28 May 2009

The hunger games

A little while back, Watoosa of The conscience puddingmentioned (“The evil that men do...”) two books read in conjunction. With one of them, Art Spiegelman's superb two part graphic novel Maus, I was already very familiar. The other, The hunger games, a young adult novel from Suzanne Collins, was new to me.

I've just read The hunger games (herein and after THG) at a sitting. That Watoosa links it with Maus is interesting, and true, and influenced my own reading. Both are about the discontinuity between civilisation and survival, peace and war, community and self. Both THG and Watoosa's observations set me off on a tangled web of responses which I'll never be able to gather into any sort of whole here; I'll stick, for the moment, to THG itself.

The setting is a dystopic future in which the USA has collapsed through internal strife to a small empire. “The Capitol”, somewhere in the Rockies, possesses and controls all wealth and all high technology while maintaining twelve “districts” in starvation level serfdom. For me, though quite possibly not for the author, it seems a metaphor for the position of the present day USA in relation to external client states – though it could equally well be any empire, at any time. Within each district, the population lives in a fenced towns surrounded by wilderness; venturing beyond the fence means facing death by predator (no weapons are allowed in the hands of district citizens) or the Capitol's police. The conflicts of the past have left a legacy of genetically engineered hazards and byproducts: some of them harmless, some lethal.

The “games” of the title are a straightforward transfer of Roman gladiatorial games into the age of reality television and, as such, THG has direct links to a whole range of fiction such as Sos the rope, The continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, The iron thorn, The long walk and many others including, as Watoosa says, The running man meets Lord of the flies. As with most of those titles, there are (as Watoosa has suggested) links to other moral and philosophical questions central to present time: the list will no doubt be different for every reader but, for me, the primary concern is a critique of war and the cult of celebrity.

From each of the twelve districts, two young people (one male, one female, aged 12-18) are chosen each year by lot and sent to the games. They are called “tributes”, not contestants: tributes from the districts to the imperial centre. They are built up and glamourised in a series of media events, then thrown into the arena – actually an section of wilderness under intensive TV coverage – from which only one is allowed to emerge alive. They are, in other words, set to kill each other for public entertainment.

The main protagonist, Katniss (named, with explicit symbolism, for plants of the Sagittaria genus with edible tubers; her sister is Primrose), is sixteen. She lives in District 12, a mining community in the Appalachians. Since the death of her father in a mine explosion, she has been the sole support of her family whom she feeds by her illegal poaching in the wilderness beyond the fence. Her hunting skills and gathering, primarily learned from her father, centrally include an illegal long bow made by him.

Katniss is not drawn for the games in the lottery; but her twelve year old sister is. The rules permit volunteers to replace those selected by lot, and Katniss steps forward to take Primrose's place – knowing that she must survive not only for herself but to continue keeping her family from starvation. Her male counterpart from the same district is Peeta, which presents particular additional problems: Katniss and her family owe their survival to an act of kindness by Peeta shortly after her father died and, worse still (since she may, to stay alive herself, have to kill him), she discovers that he is in love with her.

I don't think I am giving much away by saying that Katniss does, physically, survive the arena and the games. The stuff of the story is how she does so while trying to stay human and preserve her innate decency as she puts her poaching experience to work against opponents who range from psychopaths to a frightened child very like her own sister – and, crucially, is to live with herself afterwards.

The author handles it well; there are a couple of mildly deus ex machina moments to make it all work, but they are made perfectly believable within the context.

There is to be a trilogy, the second part of which (Catching fire) is due out in September. I'm not sure how I feel about this. Unlike (for example) The city of Ember which rounded off a first phase satisfactorily and delivered its protagonists into a new world where I (as reader) could only ask “what next?”, THG leaves Katniss returning to the same world from which she was plucked. I can see a number of ways in which a compelling new story could be generated, and a number of existing hooks from which they could satisfactorily grow, but none of them necessarily follow as a narrative consequence of this first one. This is not, I emphasise, a criticism ofTHG: exactly the opposite, it is a consequence of how complete, satisfying and impressive THG is. It seems likely that I'll forego reading the successors; though I do wonder about the redheaded Avox...

The thing I like best about THG is the fact that it resists any glorification of the games (though that's not always true of some Scholastic marketing, and some fan following comment) and makes clear the vicarious nature of reality spectation. The superficiality of the effete Capitol world around the games is also well observed.

They chatter so continuously that I barely have to reply ... even though they're rattling on about the Games, it's all about how they felt when a specific event occurred. ... Everything is about them, not the dying boys and girls in the arena.

It could all apply as much to our TV news coverage of conflicts such as that in Gaza as to openly acknowledged entertainment... which takes us back to Maus, of course.

Thoroughly recommended.

  • Piers Anthony, Sos the rope. 1970, London: Faber. 0571091016
  • Richard Bachman (aka Stephen King), The Bachman books : four early novels. (Includes The long walkand The running man) 1996, New York: Plume. 0452277752
  • Algis Budrys, A., The iron thorn. 1969, London: Coronet. 0340043997
  • Suzanne Collins, The hunger games. 2009, London: Scholastic. 9781407109084
  • D G Compton, The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe. A novel. 1974, London: Gollancz. 0575018283
  • Jeanne DuPrau, The city of Ember. 2003, New York: Random House. 0375822739
  • William Golding, Lord of the flies. London: Faber and Faber, and 2004 (originally 1954). 0571224520
  • Art Spiegelman, Maus I : a survivor's tale : my father bleeds history. 1986, London: Penguin. 0140173153
  • Art Spiegelman, A., Maus II : a survivor's tale : and here my troubles began. 1991, New York: Pantheon. 0394556550
  • Art Spiegelman, A.M. Spiegelman, and A.M. Spiegelman II, Maus : a survivor's tale. 2003, London: Penguin. 0141014081


Poor Pothecary said...

Interesting cover to THG: although the topology of the logo is somewhat different, there's an extremely strong subliminal impression (helped along by the red/black/white colour scheme) of a Nazi swastika, that I find hard to think unintentional as an indicator of the world depicted in the novel. Compare the video cover for "Amen"

Felix Grant said...

You've resolved a subliminal reaction to the THG logo which I couldn't place: yes, you're right, it does evoke the swastika.

And the echo of Amen is striking.