Winter Sunlight

More thoughts on Hunger Games (bookverse) worldbuilding

Okay, apparently I have more thoughts on this. (Since I'm trying to do weekly book-related posts at my realname blog now, I might have a go at cleaning this up and turning it into something more polished later, but right now I'm just kinda getting my thoughts out there.)

I should note this is based entirely on the books, since I haven't seen the movies.

Extracting the text of a comment I wrote in this thread:

I think a key distinction here is that I'm not trying to say I would totally do all these rebel things! under the circumstances in the book -- I'm saying people do (generally) and I don't feel like the book sold me on the idea that life is comfortable enough and rewarding enough that people wouldn't. Even if they don't commit outright rebellion, when things are as miserable and hopeless as they are in the books, people form support networks and they produce subversive literature and they try to escape to join relatives elsewhere. The books seem to be relying on people not doing this kind of thing, but without making the police state far-reaching enough that it makes sense for them not to.

The thing about the books is that the characters aren't uneducated and too overworked to do anything else, although I kind of think from the general tone of the first book especially that it might be they're supposed to be, but that's not really how it comes across. The town where the main character is from -- and the part of the world we see the most of -- is a coal mining town surrounded by an electric fence to keep people in. Everyone in town except a handful of (relative) middle class people in service occupations are coal miners. They don't have money; it's a barter economy, and the only thing they earn from working in the mines is a (starvation-level) supply of food. When people are too old to work, they're turned loose from the mines and usually starve to death if their family can't support them (which is generally difficult to impossible since there's never enough food and the coal mine is one of only two ways of getting it, the other one being selling your children into the gladiator games).

But here's the thing! Their compound is surrounded by hundreds of miles of wilderness which is full of wild animals and plant foods. Technically it's illegal to hunt there, but the books make a point that controls are lax and the main character makes a habit of slipping through the fence and illicitly hunting, which is an open secret in town and the authorities turn a blind eye to. And there's a thriving black market in town for the game she brings back. Which is the kind of thing that works just fine for me, except she (well, technically her father, who taught her how to hunt) is literally one of only two people in town who's ever figured out that you can do this, and no one else even tries.

No one is ever allowed to leave the district for any reason. The only thing they have to aspire to is working in the coal mine. But they don't start work in the coal mines 'til they're 18; in the meantime they go to school, which seems to function just like a normal modern-day American school, and they seem to be learning modern American stuff ... they're all literate, for example, even though the only book we ever see in the whole town is one that the main character and her family are surreptitiously making (I get the impression it's not allowed and they're having to be sneaky about it) to record her observations on the wild plants of the area. The teenagers' daily lives are not heavily policed or controlled except in the sense that they have to try to help support their families since there's next to no food and no work in town other than the coal mine. And so mostly what we see them doing is regular teenage things or trying to find odd jobs around town, in the understanding that once they turn 18 the men are going to work in the coal mines and the women are going to have babies. And ... that's it. They know that somewhere over the hills there's a city full of people who live lives of luxury and for whose entertainment the gladiatorial games are held -- in which children from the town have to fight to the death -- but they don't seem to aspire to ever getting there. They just spend their lives being miserable and wishing they had more food.

The main character is also, IIRC, the one who figures out and tells her starving family that you can eat the dandelions in the field where they graze their goats, because ... no one else ever does this? I mean, this is a town full of starving people trapped into a small area behind a (usually not electrified) electric fence; even if they're all too terrified of the lax security to sneak through the fence, the whole region inside the fence should be stripped of vegetation.

I mean, what you're saying [in the comment I replied to] about half the people you know being members of the Party and everyone needing to be members of the Party to get a good job -- yes! That is exactly the thing that makes this kind of system WORK: if you're complicit with the system and don't step out of line, then things will be okay for you, there is a place for you. But that's not an option in the books. There's no way out, no way to better yourself, and no future except a short life of starvation and hard work. The ONLY thing keeping people in line is the threat of violence, and the controlling regime seems to be stretched pretty thin and doesn't take much interest in their day-to-day lives. Even if the general population are too ground down by exhaustion, poverty, and hopelessness to aspire to anything beyond their coal mine, there shouldn't be a complete lack of exceptions, because that's just not how people work!

