Monday, September 14, 2015

The Hunger Games - my Quibbles, with a Plethora of Spoilers


I read the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins last night. I would give it a four, if I gave it a star rating, which I don't do to books anymore (hence my abandonment of Goodreads - I enjoyed it as a site, but I realized that I cannot effectively rate most books - it doesn't do justice to either my feelings about either the quality (or lack thereof) of a novel, nor can I neatly sum up into a point system how, whether I liked the book or not, the merits of a particular novel.)Why am I writing this post, then? To gush about it? No, not really.

I don't know if you've picked this up by now (dripping heavy sarcasm), but I am a reader. I also am not a specific genre reader. I read Young Adult fiction, fantasy, some Science Fiction, Historical Fiction, modern novels, classics of every age from Homer to Maya Angelou. I've read dystopias ranging from The Giver (who hasn't read this?) to 1984, Fahrenheit 451, A Brave New World to a random fantasy one that involves people living in trees in another world, that I can never remember the name of. Why am I telling you all this? To gain in ethos, of course.

Just ask Avram - ethos is my new favorite word. As I read reviews on both Amazon and Goodreads, too often the reviewer would ruin their ethos with me in their first paragraph. So I'm trying to show you that this isn't the first book I've picked up in years, and that I have given much thought to dystopic societies. There, now that you're suitably impressed with my ability to discuss dystopias, let us continue.

I enjoyed (can I really use this word about a novel that spends its time exploring Teenage Gladiatorial Reality TV in a dystopia?) the Hunger Games. I'm not going to give a synopsis, because you can find one anywhere. But in all of the reviews online, I have yet to see a review explore the difficulties I am having with the novel.

We're told that Katniss lives in a society controlled by the Capitol, with twelve districts, remaining from the original thirteen after a rebellion 74 years ago. We don't know too much about the other districts, but this is some pertinent information I gathered from her district:

There are around 8,000 people in District 12 (this could alternately be the amount in Katniss's town, and there could be other towns, but based on the fact that every 12-18 year old must be entered in the lottery for tribute, and all the available people are gathered in one single town from the whole district, with no mention of traveling at all, gives the very strong impression that this is the sum total of district 12. Not to mention the fence that Katniss often mentions that surrounds District 12 (ie, she repeatedly references her town as district 12 itself). Or other factors.)

District 12 is the smallest/weakest of the districts, so other districts could have more towns, and probably more people.

District 12 is somewhere in the Appalachians.

Other pertinent Dystopic information:

The Capitol is somewhere in the Rockies, somewhere surrounded by mountains that can only be reached via tunnels. During the rebellion people tried scaling the Mountains, to attack it, the implication being that there are no passes to go through, either for rebellious people or trains. This would, in my opinion, probably base the Capitol somewhere in Western Colorado. The Wasatch Rockies have far too many passes, although I don't know much about the Grand Tetons or the Sierras. Regardless, the Capital is near the other end of contiguous USA (as we know it).

Each district contributes a vital need/want to the Capitol: Coal, Food, Luxury Goods, Electronics. This far in the future, District 12 does coal. Except they must be mining very far underground at this point in the Appalachians to gather coal any more. Plus couldn't such a futuristic society find some other form of power? They can restore hearing, do a body polish, create Muttations (and I'm not even going to go there with the implications of these things), not to mention ubiquitous invisible cameras spread every few feet throughout a terrain larger than a two day walk, but they depend on rickety District 12 for coal to power their dastardly nation? I'm sure a nation like this would have no problems with any of the risks of nuclear power, nor with dumping the nuclear waste anywhere.

