Thursday, July 19, 2012


Or, whatever happened to my cellphone obsession? To which I answer, this is the 'and more' part of the 'Gadgets and more for the thinking majority'! Who said A Little Less Apple could only be about tech? Not me!

So I just finished the entire three books, and I am deeply moved, to say the least. Yes, this is 'young adult' fiction, it features a female protagonist, it is set in a post-apocalyptic near future, it has a complicated love triangle, and its has the old hero-turns-villain tactic. Yet, I have to admit that I find it an astounding piece of fiction, and in many ways Author Suzanne Collins imagination and world-building calls to mind that of J K Rowling and, in fact, the great Arthur C Clarke.

Let's start with the characters' names. Katniss, Peeta, Gale, Finnic, Haymitch, Primrose, Plutarch, Coin, Cinna (my favorite). All these names are short and just on the edge of the familiar, yet not quite of our times - in other words, perfect for a dystopian future where cultural development has taken a back seat to survival. These names alone establish Collins' skill at creating a setup for her story, and it only gets better from here. The first word that comes to mind reading her diction is 'efficiency'. Collins uses compact, simple sentences and yet most sentences are statements of fact rather than mere atmospheric devices. This curious (to me) technique helps establish a background for the events in the story very quickly and without getting on your nerves. Like the best fiction, the books make the reader establish a whole universe in their minds. However, the story progresses along with the world building, to the extent that both are inseparable.

Simplicity is one of the the trilogy's strong suites. From the depiction of normal day to day routine in District 12 to the epic final scenes, the text never gets convoluted, never forces you read a paragraph again, and most importantly, never loses sight of the primary mission of telling a story.

The first book, titled 'The Hunger Games', begins with the grim day to day happenings in 'District 12'. District 12 is one of the districts of a state called Panem (there's the naming again!). Apparently it spans the area covered by today's United States. By this time I am sure the whole deal about the Hunger Games no longer qualifies as a spoiler, thanks to the hugely popular movie. In short, the Capitol conducts a televised game show once a year in which two children from each of the 12 districts participate. All 24 participants are left in an 'arena' where they are supposed to kill each other until only one is left, who is the victor. 

The premise can sound incredibly cruel, but it says a lot when one realizes that it's a perfect allegory for our times. There's the 'game' of boxing, in which two people beat each other silly until one bleeds or faints or both, and the other is declared victor either on the basis of being the one standing or having scored more hits. You can imagine that a boxer's lifelong health will take a beating when his professions is taking bone-rattling hits to the face (pun intended). What I mean to say is that the Hunger Games don't sound too far off from our reality shows, with the notable absence of the killing element. 

The theoretical foundation of the Hunger Games is that they are conducted by Capitol as punishment to all the districts for having rebelled at some point in the past. It also serves as a continued reminder of the districts' slavery to the Capitol. Most importantly though, The Hunger Games serve as a commercial juggernaut that are a major source of entertainment for entire Panem and profit through advertising revenue for the Capitol. 

I can go on and on about the political and sociological implications of the novels' setup, but this isn't meant to be a recap of The Hunger Games trilogy. I would just hint at the story, which starts off with the Hunger Games and works its way towards being a tale of revolution, carnage, and political intrigue. The story widens dramatically in terms of scope through the books so that the third book, 'Mockingjay', is largely a war story with a rebellion against the Capitol as its centerpiece. 

The Capitol itself is an intriguing place. It serves as the master of Panem, being replete with technology, abundance of resources, high fashion, as well as a completely enslaved populace who pick away endlessly at minor inconveniences like who gets invited to what parties and the logistical ramifications of  feather costumes. Time and time again, several themes emerge from the novels, namely how 'prosperity' and 'abundance' are irrevocably tied to complete submission, and how the populace is branded variously as 'gadget makers' or 'miners' based on their district of residence, and how technology is solely used to consolidate an autocratic rule. It's a highly disturbing future which reminds one strongly of 'Airstrip One' from the novel 1984. 

Technology, as earlier mentioned, plays a vital role in Panem. Again, there's Collins' uncanny skill of creating objects and events just on the right side of plausibility yet by no means everyday. There are large hovercrafts, there are invisible cameras, devices that project pictures into the sky - those are the things that can be found in any number of comic book based movies and sci fi classics. What sets the trilogy apart is how there is a highly personal angle to technology. For example, The Hunger Games contestants, kids as young as 8 years old to older ones in their late teens, pass through various treatments where girls lose all body hair and gain perfect skin, while the boys don't grow a beard, during the duration of the games. There are dresses which gleam in patterns. There are machines which automatically prepare food at the push of a few buttons. The are 'pods' which automatically spray bullets on anyone that approaches. It's a wonderful mishmash of various concepts and devices which, in typical fashion, ultimately is not for the service of citizens but to strengthen the Capitol's autocratic rule of the people in the Districts.

So what do the kids get in return for being killed? Their families enjoy adequate sustenance in form of ration and supplies for an entire year. The extreme poverty in the districts means that the families are eager to present their kids as the Games fodder.

It's all highly political, highly symbolic - yet there are no sermons, no simplistic good vs. bad battles. The protagonist, Katniss, is a complex character - so complex, in fact, that she honestly doesn't know herself. She doesn't know what she wants, or why she prefers one situation to another. In short, she is wonderfully human.

The other characters are equally deep, rich and unpredictable. Take Cinna, the designer who designs the Hunger Games opening ceremony dresses for Katniss. While there isn't a great deal of physical description about Cinna, you can just tell by the name itself that this guy is largely hairless and speaks in a high voice, possesses an athletic body, and is good at heart. I don't know, maybe it's just me!

There is no shortage of wonderful characters to explore. Haymitch, who is the mentor of the District 12 contestants; trust me, you won't possibly know anything about  him even after you have finished 90% of the story. Peeta, a wonderful boy who forms one corner of the love triangle and is a fellow contestant with Katniss. Gale, who is Katniss's friend....see, I can't tell too much about the characters without giving away too much of the story. Suffice it to say that MOST (not all) characters are multi-dimensional, and in that context a certain character's infallible sweetness, sincerity and goody-two-shoes attitude is thrown into sharp relief. I do believe though that with such complex characters changing so much, one anchor was needed - more for the readers than perhaps for the story!

Then there's the 'mockingjay'. The symbolic centerpiece of the trilogy, mockingjay is a genetic amalgam of the mockingbird and blue jay. The background is that the Capitol, weary of mockingbirds' speaking ability and thus information leakage, sought in the past to eradicate the entire species. Instead of going extinct, the birds mated with the blue jays to form a new species which is resilient to the Capitol's devices. The Mockinjay has been used - and I use the words carefully - in a BREATHTAKINGLY beautiful manner throughout, to advance the plot, to lend emotional depth to the scenes

Listen, I am not literate in the classics. My reading universe consists largely of the Web, magazines, Stephen King, Arthur C Clarke and Reader's Digest. So I am unable to offer a critical evaluation of the Hunger Games trilogy. All I can say is, it's refreshingly different, chaotic yet simple, and above all, not mere entertainment. There is sufficient darkness driving the story to haunt you for days after. Much more worrisome is how the world depicted in the trilogy is just a SLIGHTLY altered version of our own.

I would reiterate here that the books, titled 'The Hunger Games', 'Catching Fire' and 'Mockingjay', paint a grim world which is startlingly similar to our own. Paradoxically, the fantasy setting coupled with the very human characters combine to suck the reader in.

The end is nigh. Read the books while we all wait!

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