Winter Sunlight

Hunger Games (books)

One of my favorite kinds of character relationships, that tap-dances all over my id, is "badass teen girl and surly older male mentor". Best of all possible worlds is if they're both surly, distrustful, and broken, team up with extreme reluctance, and spend as much time fighting with each other as uniting against a common enemy. Frances Hardinge is good at these; it's one of the reasons why I like her books. (See also: Manji and Rin in Blade of the Immortal.)

It took me awhile to realize that it works if the mentor is female too; it's just that you don't usually get female versions of that kind of character. The Luideag in the October Daye books fits the "surly mentor" role perfectly, though her relationship with Toby is really too equal to hit this particular button in my head, not that I don't really enjoy them. (If someone saddled her with an angry teenager, though, the needle would probably go off the charts.) But basically, this kind of relationship is one of my favorite things.

.... aaaaanyway, yesterday I finally got around to reading the first of the Hunger Games books, and while I was enjoying it enough to keep reading, it wasn't until about halfway through the book that something in the back of my brain went "*zing*" and then "♥ ♥ ♥ OMG ♥ ♥ ♥" and, er, then I basically read the entire series in about a day and a half. I had no idea this series had one of these in it, especially one which turned out to be pretty close to my Platonic ideal of that kind of thing.

AND NOW EVERYONE IS STILL ALIVE AND LIVING NEXT DOOR TO EACH OTHER OH HELP MY HEAAAAAART. One of the reasons why I love being unspoiled is because I get a deep delight from those rare occasions when I really, truly believe that everything is going to end horribly and then it doesn't. Not that there wasn't a huge amount of horrible in the last book, not that the characters don't end up terribly shattered, and I do have lots of thoughts on how the books handle revolution and terrorism (especially since I just got done reading the Dalemark Quartet books, which also deal with revolution and terrorism) but right now I'm still stuck on happy-mode because of the ending being so much less depressing than I thought it was going to be, and I am just going to wrap up in that like a warm blanket. (I was braced for everyone other than Katniss to die and for Katniss to end up as some sort of puppet of a new dystopian government, so, you know, anything was a step up from that. I wasn't that surprised that at least one of the love interests survived -- though I didn't expect both of them to make it. However, I would never in a million years have guessed Haymitch would make it all the way to the end of the series; I'd pegged him for "most likely to die" from the very beginning.)

I have such issues with the worldbuilding, though. SUCH ISSUES. It's frustrating because on an individual-character level, I think the books -- from my perspective, at least -- deal really well with damage and psychology and so forth ... the characters are very human. But on a societal level, they just AREN'T! The only thing that makes the whole society work is that THE PEOPLE DON'T ACT LIKE PEOPLE. It kind of reminds me of [personal profile] xparrot's headcanon that the entire Pegasus galaxy in Stargate Atlantis can only be explained if the humans were engineered by the Ancients to build their societies in certain proscribed ways, because otherwise, it just doesn't work because people don't do that. I had the same problem here. And yet, on an individual level, the characters are fine; it's just macroscopically that everything disintegrates.

I don't really want to get into this in excruciating detail (although maybe I'll write up a longer post on it) but mostly it's issues like the lack of any sort of resistance/underground media/organized escape route to somewhere else (what on earth DID happen to the rest of the world, anyway?), or the fact that North America in the books appears to be about 95% empty space (I mean, one 8,000-resident town in ALL OF APPALACHIA?) which also must contain oodles of abandoned cities/mineshafts/subway tunnels/farms/etc from the before-times and therefore should be excellent for villages of refugees, rebels, and raiders, and yet inexplicably it seems like Katniss and Gale are the only people who recognize the wilderness as an exploitable resource. Or the dystopic regime being really really terrible at PR, because the way successful totalitarian regimes work (at least the ones that don't get toppled in a few years) is by giving the oppressed masses the illusion that they're part of something bigger, not to constantly remind them that they aren't part of it, or uniting them against a common enemy (like the communists' successful strategy of allowing the poor and hungry to tear down a scapegoat in the form of those people designated as the capitalist moneyed class); in this case, the only common enemy being offered to the starving masses is the Capitol, which is exactly the OPPOSITE of what you want.

