Tag Archives: dystopias

The Hunger Games/Catching Fire/Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

I knew I would read The Hunger Games (trilogy) before watching the films, and I pushed it higher up on my list after my sister spent Christmas reading it. On vacation. In San Diego. Where there are whales and pandas to watch. I been avoiding spoilers as much as I can (even when the articles on the film looked really interesting), so all I really knew was that the main character was named Katniss Everdeen, the Hunger Games were a reality-tv competition where the contestants had to literally kill each other, and there was a girl named Rue who was black.

It’s easy to read The Hunger Games – the first book, at least – as an indictment of reality TV and our collective enjoyment of watching people suffer, in whatever way, for our entertainment. But for me, the trilogy is much more an indictment of what we choose not to pay attention to, especially as people in the higher income strata of the world. Social awareness has come a long way since the days of Jane Addams, etc., but things like the Mike Daisey story (to keep with relatively current events) show how far we still have to go. So many times the real people involved in things are forgotten or ignored – or worse, like Haymitch, ignored except when they are useful. We get complacent about the things in our lives, and forget to recognize where they come from. We start thinking that our problems are the only problems, and the worst problems, and we forget that there are other people who also have problems, who have more fundamental problems, or who are willing to share the burden of our problems.

And that’s true of the people in the Capitol – the ones who paint their faces and throw food away while other people are starving, the ones who only think about the Districts during the Hunger Games, or when a supply chain breaks down. It’s true of us, in the “western” world, the affluent world, who don’t really think about where our products come from or the background to our entertainments.

But it’s also true of Katniss. She has such a hard time with unconditional love, both giving it and receiving it. She has grown accustomed to seeing people in terms of what they can do for her – which is completely valid given the circumstances of her life – and is well aware that she is seen by many others only in terms of what she can give them and what she symbolises for them. It takes ages for her to accept that Peeta, for example, loves her for herself, not for anything she can do for him – only to have him turned by the Capitol. Is it any wonder that she has no trust in other people’s motivations towards her? But that ends up hurting her in the long run: because she can’t trust other people to see her as anything other than a tool or a symbol, she misses out on quite a lot of allies.

Another thing that The Hunger Games presents, in several different ways, is how not to run a country. Fear and oppression publicly paraded is effective for a while, but it is fragile. All it takes is a spark of rebellion, and the awareness that the few cannot always oppress the many. Unfortunately it takes unity to rebel. If one participant, one district, rejects the rebellion, it fails. The Hunger Games themselves couldn’t have happened, and wouldn’t have lasted, if the champions had refused to kill each other – but only if all the champions had refused. Some of Katniss’s initial power as a symbol comes from her refusal to bow completely to the Capitol’s whims – but the rebellion would have been a lot easier if all the champions in the Quarter Quell had been with her, or if all the districts had joined together peacefully. And it nearly fails.

I really enjoyed these books – as much as you can enjoy dystopian worlds where people kill each other for the entertainment of others, where the main character is used and manipulated by everyone around her despite her best efforts to rise above it, where the allies can be just as evil as the enemies. The world is sadly realistic – it’s not our world, but it’s not too far off what our world could become. I definitely want to see the films, but even more I want to reread the books.

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The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham

This book often makes it onto “best of” lists – sci-fi/post-apocalyptic, etc. I think it’s even in at least one edition of the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, if not all of them.

If you don’t know (I didn’t, really), it’s the story of the very  beginnings of a post-apocalyptic society. There are two distinct parts to the apocalypse. The actual event is a green comet/meteor shower, and anyone who sees it goes blind by the next morning. The second, continual threat, is the triffids – aggressively carnivorous plants with apparent intelligence and communication skills.

Where this story excels is its depiction of the various forms of survivalist community that become established. Pretty much every iteration is explored in both “moral” and practical ways. There’s the fend-for-yourself time, the small groups of sighted and unsighted trying to forage with or without leadership, the free-love/rebuild the world society, the cling-as-hard-as-we-can-to-our-old-lives groups, the new feudalist groups, and ultimately the not-hippie commune. I put moral in quotation marks up there because it rapidly becomes clear that this book understands relative morality rather than absolute morality, and certainly doesn’t recognize any previous moral authority (church, government). It’s a very Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest world, both physically (who can survive) and mentally/morally (who can let go of their old roles/strictures/ideas, and who should be helped to survive).

