Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

This week starts a month of Hunger Games as I've decided to read Suzanne Collins's trilogy of young adult dystopian science fiction. I am of course aware that I'm coming to the party fairly late, reading this well after the first and second movies have come out and the furor has died down somewhat. I had been aware that this book had very strong dystopian element and for a while I just haven't wanted to sit through that, but recently I decided I'd be able to stomach the grimness. Overall I was very satisfied with this novel and shall be continuing talking about this series all through the month.

If you've been living under a rock these past three years or so, The Hunger Games takes place in a distant future where much of North America is ruled by a country known as Panem. In the Rocky Mountains the Capitol is the center of government for Panem where the citizens live a life of luxury and ease. Surrounding the Capitol are its twelve Districts, all of which specialize in a particular industry. Some Districts, such as the ones that specialize in luxury goods consumed by the Capitol, are fairly wealthy while those that specialize in more basic needs like agriculture are much poorer. Uniting all of these districts is the tradition of the Hunger Games, a tradition that began out of a rebellion that occurred over seventy years ago. According to the history we're revealed in the first book (and the characters admit there's probably more to history that the Capitol isn't admitting) there used to be a thirteenth District, which lead a rebellion against the Capitol, resulting in a terrible war. Eventually the Capitol won and obliterated District Thirteen as an example to the other twelve. And as an annual reminder of the supremacy of the Capitol each district is required to sacrifice one boy and one girl, between the ages of twelve and eighteen, as tribute for the titular Hunger Games where the children all fight to the death until only one is left as champion.

What I really liked about this novel was the amount of psychology that went into designing the entire social structure of Panem. To me it appears to be a very fragile structure (I will talk more about that at the end of this month in a special poost) and the Capitol is very aware of how fragile it is. A few people I've known after just reading the first book, or seeing the first movie, find themselves asking why the people of the District don't just rise up against the Capitol. The answer, quite simply, is the Hunger Games, which are a brilliant combination of several empire-building tactics.

First with a demonstration of the power of the Capitol to the citizens of the Districts. The Capitol can take their children away, make them fight for sport, and there isn't a thing the people of the Districts can do about it. I assume after the rebellion had been crushed and the Hunger Games began, the people of the Districts simply weren't in a position to rise up against the forces of the Capitol. Now most of the districts are so desperately poor they still aren't in a position to rise up; and those that could revolt are more closely allied with the Capitol because of the rewards the Capitol doles out to its favorites. The people are so broken that they simply believe there is nothing they can do to fight against the oppression of the Capitol and that makes them powerless.

A second brilliant element to the Hunger Games is the divide and conquer aspect. As there can be only one winner, all Twelve districts will be rooting for their own tributes and hoping that they succeed. Furthermore, the district that wins the Hunger Games is given food and other rewards from the Capitol all throughout the year, all of which serves to pit the districts against each other and make cooperation among them all but impossible, which is further strengthened by the lack of communication between districts, again engineered by the Capitol. The division goes even further down, however, within the Districts themselves with the poor having a much higher chance of getting selected for the Hunger Games than the rich through the institution of tesserae. Basically you can get additional food for your family if you consent to having your name added to the drawings for the Hunger Games more times. Obviously people with enough to eat will not take out tesserae, but the poor often have to rely upon it as a means to survive, making their chances of losing their children even more likely. As a result there is a great deal of institutional resentment between the rich and the poor, making it difficult to cooperate even within a district.

So rebellion is clearly not an option for the Districts, but what about the citizens of the Capitol? Could not a restless population in the seat of government cause trouble for the establishment? It's certainly happened before. This is where the Capitol's excellent use of bread and circuses comes into play. The people of the Capitol are well fed and have all sorts of luxuries available to them; you're far less likely to rebel when you stand to lose something from a change in the social order. The Hunger Games themselves provide an excellent distraction for the people of the Capitol, guaranteeing generally at least a month of entertainment every year and it is carefully designed to keep the viewers interested throughout the games. In addition, there is a great deal of audience participation in the games by permitting extensive betting on the tributes as to who will emerge victorious, and the participation of sponsors in providing supplies to the tributes within the games to make it more likely their tribute will win. Add victory tours and the option of visiting historic Hunger Games arenas and reenacting their favorite parts of past Hunger Games and you create an entire culture obsessed with nothing but the games, and little incentive to worry about anything else.

On top of all this great psychology, Katniss is a really great character who is not only trying to keep herself alive, but also play a dangerous game of subtle rebellion against the Capitol. Plus you have people with real depth behind them such as Cinna and Haymitch and I'm really hoping to explore those characters more in the next two novels. I will admit that the writing was a little weird at times. (I don't know of anyone who'd think about how their boots are molded to their feet when they get dressed in the morning.) And I don't know if the thoughts Katniss has are really accurate to someone fourteen years old, but writing children realistically can be difficult and Collins at least makes a very good attempt.

Definitely an excellent book I'd recommend reading with any teenagers you may know. Come back next week for my review of Catching Fire.

- Kalpar

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