Thus we come to my problems - I find it difficult to believe in this Dystopia. They are hugely spread out, and while they use fear to keep the populous in line through the Hunger Games (more on the questionability of this tactic later), how can they effectively control that large of an area with such a small populations? Sure they have their Peacekeepers and use cruel and totalitarian methods, but this cannot be enough. I suppose we must fall back on the methods used ultimately by every dystopian society - super de duper futuristic technology to prevent any rebellion. It's the ultimate deus ex machina for every Dystopia, because it never enters the plot - you are just supposed to assume that they have had zero rebellions for the last 74 years despite the fact that every dictatorship with too harsh of methods eventually fell on its own, or with outside help. And that most do not last outside of one or two persuasive leaders. Sure, there could be some vast underground rebellion, or even small pocket ones that Katniss does not know of/hear rumors of.

This nation seems to live in a vacuum - no other nations are mentioned, conceived of, known of. Including the probable free nation of District 13, that the couple from the capitol were fleeing to. I don't know how a nation with as few people and settled land as the Capitol has can keep control of its immense borders, either. Under every previous dictatorship, under even the worst national conditions, people know of other countries. Maybe they can't contact them, can't flee to them, but the knowledge is there. Only in dystopias do nations live in a seeming vacuum, with zero known world politics. Which just goes to show that my difficulties with this dystopia are not unique - I think basically every dystopia suffers from forcing a totalitarian government on the reader that I find ultimately unsustainable and unbelievable, which is maintained through the super-de-duper futuristic methods that conveniently never come into the story or plotline of any of these novels.

At least in 1984 and A Brave New World, the people are dulled into apathy for rebellion by the "Bread and Circuses" approach to dictatorship with excessive fulfillment of wants in A Brave New World and the endless Pop Culture Producing machines in 1984. Here there is, at least in the districts, no real motivation not to rebel. Sure, they can punish you - but they already are. Sure, the games exist to remind and humilate anew every year the districts, to tell you that your rebellion failed, and could never succeed again. To show how at the mercy each district is to the Capitol, how any of your youth could one day be snatched away to fight to the death merely because the Capitol wills it. But then what have you got to lose by fighting back?

Other dictatorships throughout history have been far worse. The Assyrians would uproot entire nations of people and replace them throughout their empire, making people's attempts at rebellion fail since they knew nothing about where they were (plus there was Genderacide - the complete killing of men of a group). Genocide is common throughout history, from the Israelites in the Bible destroying the Amalakites to the Man, Woman and Child to Genghis Khan, Destroying of Carthage in the Punic Wars to the ever infamous Hitler and Stalin. Genocide still happens around us today - Bosnia. Rwanda. From a Slave perspective, early America certainly was the ultimate in dystopias. I'm not even including in this the general destructions of wars, man caused famines and diseases, etc. Personal and group cruelty has only been too common.

So, forgive me if this sounds too callous and cruel, but taking 24 of the youth of their nation and making them fight to the death with just one left standing sounded a little puerile for the Horror of a Dystopia that we are lead the Capitol to be. Sure, there are other casual cruelties - the preventable starvations. Also, with Katniss's interactions with Rue it becomes clear that other Districts have more direct cruelties and killings. Even so, despite the lack of freedoms and the prevalent hunger, I just couldn't dredge up much actual human horror at the setting of the book. People live in worse conditions in our world today, under crueler dictators.

The book is supposed to bring to mind Rome, with its Gladitorial aspects of the Hunger Games, the Roman names scattered throughout the book (I do wonder, how is it that a nation built directly on the ruins of the US cannot manage to retain any names from our cultural heritage, but can dredge up names like Flavius, Cato, and Cinna? (Small rant. One reviewer mocked Cato's name, saying it sounded wussy. Same thing with Cinna. Clearly people need to review their Roman heritage.)) And yet....Rome was a much more effective dictatorship. This nation is parasitic off of its Districts, with an economic system I cannot see actually working for any length of time. Rome had its cruelties, as all nations have, particular ancient ones, and these cruelties were an accepted part of ruling back then. But it was effective, and it gave its people a lot more freedoms then they have in this world- and this is what kept them a world power for so long. Depriving your people of EVERYTHING only decides your demise as a dictatorship sooner.

