I started the 11-hour Audible.com audiobook of The Hunger Games, by all-time bestselling Kindle author Suzanne Collins, in the evening. Eight hours later, I finally summoned one small spark of the courage of its heroine, 16-year-old black-market hunter-gatherer Katniss Everdeen, and touched a half-frozen, bloody, mud-encrusted finger to my iPhone’s STOP button even though three hours remained. As soon as I awoke a few hours later, I checked the condition of my burns and cuts and was surprised to find that they had healed. No, that wasn’t it; those things had only happened to characters in a book.
The Hunger Games film-release buzz intrigued me enough to dive into the book before visiting the theater. I had previously only heard superficial mentions of a dark, brutal story and did not become interested until some of the advance film reviews suggested that the story might actually convey significant and thoughtful content in an action package. It does.
This is a fresh addition to the list of classic dystopian dramatic critiques of the state that work by showing what the state does to society and human beings in a magnified, allegorical form. The author’s choice of a close first-person voice and sympathetic main character transform the central state’s artificial battle game show into a very human landscape in the context of a post-apocalyptic North America. The nature of zero-sum game-making is revealed through a specific set of living eyes.
The Hunger Games are staged annually as an ongoing punishment for a failed rebellion against the center decades earlier. The center wants the 12 peripheral districts, each also kept isolated from the others, to always remember their subservient status and the futility of resistance. Twenty-four “tributes” between the ages of 12 and 18, one male and one female from each of the districts are selected by a lottery called “the reaping” and travel by luxury express train to the glorious and wealthy “Capitol” to compete in a gladiatorial survival reality TV marathon that the entire nation watches like the Olympics.
Instead of winning on points or being voted off, contestants are to live off the land and kill each other any way they can in a struggle to be the last one alive as days of combat, evasion, and nature survival stretch out before the cameras. Only one can live, winning a year of bonus rations for their home district and personal survival, a generous lifetime income, and celebrity status. Those selected are trained, groomed, costumed, and interviewed before the games. Viewer betting is intense, and sponsors can, at great expense, send players they favor well-timed small gift aid items by precision micro-parachute drop during the games. This makes it helpful for players to make a good impression on potential sponsors before the games even begin, incentivizing them to participate in staged pre-game pageantry.
This Year’s Games
Katniss has been a part-time hunter and gatherer from early childhood. In a starving coal district, she became the sole provider for her unstable mother and younger sister after her father’s death in a mine explosion. She supports her family by recalling her father’s lessons and becoming an illegal hunter in the forest outside the dilapidated District-12 security fence. Officials avoid arresting or shooting her or Gale, her hunting partner, because the officials themselves enjoy buying wild game, vegetables, berries, and herbal products from them.
Katniss and Gale find a small frontier of liberty in the forest outside the state’s fence and a thriving black market inside it. Outside the fence is also the only place they can speak their true thoughts about their district’s poverty and the injustice of the center’s rule. The relative ease of honesty and authenticity in private and the necessity of being fake and false under surveillance is a recurring theme.
When her little sister, despite very low odds, is selected for this year’s Hunger Games, Katniss jumps in to volunteer in her place. The older sister’s skills will certainly come in handy in the games, though that is unlikely to equal the lifetime preparation of the “professional volunteers” a few of the other districts train from early childhood. Yet we can also already sense that her humanity and life choices make her someone who might just try to maintain, at least temporarily, scraps of humanity within the inhuman arena to come. First inklings of the realm of romance further complicate her already impossible situation.
An Allegory of Natural Cooperation Versus Artificial Zero-Sum Games
Why do the players not just join together and refuse to fight? The state’s experienced “Game Makers” have carefully considered and adjusted for this over the years. For example, they build into the vast land reserve selected as each year’s “arena” certain prepared unnatural disasters they can trigger if things get too boring for the viewing audience. Players are also uncertain just how much of the arena environment is really natural. What they do know is that too long a stalemate or too much productive cooperation will lead the Game Makers to cause elements of this environment to start injuring or killing players, ruling out long-term survival for more than one.
I found in this a telling allegory. The state’s Game Makers are working not to solve the zero-sum dilemma of game theory, but to make sure that win/win cooperation is sufficiently forbidden that a zero-sum game remains the only option. The game is carefully rigged to stifle natural human cooperation and maintain artificial conflict. Thus, the people, both in the game and in their home districts, are left with less time, energy, or opportunity to turn their attention to standing side-by-side and perceiving their true common enemies — those who set them up to play their life roles under constructed zero-sum terms.
Nevertheless, even though game conditions seem to make long-term trust untenable, some short-term alliance options might still make sense. Even in such a game, the time-preference principle tells us that players will tend to prefer that the economic “bad” of violent death arrive, if not never, then at least later rather than sooner. Certain players might bet that even a risky temporary alliance might still add time to their lives. Not dying sooner also lifts from zero their odds of ending up the last one alive, even if by some unexpected later fluke. This helps explain why players might form temporary alliances in the early going despite the prospect of a sole-survivor endgame.
This book succeeds stunningly in its dramatic structure, brevity, and execution. Perhaps the “young adult” rubric has even aided in omitting the unnecessary and focusing squarely on story. As it turns out, though, these are the hallmarks of any good book and here we find a level of content, theme, and execution that should by no means be considered suitable only for a teen audience. To be precise, I think the book is easily interesting enough for adults, even those with only slight sci-fi leanings, though unsuitable for younger children who lack the tools needed for healthy digestion of such complex and intense material.
Futuristic technical and biotech science-fiction elements, including a range of bioweapon species called “muttations” still living decades after their use in the war, are generally believably rendered and add texture without upstaging human drama. The socio-political situation presented is on the simplistic side, but seems sufficient to do its core job of supporting the story. Besides, we are only seeing first-person through the young character’s eyes based on her limited information about the wider world she inhabits. This makes the amount of socio-political detail that readers see realistic from her viewpoint.
I thought the audiobook narrator, Carolyn McCormick, did a reasonable job with the performance, especially with the all-important lead female character/first-person narrator. While the interpretations of some of the other voices, particularly the male characters, were a little weak and distracting to me a few times, it wasn’t that difficult to tune through those weaker elements and stick with the content.
Can Win/Win Win?
This story encourages questioning and acts of humanity even in the face of the zero-sum games the state tries to limit us to on various kinds of battlefields, both metaphorical and real. Few more important core messages can be smuggled to young people — or anyone else. Doing such smuggling in plain sight, with a highly entertaining and successful book and film franchise is a victory for humanity. This book can encourage us to look beyond artificial win/lose and lose/lose games and create cooperative win/win person-to-person relationships that reestablish islands of truth and rightness within whatever enclaves we might manage to construct against dystopian backdrops.
Is being moral really possible when things get personal and come down to life or death, spear versus sword? What to do remains up to each person who is victimized by being forced into artificial environments of coerced self-defense. This story makes it clear that the root criminals, regardless of whether and how individual players live, kill, or die, are the Game Makers and those who hire them. Yet it is also clear that the ultimate “success” of any such game still requires that player participation be successfully extracted somehow.
Just scanning for opportunities to “cheat” at evil games allows players to retain a greater degree of self-ownership and humanity — even if in the end they might not be able to find a way out and must elect to play in self-defense. Still, the potential for that moral spark that even seeks a way out of such games is something the Game Makers and their bosses — even with all their wonders of eavesdropping, threats, kidnapping, exploitation, divide-and-rule tactics, and zero-sum-game construction — can never fully take away. That is an enduring message for all the ages, and for all ages.
So question the rules of the games you play in. Just don’t start reading or listening to The Hunger Games in the evening if you value sleep.