No, I'm not talking about life for the 99% in the present day United States, or the rest of the world for that matter.
This is the post-apocalyptic world of The Hunger Games trilogy, a young adult book series conceived and written by New York Times best-selling author Suzanne Collins. In The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay, Collins invents the world of Panem- a nuclear and climate devastated North America. Panem is home to The Capitol, a highly advanced metropolis that holds absolute power over the remaining 12 Districts, where most people live. The Hunger Games are an annual event in which two "tributes"—a boy and a girl, ages 12 to 18—are chosen by lottery from each District to compete in a televised battle that only one child can survive.
Out of the ashes of this brutal and hungry world emerges the main character, 16-year old Katniss Everdeen, as an unwitting, and at times unwilling, heroine of a national resistance movement.
The first installment, The Hunger Games, revolves around the consequences of Katniss's decision early in the book to volunteer as tribute for District 12 to replace her 12-year-old sister Primrose and save her from almost certain death. As Katniss narrates the tale, the reader journeys with her from her illegal hunts for food with her best friend, Gale, to the Capitol where she is forced to hunt other children for sport. Along the way we marvel at her capacity to survive the games while keeping her humanity and compassion.
By the second book, Catching Fire, we know that Katniss, her best friend Gale, and her media-created love-interest Peeta are caught in a confusing web of love, lies, and betrayal—the kind that can be the death of radical organizations. By the end, Katniss has done more than survive. She has begun to connect her daily survival with the dreams and struggles of the people in the Districts against the Game Makers in the Capitol.
The final book, Mockingjay, reveals and examines the back-end of the resistance organization. It isn't sexy and it isn't clean. The air is hard to breathe, the sleeping arrangements are uncomfortable, and the devastating risks that everyday people take are much like those taken by everyday folks in radical movements all over our world today. In each book, Katniss's personal and political development is subtly informed by the growth and change of other characters and by what she learns through direct participation in, and leadership of, the movement.
As an ordinary snarky teenager cast into iconic leadership by devastating yet not unimaginable conditions, Katniss struggles to navigate her life in the world and in the movement. Her story deftly debunks popular myths to give us an honest glimpse of the nature of power, the role of leaders, the stark brutality of the state, and the origins and shape of social movements.
This use of speculative fiction to explore the contours of power and resistance was so stellar, I had to reach out to my brilliant friend and comrade Ying-sun Ho to discuss it.
A Dialogue Between Comrades
After talking about this trilogy with fellow sci-fi enthusiast Ying-sun Ho, I was so inspired I had to ask Ying-sun five questions that had been on my mind since my first reading of the trilogy.
Malkia: In Panem, the wealthy and protected Capitol has divided the country into 13 Districts, each with a focus on a specific industry. What does reality as we know it have to do with the world created in the Hunger Games trilogy?
Ying-sun: Well, I think Panem is in part a description of our present and in part a projection of our likely future. The political economy is divided into a wealthy and powerful core (the Capitol) and an oppressed and exploited periphery (the Districts). Power is exercised through a mix of political and economic infrastructure, state violence, and mass culture. The oppressed and exploited people have shared interests but are divided by region, political jurisdiction, and a sense of competition fostered by Capitol elites. All of this is familiar.
Some things seem more extreme, the most obvious being the Hunger Games themselves— an annual, high-tech, media-savvy battle royale starring children from the Districts, fighting each other to the death. But even the completely inhuman Games can be read as the fruit of seeds we are planting now. The Games are the logical extension of the violence of our own spectator sports like football or Mixed Martial Arts; of the use of violence not just as a tool of direct repression but also as a marketable consumer good, and of the cultural bankruptcy of reality television and game shows.
These similarities are all based on the world of the Hunger Games as it exists at the beginning of the story. But over the course of the three books, another even more important similarity becomes apparent. As in our world, everyday people have the power to rise up and change the conditions of their world.
Malkia: As we approach the 2012 Olympic Games in the context of an internationally proclaimed war on terror, what significance does the Lottery and the actual Hunger Games on which the trilogy is based have for sports fans today?
Ying-sun: Well, let me start by saying that I'm a huge sports fan. Like, very large. That said, I think it's a damned shame that people's hearts (including mine) break at the failures of their local baseball team in ways that they don't at the failures of their local economy or government. The way that people identify with the struggles of a team—in a few months, Team USA—more than the struggles of their class is tragic, and becomes even more so when it takes on more than a hint of the jingoism of the Olympics.
