THE HUNGER GAMES
By Suzanne Collins
Scholastic, $17.99 (hc), $8.99 (pb)
ISBN: 978-0-439-02348-1 (hc)
$17.99 (hc), $8.99 (pb)
The “Hunger Games” trilogy is the biggest phenomenon in YA fiction since the Harry Potter or “Twilight” series hit the bookstores. But unlike those, Collins’s series is pretty clearly SF rather than fantasy—dystopian near-future SF not that far removed from what satirists like Fred Pohl were doing in the 1950s. You’ve likely seen the first movie made from the series. I’ll tread lightly on the plot of later volumes, to avoid spoiling too much of the story for those who haven’t read them.
The tale starts in an outlying district of the future nation, Panem, where Katniss supports her family by illegal hunting. The central government rules the twelve outlying districts with an iron fist, in consequence of an unsuccessful revolt seventy-four years ago. Now, as an annual reminder of its power, the Capitol requires each of the provinces to send it two “tributes,” one young person of each sex, to fight in the murderous Games. Katniss and Peeta, son of the local baker, are the representatives of District 12.
Much of the next few chapters is spent building up background and preparing the tributes to take part in the games. The central government wants the games to be a huge spectacle, so the tributes are given personal handlers, including combat trainers, strategy trainers, and a full array of cosmetics and costume consultants. Katniss is both confounded and bemused by the attention; as a dirt-poor girl from a backward community, she’s never particularly cared how she looks. On the other hand, she and Peeta are assigned to Haymitch, the only surviving Winner from their district—a hopeless alcoholic and utter cynic whom they have to coerce into helping them at all.
Katniss and Peeta know the odds are stacked against them; District 12, whose main industry is coal mining, is comparatively poor. And contestants from several of the more affluent districts are “career” gamers—trained from an early age in combat skills and physical fitness. Katniss is impatient with the show-biz aspect of the games, in which the tributes are built up as media celebrities in the weeks before they are expected to start fighting each other. Thus begins a theme that runs through the series, where the hoopla around the games takes on the aspect of our reality shows—but with a deadly serious undercurrent.
Katniss is at first convinced that Peeta is going to be mere cannon fodder for the Career tributes. But he turns out to be adept at the show-biz aspect, recognizing that by building a fan base among the Capitol’s rabid Games followers, he and Katniss can gain an advantage. One of the twists to the games is that followers can give the contestants gifts, which can aid their survival and possibly even make them winners. So at a climactic moment, he tells the media audience that he and Katniss are star-crossed lovers. This of course is the farthest thing from Katniss’s mind, but all the advisors are convinced it’s a winning ploy and tell her to play along.
The games themselves make up the bulk of book one of the trilogy; it hardly seems a spoiler to reveal that Katniss survives the games, and that the subsequent books deal with their aftermath—which eventually develops into a rebellion against the Capitol, with Katniss a key figure. What is worth noting is that Collins takes this very familiar plot outline—a huge number of books from the 1950s and ’60s, including some major classics, follow it—and makes it work. In fact, she delivers plenty of plot surprises—there were half a dozen points in Catching Fire where I was caught completely off guard. And I have reviewed enough books by now that I am hard to surprise.
Collins also gives her young readers credit for absorbing fairly dark insights into human nature, especially the relations of the powerful and powerless. That is a theme with which the young have considerable experience—experience that has in many cases armored them against soothing tales about how the powerful have the little people’s best interests at heart. Collins doesn’t pull a lot of punches; Katniss goes through a fairly relentless string of traumatic experiences, with genuine consequences. There are also a fair number of hairbreadth escapes and miraculous cures, if only to preserve interesting characters for future use.
But on the whole, the author plays fair with her readers. Like most of the best YA authors, Collins doesn’t talk down to her audience. There are of course some limits on what she can do. There’s no on-stage sex, no nasty language, and while there’s a fairly high level of violence, it doesn’t ever cross the line into sadism, or seem inappropriate to the overall story.