And I definitely don't want it to come across like I'm judging people IRL for not throwing off the yoke of their oppressive governments or anything like that. I just feel like the books severely underestimate the general resilience of humanity -- even if they're not rebelling in overt ways, they find tiny ways to assert their independence and individuality, because that's how people are. And the book frequently gives them enough freedom to do that, without having them actually go ahead and do it.

The thing about the worldbuilding that makes it so frustrating to me, I guess, is that in a lot of cases it's almost there, but then it doesn't quite make it and falls into a sort of uncanny-valley gap. The way that District Twelve seems to function in the books, with a thriving black market and the local Peacekeepers being generally pretty laid-back and functioning as members of the community, is very believable to me -- it seems just what you would get in the remote regions of a very spread-out centralized regime like this one. But then I can't figure out why the book still has most of the people in town behaving as if their every move is being watched and their neighbors might turn them in at any moment. I would expect poaching would be endemic, even if it's mainly in the form of kids sneaking under the fence and coming back with bags of greens. It'd be different if the standard of living in the town was fairly comfortable, but PEOPLE ARE STARVING. And they're more afraid of the non-electrified fence and the threat of retribution from Peacekeepers who actively ignore the black market than they are of the real and present threat of themselves and their children starving to death? I just can't quite buy it.

Similarly, the book (IIRC) says that it's illegal to train for the games, but if you KNOW that your children might be randomly selected for an arena battle and anything they learn now could give them an edge later, it seems like a whole culture would've grown up around subversively "training" in non-obvious ways. The books indicate that some districts actually do have that (the "Careers" from the richer districts) but I'm baffled why all of them don't. In a district like Katniss's, there are other (survival) concerns that would make it trickier, because the chances of being drawn are still relatively low and I can see people prioritizing basic survival and learning adult job skills over practicing for gladiator games that only a tiny fraction of the population are ever going to have to worry about. But still ... it seems like, after 75 years, some basic self-defense and weapons training would be part of the culture.

It's not just the Districts that I'm having trouble with; it's also the Capitol. Here again, up to a point, I can buy the Capitol residents prioritizing their own safety and comfort over concern for the plight of the districts, just like I can buy the residents of the districts living in too much fear and poverty to rebel ... but not quite up to the point where the book takes it. Even if the people in the Capitol are fed a heavily edited version of actual events in the districts, and even if the general culture plays to a strong us-and-them vibe (that is: we have ours because we earned it; they're stupid/uneducated/a breed apart from us, so they don't deserve what we have) -- neither of which is overtly supported by the books, but the system would fall apart completely without it, so it has to be there to some extent -- I would still expect the Capitol to have its elements of, for example, charitable societies collecting clothes and providing food aid to the "less fortunate" in the districts during the winter months, or the underground newspapers spreading the "TRUTH of what THEY DON'T TELL YOU!!" and so forth. The books do occasionally give a nod to the fact that the Capitol contains people of all ages and walks of life, especially towards the end, but there's still a very strong implication, based on the people Katniss meets, that everyone in the Capitol is going along with the system because they're either a) evil, or b) shallow and stupid, and ... no? I mean, ESPECIALLY if the Capitol is literally the only place in all of Panem where you can indulge artistic impulses or have any kind of career other than resource producer for whatever your district produces.