Yet, in order for the book to matter to us as readers, we have to embrace Katniss's inexplicable inalienable feelings of a 21st century American, who expects food and warmth and working electricity at all hours, and most of all, a lack of senseless brutality and killing. Throughout the entire novel she complains about these very matters. Despite the fact that they are supposed to be her life, sometimes I feel that she has been magically implanted with a modern American's sense of what is just and ethical in this world. Don't get me wrong - although in the large sense the Games did not move me, in the specifics it did. I cried. I sat horrified. I realized I would last .03 seconds in the games. Teenagers killing each other I do not mean to imply under any circumstances are not horrendous.

Which brings me to my second difficulty, beyond the Dystopia in general. The Games themselves. They are Gladitorial in nature, with the twist of being Reality TV to the death. On the one hand they are a punishment to the various districts for their rebellion. On the other hand, these very districts along with the Capitol sit glued to their TV sets for live coverage of carnage and destruction, and enjoy it? Continue watching it? I suppose we can buy the Capitol in enjoying it, but I don't see why everyone in the other districts watches these Games. We know that there is one final segment that is required viewing for all, and from this we can deduce that the rest isn't required. Therefore, why do the people watch it? I could see if your own child was in them, or whatnot, but what purpose can it serve one to watch senseless brutality, which is suppose to remind you to never rebel again? I would think a quiet rebellion would be to turn the TV set off. Which never seems to occur to Katniss's world view. She merely accepts TV. I find this to be very indicative of her 21st American attitude - we accept TV, even when we don't like it, even when we find it uncomfortable, and even when we're pitting people against each other in ultimately meaningless contests, from Survivor to the Bachelorette. And millions of people spend time cheering on those they like, and snarking along with the commentaries (do they have commentaries?) against those they don't - just as these Games are set up, with the "favorites" of the Gamekeepers and viewers alike. Half the things Kat does during the games are for her "ratings" with sponsors. Perhaps Suzanne Collins is trying to call our attention to follies of Reality TV.

But what I got from it was, turn the stupid sets off. Get rid of your TV. Watch the required bits from the town's square, but that's it. Except for a few episodes of MTV's the Real World in my misspent teenage years, I have never seen a reality TV show. Not one. (that I can think of. Of course in saying this, someone will remind me of another I've seen). It's that simple - a small form of rebellion for the Districts, but one open to them. Yet instead they seem to approach it like the Gladiatorial games, as a form of bread and circuses, yet one they actually despise. I found this widescale attitude a little hard to swallow as realistic.

Yet, the Gladiatorial games were not a form of punishment to their spectators (and how can the Hunger Games co-exist both as a commentary on Reality TV, and our spectator attitudes, along with still managing to use them as a cruel punishment for the Districts?) Also, in the Gladiatorial games, the fighters were highly trained. These....aren't. Which would make for some pretty boring fights to the death, I would think. Also, Katniss only knows about the wild from her illegal leavings of District 12 and hunting. How does everyone else survive so well? (Well being a figurative manner of speaking here). Most people would probably disperse, only to die of dehydration, since none of them were allowed out into the wilds. There isn't exactly a working Boy Scout program here, let alone childhood lessons of Karate or self defense or weapons trainings to help the kids in their fights. Sure, they live in a tougher world than we do. Sure, some of the districts secretly train their youth. But mostly I think there would be a lot of hemming and hawing on the part of random teenagers when thrown in to fight to the death, not to mention a lot of random dying from lack of knowledge about the wilderness and survival skills. People want to live, and they know that this is the only way they have to live - by killing others. Do you think that knowing this logically would being able to transfer into being a successful killing machine? Even an unsuccessful killing machine? I'm surprised they don't at least have passive tributes, who stand in their spot and let others kill them as a form of silent protest against the games - since if the games are boring, then the Gamekeepers and by extension the Capitol and the entire system loses face.

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