30 March 2012

The Hunger Games

I started The Hunger Games just before spring break and finished it the first evening I was in Pensacola, accompanying a group of college students on the Habitat for Humanity Collegiate Challenge. In three and one-half days we built a house, from slab to walls with the outside OSB, roof (minus shingling) and windows. It is an exciting, rewarding, and of course physically tiring experience, but not enough to keep me from finishing the book.

In previous blogs I have complained about present-tense narration. Most people who do it have no compelling narrative reason to, and so it becomes tiresome. In The Hunger Games, on the other hand, Collins has used present-tense narration to good effect. The book is narrated in first person, which is essential to the plot and intensity of the story. Accordingly, present tense is indispensable to keep from revealing the fate of the main character. Past tense is used for when Katniss (the narrator and main character) remembers past events. This is an example of effective use of present tense narration: when the story will not work as well without it.

The book is both a dystopia (a future of difficult, even dire, living conditions and breakdown of society and technology) and a work of science fiction, deftly used to criticize society. Science fiction seeks to extrapolate from present trends in technology to warn of what may happen if it is not controlled. The classic example is H.G. Wells' The Food of the Gods. In The Hunger Games, technology has continued to advance, but it is the privilege of those who live in Capitol, the gleaming city which controls the 12 districts. Rising sea levels have destroyed the coastal cities and reduced the land area. In the districts, people are poor and lead hand-to-mouth lives. Each district is assigned an agricultural or industrial function to support the Capitol. District 12 is mining. Katniss and her friend Gale hunt surreptitiously, because hunting is prohibited, to provide a livable diet for their respective families.

The Hunger Games themselves were instituted seven decades previously, following a rebellion by the districts against the Capitol. After losing, each district was forced to provide each year a male and female young person as a tribute. The 24 tributes must fight to the death until one is left. The games are a yearly reminder of who is in control and what will happen if the districts rebel again. They are a huge entertainment event for the residents of Capitol and the entire country is obligated to watch on TV. Usually electrical service is spotty and infrequent, but during the games there is electricity all around the clock.

The technology described is just barely beyond what we know: enough to provide surprises and to serve the plot and not so much as to make it unbelievable or fantastic. It is strong enough to be horrific at times and to serve the Capitol in controlling the districts. The practice of games in which people must kill each other off is not at all far-fetched. In ancient Rome the games in the Coliseum were exactly that. The authorities in The Hunger Games are merely behaving to type. The availability of power in a situation in which climate change has impoverished the majority of people could very easily come about. If we in the US, who in panic after the September 2001 attack on the World Trade Center have been willing to allow invasion of other countries without declaring war (as the Constitution prescribes), to torture prisoners, and to hold even American citizens indefinitely without charges, trial, or any semblance of due process, so easily give up our Constitutionally granted rights in such a brief time, we cannot characterize Collins' dystopia as far-fetched. It is scarifyingly possible.

Everyone should read this book and think about it. The Constitution was created in full knowledge of the hunger for power and the unreliability of political leaders. It was designed to neutralize these tendencies by distributing power over many different sections of government. It worked well until advertising on TV became indispensable for getting politicians elected. The huge amounts of money needed to pay for ads were gladly given by corporations and the wealthiest individuals, making the successful candidates debtors to them rather than representatives for us. Combined with our willingness to give up our tangible rights in exchange for an elusive security which can never be guaranteed, we have stressed the political system beyond what it can withstand. Can we restore it? That remains to be seen but it is certain to be a long and bruising fight. The alternative is to become a society which resembles that of The Hunger Games.

Angela 1: Starting Over and its sequels deal with the exercise of responsible citizenship. Please check it out at www.strategicpublishinggroup.com/title/Angel1.html

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