Also, surveillance and government control has to be WAY tighter in the Capitol than anywhere else, because that's where the government resources are concentrated, plus it's the most high-tech place in the country. I was talking in comments to the last entry about the fact that Panem doesn't seem to have a rat-out-your-neighbors or secret police element, the way a lot of RL dictatorships do ... but if it's anywhere, the Capitol is where you would expect to find it. The Capitol, in fact, is where I would expect the police state dynamics to be playing out as close as possible to what sheenianni was talking about in my last post, where most people live in fear of informants and go along with the system because as long as you don't step out of line, you and your loved ones can have a regular, comfortable life (or at least the nearest thing possible). In the books, it's implied that people in the city go along with the system because they're selfish hedonists, but there's something that really hits home to me about [spoiler character] in the third book bursting into tears when she runs into the first item of beauty that she's encountered among the rebels, because she's used to a life where there is beauty everywhere and among the rebels everything is dull and gray. In Panem, the city is where beauty is, where art is, where most possibilities for learning and advancement are, where advanced medical care is (where, for example, it's possible for people with a great many disabilities to do anything other than just die). And while it's true that it's propped up at the expense of the suffering masses, I can see those qualities being appealing to people for reasons other than just wanting to wallow hedonistically in luxury while everyone else starves.

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Actually the Capitol part I found easily believable. A direct comparison would be the current state of Russia, where 80% of the population support Putin even though he's systematically robbing them of every advantage they may have. The real situation is quite complicated, so I won't go into it, but basically that's the one part of the book's politics that actually has a very good correspondence to real life.
I can believe it up to a point, definitely. The point where it kinda breaks down for me is that it went on for 75 years and no one in the Capitol seemed to recognize it was wrong or work up an underground or quietly try to counter government disinformation or anything like that, especially given how lax the government's PR machine actually seemed to be. I mean, 80% support I can totally buy (people enjoy their comfort and don't like to recognize that they've been complicit in a fucked-up system; simply not wanting to admit in public that they've been wrong can carry on for quite awhile) but basically 100% support for 75 years is where it loses credibility for me.
Yeah 75 years is pretty strange, but on the other hand you have to consider that perhaps the knowledge of past generations died with them. Maybe? I definitely see your point.

To add a non-Hunger-Games comparison into this, right now Stalin is regarded on the same level as Hitler by people (roughly). But when he died, there was mass mourning in the USSR. People were literally crying on his funeral because they thought they were losing their saviour. The same person who (they didn't know) had made pacts with Hitler to conquer and split up the world, who put the country into the situation they were in (by systematically killing and imprisoning every military commander who was warning the government about imminent threat of war from Germany that they didn't want to hear), and so so many other things that were not good for the people. That kind of PR is just extremely pervasive. In retrospect you think, how this could have happened, but the system held together for decades after all of this.
Yeah, I agree with a lot of your criticisms. I think part of what happened is that, at the beginning, Katniss's situation is supposed to be fairly unusual. 12 is already the poorest of the districts, and then the mining class is the poorest class within 12, and then with no working parent (her father being dead and her mother unable to hold a job), Katniss's family is supposed to be the very poorest (or close to it) even within the mining class. I got the impression that the reader is supposed to assume that the vast majority of the population never has to worry about starving, and in fact is doing the "if you're complicit with the system and don't step out of line, then things will be okay for you, there is a place for you" thing.

But the problem is, once the rebellion starts, Collins wants everyone to join in and be equally oppressed, and suddenly it just makes no sense.

(Of course, the parts about schooling and waiting to work in the mines until you're 18 never really make sense, and I offer no defense for those.)
Yeah, this makes a lot of sense to me - that the worldbuilding goal changed midstream, but she had to get the previously established facts to agree, and it never did line up completely. I definitely did get from the books that 12 was meant to be the poorest/"smallest" district (population-wise) and even within her town, others are quite a bit better off ... but yeah, the more you find out about the world, the more things start to fall apart.