Malkia: What can the secondary characters, particularly the hairdresser Cinna and his team of helpers Octavia, Venia, and Flavius in Catching Fire, book two of the series, illuminate about our myths on leadership, class, and resistance?
Ying-sun: Well, first things first—Cinna is awesome. One of the most interesting things about these books is that they tell a relatively simple story, in what feels like really broad strokes, but when you look at it closely you find a lot of nuance and subtlety. Cinna is in charge of Katniss's style and aesthetic. It seems trivial, but his work, his art, turns out to be a key part of how Katniss becomes not just a survivor but an iconic leader of the resistance. In fact, his work with Katniss gives the resistance its symbol/logo/mascot: the mockingjay. He is a key example of someone from the Capitol siding with the resistance and using his own position to further its cause.
Cinna's helpers are different. They are more like the good-hearted but oblivious people who are complicit participants in oppression and exploitation without being in any way malicious. Each of the supporting characters occupies a particular position within Panem society, and watching them interact with one another and with Katniss and Peeta and the other primary characters is fascinating. One of the takeaways from this is that, while the viability of the resistance depends on the participation of the masses, there are also ways for people at every level of society to participate and become leaders.
Malkia: Author Suzanne Collins says that one of her inspirations for the book series was the pestilence of reality television pressed up against the actual reality of worldwide war. How does the brutal reality of the Hunger Games interact with the mass media systems set up in the imagined universe of the book?
Ying-sun: Well, it's what I said earlier. The Hunger Games transform violence into a commodity, one consumed as entertainment through mass broadcast media. The Games have a veneer of reality to them—the cameras are hidden everywhere, participants are generally not playing to the cameras, the coverage is 24/7. But that reality is a sham. The entire arena is an artificial environment built solely for that year's Games. Everything revolves around broadcasting the Games to the Districts, to remind them that the Capitol is always in control. Nothing about it is real. Except the death.
This is where the trilogy has more nuance than you might expect. Collins describes a war not just for land and power, but also for hearts and minds. It's a struggle to control not just territory, but narrative, too. And those struggles are intertwined, are inseparable.
Malkia: I know you loved the trilogy as much as I did, but it wasn't perfect. What was your major critique of the trilogy?
Ying-sun: Well, my main problem was with storytelling technique. The entire story is told in the first person, present tense. This forces Katniss to give us any and all relevant information, so that any attempts at dramatic irony end up looking like Katniss just can't or won't draw obvious conclusions from that information. I ended up spending too much time being frustrated with Katniss.
The other thing I wasn't crazy about was the love triangle stuff. Like many love triangles, it feels like forced interpersonal tension to create unnecessary melodrama.
I'm hopeful that the movie will not have the same storytelling problems. I am less hopeful that it will avoid the love triangle.
Damn, This Series Is SO Good
It is as hard to summarize The Hunger Games trilogy as it is to summarize the context and history of our present day movements. For you sci-fi fans, this trilogy operates in the tradition of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, or Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series. Each one of these books revealed in extraordinary detail a devastated world, and unveiled an unlikely hero who could not have succeeded but for unlikely alliances.
But as with those classics, a reader shouldn't view The Hunger Games trilogy as some sort of instruction manual for building social movements. Instead, the power of these novels is in the ability of both author and reader to re-imagine the current context and envision a possible future.
The depth and detail with which this series explored the expansive creativity and capacity—physical, intellectual, emotional and political capacity—of these children did just that. While the book leaves the question of race to be interpreted by the reader, its attempt to nuance and complicate the reader's understanding of class and power, and to examine how conditions alone do not create revolutionary moments, is good enough. In the end, Katniss Everdeen and the resistance movement she represented is a fictional reminder of what is possible in the malleable and very real world.
The film adaptation of The Hunger Games, the first book of the trilogy, hits the big screen on March 23. I admit, I'm a little scared of what Hollywood will do to this amazing book series. Still, I don't know about you, but as card-carrying members of the "We Who Believe" club, Ying-sun and I will be first in line.
Malkia Cyril is the Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Media Justice (CMJ). As an award-winning organizer and communications leader, Malkia has more than 15 years experience conceiving and managing grassroots communications and media organizing initiatives.
ying-sun ho is from san francisco. he makes music. he watches tv. he fights the man. and he has the world's most awesome nephew.