The Hunger Games should be merchandised out the wazoo in the districts, not just in the Capitol; people should be deeply indoctrinated into the idea that being chosen is a huge honor, cheering their champion on, encouraged to hate the other districts because they're The Opponents (divide and conquer!) etc. Instead the whole system is basically designed to provoke unrest. The books name-check the Romans' "bread and circuses", but the problem is, the people in these books aren't getting bread OR circuses; it's more like starvation and entertainment that everybody hates.

I think I'd buy the general passivity of the populace a little better if the Capitol were better at surveillance or brainwashing or both, but it doesn't seem to do much of either one; there's little indication that people are heavily monitored, or that there's much indoctrination in education. Or it might be less weird if everyone was crowded into a small area and the food shortages were due to a lack of farmland, but again, there's nothing like that at all; North America is vast and none of the districts seem to contain more than a few small towns (I mean, again, ONE VILLAGE in the entire Tennessee/Kentucky/West Virginia area). There are places where the worldbuilding is almost there (like with the black market in District 12) but then if you leave the town, it's gotta be something like 600 miles of total wilderness to the next town, and why is nobody trying to colonize or utilize that space?


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Not really about Hunger Games... sorry?
A common enemy or being a part of something bigger is one tool for a successful dictatorship, but there are other possibilities. It all depends on what sort of distatorship you're trying to create.

In the 20th century, Czechoslovakia has been under different dictatorships. I won't go into the Nazi occupation, but the first twenty years of communism were pretty much what you described above. The "West" was the common enemy; people were executed or sent into work camps for opposing the regime (the camps weren't much better than the Nazi concentration camps, except people weren't purposefully murdered here; they were just worked to death or broken by the guards (some of whom had previously served in the SS or other Nazi organisations). And this worked to a degree; people did believe that the executed or imprisoned people were "traitors", that they did deserve what was done to them; of course, sometimes the line was crossed, but they were fighting the war here and for every sadist out there, there were a lot of good people who honestly believed in the regime. This led to the reforms in the 60th and the eventual Prague spring; the regime was becoming less oppressive, political prisoners were being released, people entered the Communist Party to build "communism with a human face".

Then the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia for becoming too democratic and this all crashed down. What followed was twenty years of "normalization", and a lot of people will tell you that this period was more damaging to the country than the Nazi occupation or the terror of the first two decades of communist dictatorship.

See, during normalization, nobody believed in the regime anymore. Of course, the West was still the "common enemy", but most people knew that was crap and they would joke about it - if they dared. But during normalization, every single person of the country became a quiet supporter of the regime.

You would no longer be executed for opposing the regime; you would just lose your job or possibly go to prison. If you spoke badly about the regime, you, your children and family would be persecuted in a million little ways - you wouldn't get accepted to college, social services might bother you, again, you would have a hard time looking for a job - and not having a job was illegal. But if you kept your mouth shut and did as the regime asked, you could have a reasonably good life. If you wanted a promotion, you had to enter the Communist Party - but if you didn't, someone worse than you would take that place, and anyway so many people were in the party already... and this applied to almost everyone, including doctors, teachers, lawyers etc. Don't make a spectacle of yourself by opposing the regime, and you could have a family, a TV, a car, maybe even a vacation out of the country every once in a while. So what if the papers were printing lies and there was no freedom of speech? Often, the parents or the teachers secretly taught the kids the truth - "but you can't tell this to anyone, sssh!" and it was just how things were. Sure, sometimes some actors, writers or journalists crossed the line and spent a few months or years in prison, but it was really their fault. You put up the communist symbols when you had to, sang the right songs, clapped and smiled at the right time and you could have a normal life. A normalized life.
Re: Not really about Hunger Games... sorry?
You never knew if your coworker, teacher, friend or family member was working for the state police or not. You never knew who was listening. Corruption, stealing and informing on each other became a norm. You wanted to buy something, you wanted something from a public service, you had to pay an extra. "Who doesn't steal robbs his own family" became a common saying, and people stole anything from office materials to bricks at a construction site, depending on where they worked. Envy was another great tool. If your neighbor had more than you or was more successful, he must have be a thief or somehow suspicious, because success just wasn't natural. There was no common enemy - everyone and nobody was the enemy. Well, the rich ones were the enemy - but at the same time, everyone wanted to be them. "Higher values" such as religion or philosophy were scoffed at - materialism was the word everyone swore by. People who could be moral figures were carefully removed, silenced or bought, because what you wanted was people who didn't care for the country; you needed them to be involved in their own little matters and not care about the regime. So you had to "edit" what you said, you had to appear to approve of the regime and you couldn't leave the country without an approval or you would be shot at the boarders - but otherwise, your life could be relatively happy. The only defense people had was theatre, music and secret literature; we produced a lot of brilliant fairy-tale movies in this period, because fairy-tales could hide allegories that wouldn't get you arrested. A lot of people secretly listened to the "Free Europe" radio, but that was as far as their resistance went - and then they went back to their jobs and their daily routine, because in the end you have kids to feed and don't have time for nonsense such as opposing the regime that doesn't really hurt you all that much if you don't give it a reason.