I think the problem is that I'm so interested in the economic/political underpinnings of the stuff I read that I tend to focus on that to the exclusion of the things the author probably wants me to focus on, and get sidetracked by inconsistencies there. (I do this with historical fiction as well as SFF; one of the reasons I like Barbara Hambly's books so much is because she does such a great job with that side of things ...)
My biggest problem with the Hunger Games worldbuilding was the isolation - that Panem seemed to exist separate from the rest of the world somehow. Maybe this was explained somewhere, and I didn't remember? But it creates this system that is difficult to compare to any existing historical precedent, because while there have been many dictatorships and other horribly oppressive governments, there was always some escape from them, for at least some people. Even in North Korea, which is probably the worst of anything currently, people do get out sometimes. But there's nowhere to go but Panem in the HG world, and that isolation confused me.

The books get away with some of it because they are all from Katniss's young and under-educated POV, for the first couple of books I was okay with filling in a lot of details to make it make sense. The final book is where it fell apart for me, we saw too much of how the rebels and the Capitol worked.

Though honestly, I never could quite square the basic premise with human nature. Human beings actively enjoying watching children getting killed is pushing credibility for me. There was this element of...the books read as a condemnation of government oppression, class conflict, and reality TV, and somehow making that last on the same scale of horrible as the first two me, it's along the same lines as the plots of a bunch of TV episodes, where there's someone on camera going to be murdered and the online video is going viral with millions of hits - except that hasn't happened in reality, because in reality most people aren't actually that bloodthirsty, and putting people on camera tends to make us empathize with them more than less. I kept getting distracted trying to figure out how the Hunger Games could get broadcast and not have a bunch of the Capitol getting up in arms because their favorites unfairly died - let alone how the Districts would react! Regular non-lethal sports games cause riots now, I couldn't figure how the Hunger Games wouldn't...
--Also, while I'm complaining about it (I just went and read all the comments to your last post, it's rather reassuring that I'm not alone in my issues with the books!) - Peeta and Katniss are the first time True Love has ever happened in the Games? Really? REALLY? You're putting teenagers together in an incredible high-stress environment where at the early stages they have to rely on one another to survive...and no one's ever fallen in love? (much less pretended to fall in love and put on a show just as Peeta and Katniss did...) I'd think self-sacrificing romance would be a standard event in every game...

Edited at 2015-01-19 12:08 am (UTC)
.... haha. Yes. Although perhaps I could handwave that if it's not the first time anyone's fallen in love, it's the first time anyone's come up with a way of exploiting the PR side of it (and I do gather from the books that Haymitch is supposed to be a sort of strategy genius -- although there again, his one big strategy coup from his own Game was figuring out how to get out of the arena, and really, in 75 years, he's the only one ...?).

I think a big part of my issues with the books is just that it's been 75 years and there's so much exceptionalism going on in the books -- first time for X, first time for Y, first time for Z. I think it would be easier for me to buy that no one had every tried to rebel, or figured out most of what they figured out in the books, if it had only been a generation or two since the first rebellion.

Edited at 2015-01-24 10:20 am (UTC)
I always figured that it all came down to the bombing of District 13 and the capitol's "itchy trigger finger" if they so much as suspected even one person of potentially causing trouble. 13 gets wiped out and the result is everyone else pretty much saying (in a nutshell) "We'll be good! We'll be good!" And so consigning themselves to the rules and their way of life, but having happened just long enough ago for districts like twelve to start toeing the boundaries just that little bit with their black market.

I did wonder why Katniss was the only one hunting but I think Wordsofastory makes a good point. Katniss and her family were on the bottom rung of the bottom rung, and so that would mean taking risks that others wouldn't.

But I do agree that certain aspects could have been fleshed out, more. There's plenty of reasons why Katniss and Gale are the only ones hunting, but it would have been more interesting to be shown that - for example - Katniss attempted to tell people that, hey, there's a ton of food out there you just have to go out and get it and I'll show you how - but people being too afraid of the possible repercussions to try. Or even Katniss not saying anything at all because she didn't trust that the people she told wouldn't rat her out. It also personally bugged me that for someone who was supposed to be starving, Katniss and her family certainly seemed to be eating good. Not great, but she was always able to find something to bring home, and I kind of wish the book had toned that down a little, maybe had it so that there were days when she couldn't find anything. Because all her hunting and foraging made it seem like she had it better than everyone else in the district.
Yeah, that's the read I got. I mean, Rue's district was far more profoundly controlled, and it was impossible to leave the fenced-in areas. It's implied (or stated?) that only District 12 is quite so poorly controlled, and everyone knows that it's because they're just too far away and too unvalued.

