Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

I bought the entire Hunger Games series right before we went on vacation, so I'd have some light beach reading. I finished the last one in the series (Mockingjay) yesterday. I selected the series because: 1) everyone has been raving about it; 2) it's dystopian science fiction, a genre which I usually like; and 3) it's based on ancient Rome and Greek mythology, and I almost always love anything having to do with classical antiquity (even when it's pretty terrrible, like Clash of the Titans).

I really enjoyed the Hunger Games. The touches of ancient Roman influence (the names of everyone from the Capitol, the grain/oil rations distributed to citizens, the relationship between the provinces and main city, and of course the Games, in which death becomes mass entertainment) were awesome. It was also appropriate, because fundamentally the world of the Hunger Games is one in which an advanced society has collapsed. The scattered remnants of humanity are attempting to maintain their high level of technological sophistication without the necessary economic/human resources, driving them to unsustainable levels of taxation and political repression. In many ways, this is a good description of the later Roman empire, in the last years of its slow decline.

I also loved the role of the media in the Hunger Games. All the characters are intensely media savvy and versed in concepts like personal branding, propaganda, and the ways in which media both distorts and creates reality. This aspect gives the Hunger Games a very modern feel (since such a situation didn't even exist in the world before the twentieth century), appropriate for a book about the future. The Games themselves are basically a reality show, currently the most popular form of entertainment in the United States. Thus, the series has a lot of interesting and profound implications for modern Americans in this respect.

There were a number of things I didn't like about the series. The first is that the books were written for teenagers. The writing style is thus rather simplistic and pedestrian, compared to the typical book for adults. Also, certain topics are omitted (like sex: the only sex even mentioned is non-consensual, and there is little attention given to this fundamental drive of human nature), while others are considerably simplified (like what being a good/moral person means). The protagonists being teenagers means that they have a very black-and-white view of things, but the book could do a better job at conveying moral complexity. For example, is the rebellion really a good idea? It isn't at all clear from the books' description of the world that it is, but its validity, timing, or methods are never seriously questioned.

Another problem was that, like so many other science fiction books, the economy described was poorly conceived. Panem has a very specialized/integrated economy, with each district producing only one variety of product: district-level trade is essential for survival (since District 12, the heroine's home, only makes coal, all food/textiles/machinery/medicine must be shipped in from elsewhere). This trade seems to be organized by the central government. Private commerce is highly regulated and private production seems to be illegal. This means that all the provinces are incredibly dependent on both one another and the transport system. At some point in the book, the Capitol is described as uniquely weak because they depend on the provinces for sustenance; actually, this would describe every one of the provinces as well. If the food-producing province really rebelled, not only the Capitol but all the other provinces would starve to death in a matter of weeks.
[NOTE: Spoilers ahead]
Also, in such an economy, the transport system would be absolutely vital (since everything vital to life must be shipped from one place to another). While trains exist in the books, they never acquire any strategic or symbolic importance: in a real-world situation, control of the transport system would be the first order of priority for both sides, as would the wherewithal to keep the transport system running. It is therefore extremely unlikely that the Capitol would be so stupid as to completely destroy their world's main source of energy (the coal mines), therefore putting the transport system out of commission and leading to death by starvation/deprivation for the whole population. Because this destruction is actually an important plot point, it casts doubt on the whole narrative.

The main objection I had to the Hunger Games, though, was the ending. Panem as a whole is not a flourishing place: the population is fairly small (in fact, it's small enough that the continued viability of the human race falls into question) and rather unhealthy, mostly because of a lack of resources (there isn't really enough food to keep most people well-nourished). Yet they have very advanced technology (especially in weaponry and the biological sciences), which of course is incredibly expensive in terms of resources.

This is only possible because the Capitol imposes very high taxes/low living standards on most of the population (I think this is called 'forced saving' in economics). If the provinces succeed in allocating more of the resources to themselves (which presumably they will immediately consume, in order to raise their standard of living), then it will no longer be possible to maintain society's current technological level. While this seems more fair at first, the truth is when technology is lost, the whole society suffers.

This is exactly what happened in the case of ancient Rome. The much poorer barbarians seized the resources of the wealthy urban Romans, meaning that everyone became more equal. But because education and technology are expensive, without sufficient resources to support them, both vanished. Hundreds of years of painstakingly acquired knowledge disappeared forever, even for things that would have been terribly useful (things like how to preserve wine, use arches and vaults, make concrete, and read). Without technology, humans became part of the famous Malthusian trap, with virtually everyone living at subsistence level. It took over 1000 years for society's general level of knowledge to improve sufficiently that technological progress could begin again, and another few hundred years for living standards to finally surpass those which the Romans enjoyed.

It seems likely that the same thing would occur in Panem. In other words, throwing off the yoke of the Capitol would mean a permanent backslide in the available technology: a mass media would not exist any more, universal education would not be possible (since everyone would have to be working),  and the vast majority of the population would revert to farming for their own food (or hunting for it). The average standard of living might be higher, if enough people died in the war; however, in a few generations the population would naturally grow to the largest sustainable number and everyone would live at the bare margin of subsidence, as they did under the Capitol, but this time without any advanced technology available, and with no hope of improvement. The peaceful, bucolic lifestyle enjoyed by Katniss at the end of the book is a chimera.

My views on the blessings of technology aside, the Hunger Games is an excellent, thought-provoking series. Even my objections are evidence that the world Collins has created is convincing enough to have economic problems. I am really looking forward to seeing the movie (which is playing in Singapore)!

1 comment:

  1. I had similar issues with the ending and thought it seemed a little too unrealistic that a society with people trained for their entire lives to do ONE task could then sustain a democratic-type, free-trade society in which they could begin to be self-reliant instead of completely dependent upon their neighboring districts/government.

    But of course, I still loved the books. I feel torn about Katniss's lack of "hero status" at the end of the book. She's portrayed as a completely broken, wounded, shell of a person, and while I get that it's actually probably pretty realistic for someone going through PTSD, the rest of her society seems to shun her as an outcast. I was hoping for a little more than that for her at the end.

    Very interesting discussion points for Hunger Games!!