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Veronica Roth, author of the "Divergent" series, made a name for herself writing dystopian novels. Her upcoming mystery novel, "Poster Girl," almost falls within the dystopian genre, but not quite — rather than set in a futuristic autocratic society, it's set in the aftermath of a revolution.
"'Poster Girl' is about what happens after a dystopian regime falls," Roth told TODAY in an email interview.
Instead of watching civil liberties get chipped away, "Poster Girl" charts the process of a society healing — and Sonya Kantor, the book's main character, is the kind of person who stands in the way of that healing. Her face is an uncomfortable reminder of the Delegation, the surveillance state that had once ruled over the Seattle-Portland area: Sonya was literally a poster girl for the regime's propaganda posters. The Delegation monitored its citizens through the use of Insight, an ocular implant that tracked a user's words (think a portable and inescapable Big Brother).
The story starts when an old enemy offers Sonya a deal: If she can find a missing child, she can earn her freedom from the prison she's lived in for years. In doing so, Sonya learns more about her family and the extent to which both she and they were complicit in the old regime. Roth said that the novel sees Sonya "wake up again."
See the exclusive cover reveal for "Poster Girl," out on Oct. 18, 2022, below.
Rather than focus on a heroic figure, as she did in past series, Roth wanted to look at someone considered quite the opposite. "The book came together when I realized I didn’t want to tell a hero’s story; I wanted to tell the story of a guilty person. Sonya was complicit in and rewarded by a system that caused serious harm, and she doesn’t always see it that way," Roth said.
Similarly, Roth was driven to write a different kind of society — one more "grounded and realistic" than past concept-driven worlds she dreamed up. A society that might resonate with readers who carry smartphones in their pockets.
'Life under the Delegation is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from our own — we’re already carrying around devices that track our every move. We’ve already invited systems of reward and punishment into our private lives, via social media. And while mass surveillance isn’t new in dystopian fiction by any means, I wanted the surveillance in Poster Girl to feel more like our own. Voluntary…until it’s not. Friendly and even enriching…until it’s not," Roth said.
"Life under the Delegation is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from our own."
To write "Poster Girl" and understand how Sonya felt cut off from society, Roth challenged herself to re-evaluate her relationship with her phone and the internet. She left social media for six months in the middle of the pandemic, a time when many relationships were sustained by social media.
"It was tricky," Roth said. "But writing the book was exciting for that reason — exciting to try new things and to feel like I was meeting the book’s challenges at a new level."
After reading "Poster Girl," Roth said you might look at your phone differently, which Roth said is the point.
"I don’t think we all need to chuck our smartphones out the window, or anything, but I believe in being aware of what I’m doing and why, both for my own emotional well-being as well as the well-being of society as a whole," she said.
Below, read a preview from the second chapter of "Poster Girl," out in October.
Read an excerpt from 'Poster Girl' by Veronica Roth
There’s a man in her apartment.
Sonya’s hand goes to the knife in her pocket. She knows what it is to be caught unaware, to face the consequences of being on your own among people who have nothing to lose.
But there are no locks in the Aperture, so there’s nothing she can do to keep her little apartment safe when she’s not in it. Not that it matters much—there’s nothing to steal. And he isn’t here to steal anything. He sits at her little table, in one of her folding chairs. It’s a proper table, left in this apartment by whoever occupied it before the uprising. There’s a name carved into the front of it, BABS, written in childish uppercase. She’s invented a story about Babs in her mind—a girl, maybe eleven, unruly, scolded for swinging her legs when she sits, for never being able to stop moving. Desperate to be permanent, somehow; etching the letters with her steak knife when her parents weren’t paying attention.
Sonya knows the man. His name is Alexander Price. Tall, his knees bumping the underside of the low table. His eyes so dark they look black. He has a beard, trim but not neat, creeping across his throat, uneven in places.
“Get out,” she says to him.
She’s holding Graham’s useless stove burner against her stomach like a shield.
“Now, that,” he says, “is not the Delegation hospitality I was raised to expect.”
“I reserve that for guests, and you’re an intruder,” she says. “Get out.”
“You think that just because I’m a prisoner here, you can walk into my home whenever you like?” She puts the burner coil down on the square of countertop where she prepares food. His eyes flick to her tight hands, and then to her face. He seems unbothered.
She searches automatically for the ring of light around his right iris.
But there isn’t one.
Everyone she ever saw before the uprising—and now after it, with a few exceptions—had an Insight. Its absence is like a missing finger, or a missing ear; he looks unbalanced without it. Or unfinished, like someone stopped drawing him too soon.
“You look the same,” he says. “Except the hair. I’m surprised the old geezers in here let you cut it that short. That haircut wouldn’t earn you any DesCoin.”
She turns back to the apartment door and opens it wide. Cool air from the hallway wafts in. Her next-door neighbor Irene isn’t home — she spends most of her time downstairs with Mrs. Pritchard and three of the other widows, the most proper ones. But Sonya wants him to know that if she screams, her voice won’t be muffled by the door.