Where this story really doesn’t excel is in its treatment of women. If it weren’t for Josella, the love interest, and Susan, a child who doesn’t even appear until about two-thirds of the way through, there would be no positively portrayed females. There’s even a rant about how women are lazy and too accustomed to leisure to be at all useful – except, one presumes, as breeders. One woman is completely stupid (and in shock) and simply repeats that “the Americans will come” to save them all. Even Josella, as capable as she is, is ultimately nothing more than mother and (monogamous) wife.

But the rest of the book explores such interesting scenarios that I’m able to mostly overlook the fact that the only woman-as-leader is obviously a narrow-minded failure, doomed to death as soon as the men leave. Or at least, I can put it down to time period and inadvertent, not deliberate, misogyny. I’ll also overlook the classism – the fate of the “aristocracy” is never mentioned (not even the Royal Family, in London), and theh working classes are translated into one man who switches accents based on his companions, and a brief mention of some Welsh miners who have isolated themselves. Everyone else is firmly upper-middle-class.

Oh, look, I couldn’t completely ignore it….

Despite those flaws, it’s got some fascinating stuff, and I’ll certainly be giving Wyndham another try.

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Shades of Grey, by Jasper Fforde

It’s the details that make fictional worlds so interesting. Plot and character are important, of course – they’re what get you hooked and keep you reading.  But it’s the details, especially the ordinary, off-hand details, that stick in your mind. You find out a lot about the society by what they see as normal and what they see as unusual.

Shades of Grey is the newest book by Jasper Fforde. I got my copy at a reading he did this week in Nottingham. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic world that operates on a caste system based around visual colour acuity. No one in this world can see the entire colour spectrum – some can only see red, some blue, some yellow.  Some can see orange, green, or purple. Purples are at the top of the hierarchy, Reds are at the bottom. Greys – who can’t see colour, obviously – are the labour force, below all the Colours. The society is completely run through a set of rules. Everyone (well, nearly everyone) adheres almost blindly to these rules. The story here starts when Eddie Russett meets Jane, a Grey who makes a habit of defying the rules.

I’m not going to say anything more about the plot: you should definitely read it yourself, and it is the first in a series so the plot isn’t really concluded yet. But, like I said at the beginning, it’s the details that make fictional worlds special. Details like the barcodes that are on everything, including living things. Or the animals that are mentioned (and further described on the website). Or the idea that everyone in the world has fixed pupils, and therefore no night vision. And the thing that made me actually laugh out loud: a Caravaggio called “Frowny Girl Removing Beardy’s Head.”

One of the things this book does (or certainly tries to do – you can decide for yourself how successful it is) is explore the dangers of unquestioning obedience. The Colourtocracy is stable and sustainable and peaceful and productive. But we know from real life that it can’t possibly be that easy – and of course it’s not.

Another thing that I was thinking about after I finished the book was the social taboos around marriage. Colour perception is generally passed on genetically – a Red and a Yellow will most likely have an Orange child; a low perception Red and a high perception Red will have a medium-to-high perception Red child. And there is a strict taboo against complementary colours (colours opposite each other on the  colour wheel, like Red and Green) having a relationship. This means that no one acceptable in this world ever can see the entire colour spectrum. I am sure that this will be important later in the series; there were a few hints of it even in this book.

I described this to a friend as a dystopia, but not a negative dystopia like Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, 1984, etc. It’s a dystopia because it’s a “perfect world” that’s not, but it’s not nearly as dark as the classic dystopias. I don’t think Jasper Fforde could write something dark and depressing. His style (and, after meeting him, his personality) naturally turn everything to a humorous bent.

One tiny thing that disconcerted me in this book: it’s not unexpected that Jasper Fforde would treat figurative language literally.  There was one line that, at the time, I wondered if that were the case.  At that point, with some of the descriptions (such as the fixed pupils), I wondered if this world were a painting or drawing come to life.  It’s a reasonable thought, given the Thursday Next series, which features “living” literature.  So when he describes a room at dawn as “reassembling itself”, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was literal or figurative.  It’s a lovely passage, either way, but it did make me wonder. After finishing the book, though, there was nothing else that pointed to the literality of it – but it distracted me for a little while.

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