duplicity created Candor.”
“Those who blamed selfishness made Abnegation.”
“And those who blamed cowardice were the Dauntless.”
“Working together, these five factions have lived in peace for many years, each contributing to a different sector of society. Abnegation has fulfilled our need for selfless leaders in government; Candor has provided us with trustworthy and sound leaders in law; Erudite has supplied us with intelligent teachers and researchers; Amity has given us understanding counselors and caretakers; and Dauntless provides us with protection from threats both within and without. But the reach of each faction is not limited to these areas. We give one another far more than can be adequately summarized. In our factions, we find meaning, we find purpose, we find life.”
Beatrice Prior, the main protagonist, is on the threshold of choosing her faction. She has to pass through a difficult initiation while going on a journey of self-discovery. It’s about finding a place to belong in a society with rigid boundaries. And about finding out what it means to be her in a society facing crisis.
One of the main criticisms I see of this series is that the faction system is unrealistic and would never happen. I think this is misplaced - yes, I’m not sure the city as a whole could exist, but each of the factions have existed in various forms and do exist. And that is part of why the series appeals to me, and has appealed to other ex-Christians I know.
Abnegation is the faction Beatrice grew up in, and I recognise a lot of it in my upbringing. Perhaps not to the same extreme, but it was there. And I can think of places where the attributes emphasised by other factions are prioritised.
People think being selfless is automatically good, and being selfish is automatically bad. I believe this is false. The same is true of the attributes valued by the other factions, and I think Veronica Roth does a good job of showing their strengths and weaknesses. Yes, the trilogy is plot-driven and has a lot of action narrative, and that is enjoyable. But I also find it thought-provoking, and the faction system is an important part of that.