It was systematic and utter destruction of the nation's moral standarts, and I think it could have worked forever, if not for the fact that the regime collapsed economically. I'm simplifying; I was born after the regime fell - I never lived in this, so my knowledge is all second-hand from relatives, friends, movies and historical accounts - but at the same time, I still feel the effects on myself. It's been twenty five years and we still haven't recovered from all the damage. Just a few years back, my mom said she was having trouble at work and wondered if someone had overheard my dad saying something "wrong"; she was paranoid about having someone listening to her telephone conversations.

You don't need people to have a common enemy, you don't need them to believe in the regime; just make them believe it can't be overthrown - and then encourage them to sell their morals for comfort. Heck, I don't know what I would have done, living in those times. Would I risk ruining my (potential) children's future just to prove a point?

(And this was a post about Hunger Games and not a lecture political history. Ummm... sorry for hijacking the post? Thanks for mentioning the books BTW, I was trying to decide whether to read them or not. Looks like it might be fun :) )
Wait! The series doesn't end as dark as one would expect? Really?

I confess, I loved reading book one. I am a slow reader (often I take a month or more to read a book) but I finished this one in one day. I loved it.

I never picked up book two.

I couldn't handle where I thought I knew the books were going and everyone I talked to seemed to confirm my suspicions. I created my own head canon with my own ending.

Maybe I should go back and read more. Although, I have a very hard time with anything where people are cruel/murderous to children.

Interestingly enough, I've been reading your first Kismet book online. I'm having much of the same reaction because what I've read mentions some fairly awful stuff happening to children/babies. I probably would have stopped reading by now because of it but I'm enjoying reading the story and I trust you as an author. The difference with the Hunger Games is that I don't know the author well enough to trust where she would go with the series. (For some reason, I am very amused you have a character named Taz.)
It's actually WAY less dark at the end than I thought it was going to be, even though it's very dark getting there. My husband even warned me that the last book is incredibly depressing, and he's not nearly as sensitive to that stuff as I am! Maybe it's just that I was so convinced it was going to be a miserable, hopeless ending with everyone dying that what actually happened seemed relatively okay by comparison, but I thought the ending was hopeful and positive myself, and generally a good one for most of the characters. (If you have trouble with harm to children, though, there is some REALLY rough stuff between where you are and the end of the series.)

Oh, and I'm glad you're liking Kismet, in spite of the darkness -- and yeah, Kismet IS pretty dark, although it really IS headed to fairly hopeful-positive places, even if it takes awhile getting there. Heh, my Taz character precedes me meeting you by quite a lot! :D (I am always completely weirded out by shows/books that have characters named Layla, because it's such an unusual name.)
It could be worse, but the ending was grimdark enough for me. I warned my roommate to read with a box of tissues; near the end, she said, "I got to that part, and I think tissues were totally unnecessary."
"What part?"
"[horrible tragic scene]"
"Nope, that's not the part."

Sure enough, when she got to the scene where Katniss comes out of her PTSD enough to no longer be numb, to actually feel her experiences, tissues were merited.

The rest of the series is, indeed, darker than the initial.