The story-current divide was created when the districts attempted to rebel and failed; that reaped them the Games. So that right there is a fantastic reason for most people to assume that rebellion is impossible; every year, the State grinds the point home a little deeper. "This is your just and deserved fate for rising against us; everything we do to you stems from that." They don't even need to tell people not to try it again. And that same message is given to the Capitol's citizens -- those sub-human District folk earned this and don't deserve our mercy; we have to keep them down, and we might as well enjoy the spectacle!

I did get the sense as well that the rest of the world doesn't exist. (To that point, consider North Korea and the fact that no one is rushing in to rescue the people there ... because they've got China backing them. Panem has its own nukes and has apparently used them in the past. What would it profit any other country to try to intervene?)

12 knows their current oversight is a bit lax, but they're always aware it could crack down at any time ... and in book 2, it does. Any attempt to step out of line earns a brutal backlash. (As it happens, that just fans the fire, but the fire took 75 years to get going.) Some at least know that if you're found outside the fence, you're doomed; Katniss saw the killing of one Capitol runaway and the Avox-ing of a second. The Capitol has the tech to find people if they're looking for them; it's hard to hide from an infrared camera, even if you know that's one of the things they can use. If they try to gather in any kind of numbers (humans tending to be social animals) or try to establish something as easily spotted and stationary as a farm, they've asked to be spotted and killed.

And the Capitol isn't far-sighted enough to care to act in the best interests of the Districts, or at least not all of them. They're more than happy to live off them for the time being. And it's not as if that -- or people being horrible on the one side, or defeated on the other -- doesn't have ample historical precedent.

I dunno. I bought at least the majority of the totalitarian-state side of things. The part where each District is so dedicated to producing only one category was where I thought the world-building actually fell down (and/or served more as symbolism than as something feasible).
Heh, strangely enough I totally bought the districts' specializations (it's more extreme than the real-life analogues, but I think it actually analogizes fairly well to heavily centralized production, at least if you're going for a dystopic/dysfunctional version of it).

The Capitol has the tech to find people if they're looking for them; it's hard to hide from an infrared camera, even if you know that's one of the things they can use. If they try to gather in any kind of numbers (humans tending to be social animals) or try to establish something as easily spotted and stationary as a farm, they've asked to be spotted and killed.

*nods* Yeah, I did get that from the books. I just wish the books had sold me a little better on the Capitol being able to adequately police an area the size of North America with such a tiny amount of manpower, even allowing for the fact that a lot of it would certainly be automated with better-than-modern technology. It was thinking about the geography that really made things start to break down for me, because if District 12 only has 8000 people in one village in all of Appalachia ... I know it's the smallest, but even if the others are much more populous, if they're still centralized into a handful of small settlements capable of gathering in a central location for the Reaping, we can't be looking at more than a couple hundred thousand people in all of North America, with populations very localized ... and that is such a phenomenal amount of open space to police. It's just hard for me to believe that more people wouldn't risk it, given the possible benefits. And the rebels that Katniss meets in book 2 crossed something like 2000 miles of wild country without being caught (they go from district 8 to district 12, I think, which, if the districts are clockwise around Colorado, is something like from Montana to Kentucky or thereabouts?) and they're unprepared, unfed, and partly disabled, so the Capitol can't be THAT efficient.

Edited at 2015-01-24 10:32 am (UTC)
Yeah, I think a lot of it come down to something someone else said in the comments to the other entry, which is that the worldbuilding wasn't where Collins' focus was -- it was on the character issues instead. I think most of my issues would have been a great deal less of an issue if a little more time had been spent expanding on how the world really worked, but that wasn't the aim of the books.