Konrad Graf

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

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.

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BOOK REVIEW | Cells, Gels, and the Engines of Life by Gerald H. Pollack Thumbnail

A revised vision of basic cell biology

Science fiction blends science and story, but stories and images are among the building blocks of science itself to a greater extent than most people realize. The most engaging science books tackle the narratives that scientists believe and on which they base study designs and interpretations. Cells, Gels, and the Engines of Life provides a detailed case study of how such scientific stories and simple mental images operate to guide entire fields over decades – and not always along the best available paths.

With everything from bio-engineering to bio-hazards of keen interest in the popular and science-fictional imaginations, it is important to be clear on the fundamentals of how cells work. We might have thought we already knew, but this book questions a whole list of “textbook” fundamentals and offers an alternative, integrated framework for explaining a wide range of cell functions.

Once a misguided view has been established in any field, not only in economics, but apparently also even fields such as cell biology with relatively few obvious sources of political distortion, it can take a rare blend of courage, expertise, and clarity to budge things in a new direction. This can emerge not only in the storied times of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, but even today. It still takes a heroic protagonist to put it all together and say it out loud against layers of convention. Meet Dr. Gerald H. Pollack,  the author, professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington.

A master class in scientific thinking

Anyone with a firm reading ability can delve into this book and might be surprised, given the school-inflicted association of basic science instruction with soporific textbooks, to be sucked in on the first page. This is much more than a book about how cells work; it is a master class in fresh and precise scientific thinking, an art much in need of renaissance in an age of truth by click-through count, research-grant total, and mere widespread assertion.

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BOOK REVIEW | The Unincorporated Man by Dani and Eytan Kollin Thumbnail

Justin Cord, protagonist of The Unincorporated Man (2010 Prometheus Award winner for Best Libertarian Novel) once quips that, “You often learn more about a situation from the questions than the answers.”

My highest praise for the book is for the questions it raises in the best tradition of social science fiction, questions that get us thinking about economic, legal, and even financial institutions in new ways. The book portrays a future society with a minimalist limited government, strong corporations, and a universal system of “personal incorporation.”

Each person is owned by a shifting combination of self and others through a joint stock arrangement set up at birth. Making corporations personal serves to amplify and universalize the conventional image of corporate titans maneuvering against each other for power and position. Everyone plays the “corporate game” and plays it with their whole lives, not just their jobs. Into this mix awakens one man from 300 years of suspended animation. Can he remain wholly self-owned? Will his ancient ideas of autonomy infect others and upset the new social order?

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MOVIE REVIEW | Avatar Thumbnail

Storyworld Creation, Justice, and Environmentalism on Pandora and Earth

It may seem that watching Avatar is akin to taking a libertarian pill. True, the libertarian nutrients are rich and of universal appeal. Unfortunately, the pill is also laced with the same bad old drug: anti-technology, anti-business, and pro-primitivism.

(Estimated spoiler risk: Moderate)

Avatar is a beautiful piece of modern visual artistry and it deals reasonably well for a film with several classic science fiction themes (see the postscript for recommended novels). It portrays legitimate defense against military aggression, making a much-needed popular statement of anti-militarism.

The story of a soldier looking for “a single thing worth fighting for” is poignant. How often throughout history has the impulse to defend been manipulated and twisted for unsavory political aims?

Roderick Long said in his review that, “The movie’s most important message may be this: soldiers are responsible, as individuals, for the actions they carry out, and when they’re ordered to do something immoral they have an obligation to disobey.”

Despite the film’s thematic positives, it also encourages some dangerous misconceptions. It identifies as a “corporation” an entity that carries out actions that only states on Earth are known to perform. It also mixes a clear and principled justice issue with a primitivist, anti-technology motif in a bait-and-switch rhetorical move.

We will tease apart these and a few other confusions, clearing a path through the film’s Rousseauian intellectual thicket wide enough to enable us to enjoy the show without compromising our minds. In examining these confusions, it is instructive to reflect on the role of storyworld creators, both those who create science fiction and those who create “message,” news, spin, and sometimes even “science.”

In enjoying science fiction, we happily hand over to storyworld creators the power to temporarily redefine reality. We must take extra care to take back that ability at the theater exit or upon closing the novel. Other kinds of storytellers await us in the non-fictional world, and their motives do not include providing entertainment.

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