When she turns back to him, he’s frowning a little. “I’m not going to hurt you. Do you really believe I’d do that?”
“I believe many things about you now,” she says.
This is the man who told the uprising where to find her family when they tried to flee the city. Without him, they might have been able to escape. Without him, they might have lived. She wasn’t ready for the pain of this, of seeing him again.
She waits, because she doesn’t trust what will come out of her mouth if she opens it.
“Well,” he says, after the silence has coiled tight between them. “I’ll just get to the point, then.”
He takes something out of his pocket. It’s a device, rectangular, the right shape for a palm. An Elicit. She recognizes it, not from experience, but from lessons on the history of the Insight—it’s an old piece of technology that predates it. Like the Insight, the Elicit was designed to go with a person everywhere, to augment their reality and communicate with a network about their behavior.
The system seems clumsy to her now—why carry something in your hand when you could carry it in your head, instead? If you spend all your time holding something, caring for it, feeling its warmth—it may as well be a part of your body, as integrated as an eye.
He holds the Elicit at the bottom right corner, careless. Though she doesn’t know how to use it, she knows it’s valuable; if she took it from him now, she could trade it for anything she wanted in the Aperture, just because of its rarity.
But there’s nothing to want in the Aperture.
The Elicit lights up, and its reflection in his eyes almost makes it look like he does have an Insight. Almost makes him look like he used to, neat and tidy, his smile always reluctant.
Alexander, the older brother who walked in his younger brother’s wake.
She was betrothed to his little brother, Aaron, as a teenager. Aaron and Sonya were the perfect Delegation match, with the perfect Delegation future. But Aaron was killed in the uprising, in the street, along with hundreds of others.
Alexander shows her the screen. On it is an article she’s seen before. Under the Delegation, there was just one news source that fed to everyone’s Insight upon request; you could read it just by staring out the window on the train. But with the Delegation’s fall, newspapers seem to be back in fashion—there are half a dozen of them competing, each with a different interpretation of the same data. This one is the Chronicle, she can tell by the elaborate C at the top, and this particular edition already turned up in the Aperture, months ago.
“Children of the delegation,” the article reads, in bold black letters across the top. Rose Parker, the byline says.
“I’ve seen it,” Sonya says. “And?”
“You’ve seen it?” He raises his eyebrows. “I guess Rose smuggled some in here? Wouldn’t want her great work to go unrecognized.”
He puts the Elicit down on the table, still lit up.
“So you know, then, that we have this article to thank for the Children of the Delegation Act. Everyone who was a child when they were put in the Aperture, held accountable for their family’s crimes, is now eligible for release. People like you.” He tilts his head. “Well, not exactly like you. You were a little older, weren’t you?”
“It’s interesting that you’re pretending not to know,” she says. She and Aaron had been the same age, after all.
Alexander’s mouth twists.
“You have perhaps noticed that many of the younger people in the Aperture have been released lately. Given new identities and a chance to live a worthwhile life instead of ” He waves a hand.
She sees her run-down studio apartment as if for the first time. The bed with its patched-up sheets, its fraying blanket. The scratched frying pan drying next to the sink on a ragged, stained towel. The things she has used to decorate the space: plants lined up on the sill above the kitchen sink, growing out of tin cans; the patterns she painted in black on the tapestry that covers her living room windows, shielding her from observers; the cluster of lamps with dim bulbs she put on a crate near the bed. Alexander, though, remembers where she lived before.
F--- you, she thinks, one of many phrases she has never said aloud—in the past, because they would cost her DesCoin, and now, because they would be a sign that she is going backward, to the girl who lived in a pit of grief and knew the taste of moonshine. But she thinks it anyway, F--- you, I hate you, I hope you choke and die—
Alexander waits, as if for a reaction. Finding none, he continues: “You have presented a unique problem. Not young enough to be an easy candidate for release, but not old enough for us to forget about you.”
“Is that what you’ve done with us, in here? Forgotten about us?” “For the most part, yes. And you can’t imagine what a relief it’s been.”
“Well, if you think I’ve spared a single thought for you,” she says, “you’re mistaken.”
“I’m heartbroken.” He reaches into his pocket and takes out a piece of paper folded into fourths. “As I was saying. We came up with an idea for a trade—”
“We will give you an opportunity to right one of the wrongs of the Delegation. If you succeed, you can have your freedom. If you fail, you will continue to rot in here.”
The word rot makes her flinch. That was how David talked about it, near the end—like he was a piece of meat left on a countertop to spoil. She could never find the words to disagree with him. She wasn’t sure she even did.
“I’m not some ant you can fry with a magnifying glass,” she says. “I’m not going to squirm for your entertainment.”
He pauses, the paper still half-folded. “You don’t even want to hear what we want you to do?”
She’s squeezing the edge of the counter so tightly she’s lost feeling in her fingers.
“No,” she says. “Get out.”
Alexander puts his Elicit back into his pocket. He stands. Even though there is as much space between them as she can get, he feels too close.
“Have it your way, for now,” he says. “But I’ll be back in a few days. Hopefully by then you’ll have come to your senses.”