Still, I'm glad I read it once, so consider it.
what on earth DID happen to the rest of the world, anyway?
THANK YOU! I read the first book and was like, what the frell? This makes no sense whatsoever! I found individual characters compelling but the world-building a nearly complete failure.

I was shocked when I discovered there was a District 13, but they weren't getting help from Europe. I had the impression that Canada and Mexico had been absorbed into Panem and that's why it was Panem and not the US, but that leaves a whole heck of a lot of countries in the hemisphere, and others not insurmountably far away with the technology available, who could have taken advantage of such terrible relations between the capital and the districts. Why wasn't anyone shipping in weapons and arming the resistance? Offering to take out refugees?

or the fact that North America in the books appears to be about 95% empty space
I had trouble even wrapping my head around this. I kept thinking that there were loads more people in District 12 that we just weren't seeing, that were gathering somewhere else, but I did eventually have to admit that it just didn't make any sense.

And yes, why on earth isn't everyone out hunting? From whom did Gale and Katniss earn?

You are the first person I've seen to write about these problems. I haven't read a lot of people's reactions to the series (and I haven't read any fanfic) but I have read a few things on it, and a lot of it is hung up on whether Katniss is realistic or not, or stupid, or what. Seriously? Katniss makes a lot of sense to me in a world that makes no sense.
I'm actually kind of surprised there isn't more discussion/criticism of the worldbuilding in these books, especially as popular as they are! On the other hand, I'm very nitpicky about that sort of thing myself, so maybe I'm just being overly harsh. :P I really appreciate that it's not just me, though!

Katniss makes a lot of sense to me in a world that makes no sense.

Yeah, that's my reaction exactly! The characters, as individuals, make perfect sense; they're very plausible and psychologically believable. But when you expand out to the macroscopic world level, it suddenly makes no sense at all, and I think that's what's making it fall apart for me, because the author clearly can do individual human psychology quite well -- but not people in groups? I don't get it!
Yeah, I really enjoyed the books but the whole set up of the revolution is something I have to handwave. If you have a Capitol that takes away your children and then tells you to be grateful for it...that just isn't going to work. That is one of the worst PR moves ever.It only makes sense to me if the Capitol really only cares about keeping the people of the Capitol itself oblivious and really don't care about the uprisings in the other districts. But if you asume that, then the Capitol seems woefully unprepared for such an uprising. Really, I am able to handwave it all away but it is definitely a "don't think too hard" about it kind of a political setup. Which is a shame because as you say, a lot of other things in the books are dealt with quite well!
... it is definitely a "don't think too hard" about it kind of a political setup.

Hah. Yeah. I guess the problem here is I'm approaching it from a sci-fi point of view, and I want the world to make sense, damn it! And it just doesn't. But the world is pretty clearly a vehicle for the political story that she wanted to tell.
Have you seen the movies? I think the series is one of those few cases were the movies are at least as good, if not better, than the books (with the caveat, of course, that this is just my opinion, and a lot of people disagree). Especially if you're a fan of Haymitch; Woody Harrelson is not really who I would have cast, but he does an amazing job with the characters, and there's a lot of great moments between him and Katniss.

I agree with you that the world-building completely doesn't work (I mean, does anyone really need 1/12th of the country devoted to coal production? Especially when there's also only 1/12th devoted to food production? These things should not be equal), but I think it's because Collins really didn't care about that part of books. It's not that she tried to make a coherent society and failed; she just wasn't interested in those aspects. I read that she was inspired by flipping between news reports on the Iraq war, and a reality TV show of the "make-over" type, and being struck by the fact that both of these were focused on exploiting 18-year-olds. And when you consider the books as a nightmare extrapolation of that, they do make sense, but it's a symbolic logic rather than a rational one.
I have not seen the movies, though I definitely want to! :)

... but yeah, I think you're right that she was only interested in certain aspects of the books and not others, which is why parts of it hold together so much better. And clearly it's not causing terrible problems for her as a writer, seeing how the books are wildly popular! I think the reason why it bugs me so much is because ... if the books were objectively terrible, I'd just have quit reading, but instead they're a mix of things which are really great and well done (she's very good with individual human psychology, at least in terms of how she depicts Katniss, Haymitch, and some of the other characters in the main group) and yet other aspects are just not working for me at all, and it's a frustrating combination.

