Sometimes you just need to get on the bandwagon. A couple of years ago one of my nieces persuaded me to read Twilight, which I greatly enjoyed, so when she urged me to give The Hunger Games a try, I didn’t argue. An upcoming transcontinental plane flight added incentive; I was promised a really absorbing story and that’s exactly what I got.
This despite the fact that I am no special fan of dystopian fiction. Yet there’s quite a bit of it around these days and often the story-telling outshines the explicit social criticism, which I’ve tended to think of as more or less the point. (Probably the result of having to read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World before I was ready for it.) But as Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke proves, “dystopian” doesn’t necessarily mean “dull” or “didactic.”
That being said, I was struck by the way both When She Woke and The Hunger Games focused on the intrusive role of television in contemporary society. The initiated will know that the “Hunger Games” of the title are an annual spectacle mounted by the government of the country where the action takes place — a version of the U.S, but diminished by a series of catastrophes. The Games pit 24 young people against each other in a kind of for-real version of “Survivor.” The contestants are chosen from each of the twelve districts in the country, a boy and a girl from each district chosen by lottery. It’s all televised, from the choice of the “tributes” to the end of the Games. There is only one survivor — the other 23 must die.
Some of the interest in a novel like this is watching the author construct this world: in what ways is it similar to or different from ours? At first, I thought The Hunger Games must take place in a primitive era, because our narrator Katniss lives in a district with few comforts and little infrastructure. The economy is dependent on mining coal from previously-worked mines; dangerous work that killed her father. To keep her mother and sister from starving, Katniss has turned herself into a ruthless hunting machine. Television has made her aware, though, that some other districts are so prosperous that their young people — their “tributes” for the Games — are better-fed and bigger, a huge advantage in the Games.
I won’t give away any more of the plot but it’s satisfying. More remarkably, so are the characters. Suzanne Collins has the priceless gift of being able to create characters you care about, and putting them through trying circumstances in such a way that you are truly in doubt about the outcome. And you just have to keep reading. Something tells me I’m not the only one to feel this way.