I'm much more forgiving of worldbuilding in movies, though, than in books, so I would probably be less distracted by it in the movies.
I find the movies easier, in a way: I think it's easier to lose track of the bloopholes. Also, if it were just the movies, I'd be writing fanfic explaining the problems. Nuclear war left the entire rest of the world uninhabitable; there literally is no one else out there to intervene. Panem had a shield that only partly worked, but it worked well enough to keep people alive there when everyone elsewhere died. And large chunks of Panem didn't escape: people don't use huge portions of the country because they're radioactive or otherwise toxic.

I might have spent a little too much time worrying about this whole thing.

I meant to comment on Haymitch and got so wrapped up in ranting that I forgot! I really disliked him at first in the book, but he really grew on me—and Woody Harrelson does a fantastic job. I think that was part of why he grew on me.
Yeah, for whatever reason, I do feel like it's easier to rationalize/accept weak worldbuilding in movies (and TV). I also agree that half the problem with the books is they explain just enough that you can't quite explain it away, but not enough to actually, y'know ... explain it. (My husband read the books before I did, and when I was complaining about some of the geographical issues while I was reading the first book, he said that he thought most of the country was radioactive. So that was his takeaway; the problem is, the books never actually say that, though it would help a great deal with the issues ...)

I think I had a bit of a leg up on Haymitch because, prior to reading the books, I'd run across someone's post in which they mentioned he was their favorite character even though they didn't like him at first. So it had kind of been hinted to me, even though I didn't remember more than that, that he had hidden depths. I'm looking forward to "meeting" the movie version -- we haven't watched the movies yet.
You know, for being such a world-building nut myself I actually wasn't bothered by the book's world-building. But, mind you, I'm also the hand-waviest person that ever hand-waved, and for me there was just enough implied that I pretty much just let things be as they were without really wondering too much about the details. We know there was some big war that led to things being the way they were, we know that District 13 tried to rebel and got annihilated for it and that cowed the other districts, and we know that the capitol is crazy-advanced, plus the book is told in first person so we only really know what the protagonist knows, and I think all of that combined was enough for me to say "okay, here's the world, here's how it is. Now on to the plot!"

Buuuut, after reading all three books I did have to ask - why was no one rising up against these games? Why was no one in the capitol sympathetic to what was happening to these kids? Why didn't people just leave? Why, if the capitol is so advanced, didn't they use this advancement to serve everyone's needs rather than subjecting the masses to what amounted to slavery? And I think there probably could have been better or more explanations for all these questions, but... there wasn't any room? Or the author didn't feel it was important? Either way, I hand-waved.

And I kind of think Hunger Games is one of those books where the focus really is supposed to be on the plot and characters, with just enough world-building to make the plot possible and keep it moving forward. Sort of like books that are all about plot with the characters there simply to serve that plot (and thus driving the readers who prefer fleshed-out characterization crazy), or books that are all character with very little plot (thus boring the people who prefer more plot-driven books).
And I kind of think Hunger Games is one of those books where the focus really is supposed to be on the plot and characters, with just enough world-building to make the plot possible and keep it moving forward. Sort of like books that are all about plot with the characters there simply to serve that plot (and thus driving the readers who prefer fleshed-out characterization crazy), or books that are all character with very little plot (thus boring the people who prefer more plot-driven books).

Aha, it was you who mentioned this! :D I think this is a good insight, and it's something I keep coming back to as I'm answering comments elsewhere -- because yeah, I agree, I think a lot of the worldbuilding issues are simply because Collins' focus was elsewhere, and what she was really interested in was exploring the psychology of child victims of warfare (which she did a good job with, I think), rather than focusing on how the world would work.

Like I said in another comment (in the other post, I think), the place where it all breaks down for me is that the Games enjoyed basically 100% support, in the Capitol and elsewhere, for 75 years. I can see the population being cowed for a generation, but not for so much longer; similarly, I can see the Capitol being oblivious for awhile, but not for as long as they are. It's just, I guess, exaggerated a little too far for me to still accept it.

But I did enjoy the books, nonetheless.