Also, interestingly, the trilogy draws upon a fair amount of classical history and mythology. Collins states in an afterward that the selection of “tributes” to take place in games for the tyrannical capital is based on the legend of Theseus. The name of the nation, Panem, is an allusion to the Latin phrase, “panem et circenses,” usually translated as “bread and circuses.” The phrase’s historical resonances shouldn’t conceal the appropriateness of its application to the hedonistic entertainments of more recent times.
In short, if you’re among those who haven’t picked up this series, I’d strongly recommend repairing the oversight. The “Hunger Games” trilogy is one more piece of evidence for the thesis that sociological SF is making a comeback, and if Collins has more of this up her sleeve, I’ll be eager to see it.
AFTER THE FALL BEFORE THE BALL DURING THE FALL
By Nancy Kress
Tachyon, $14.95 (tp)
In this short novel, Kress looks at an ecological disaster from three angles: a very near future, a slightly later period when things actually fall apart, and a farther future where a few survivors hang on in the starkest possible circumstances.
We follow two main characters: Julie Kahn, a young mathematician of unusual talent, in our own time, and Pete, a young boy from the farther future. The connection between their stories quickly becomes apparent. Julie is working for a federal law enforcement agency, analyzing a series of child abductions that her lead investigator thinks are connected. The kidnapper, who has been seen by a couple of the parents, is a young person who suddenly vanishes. Mixed in are a series of burglaries where odd items have been taken, without any evidence of a break-in. Julie even has a pretty good algorithm for predicting where the next event will occur—just not quite good enough to put the investigators on the spot at the time.
The link is that Pete, the boy from the future, is one of the kidnappers/burglars, using a kind of time machine provided by a mysterious group known as the Tesslies. Confined to an enclosed habitat, the group consists of a few adults, most of them elderly, a small number of adolescents, and children—whom they have kidnapped from the past. The kidnappings are meant to supply enough young people to replenish the gene pool and keep the group viable—especially since all the adults are approaching the point of infertility. Unfortunately, most of the teenagers are also infertile—the result of pervasive radiation outside the shelter.
Pete has problems of his own, including rivalries with the other younger members of the future society. He’s got the typical range of adolescent rebellious attitudes and a fair amount of sexual frustration, despite being allowed to have sex with one of the adolescent girls (they’re not fertile, unfortunately). This peaks when one of the other boys manages to impregnate an older woman—the de facto leader of the group. The leader’s explanation about the necessity of extending the gene pool doesn’t defuse Pete’s jealousy over her involvement with someone other than him.
To further complicate things, early in the book, we find out that Julie is pregnant, and that the father is a married man who is not going to leave his family—not that she shows any interest in getting him to. Instead, when funding for the project to find the kidnappers is cut off, Julie takes on freelance work to support herself, and determines to have the baby on her own. A fair amount of the plot has to do with her preparations for the baby, and her care for it after its birth.
Meanwhile, another plot is developing, just beyond the awareness of the characters in the present-day time frame. It begins with a bacterial mutation that subtly attacks grasses—including all edible grains. One of Julie’s employers, after she goes freelance, picks up evidence of the plague—but he’s prevented from publishing. At that point, Julie sees the writing on the wall, and takes off to avoid apprehension.
The three plot strands come together in an apocalyptic ending—beyond which there may lie an optimistic future. But Kress resists the temptation to push beyond a certain point, and the book is a good argument for the beauties of compression in story-telling, especially given the minimalist nature of the future society. Yes, it probably would have been interesting to learn more about the Tesslies (who do put in an appearance before the story is over). But the knowledge wouldn’t necessarily be an improvement; there is something tantalizing about them, possibly best left as it is.
Kress shows her usual flair with character, a sharp eye for social trends, and an ability to explore edgy themes without getting self-important about what she’s doing. Recommended, especially if you’re getting tired of the overblown world-building that seems so fashionable these days.
JANE CARVER OF WAAR
By Nathan Long
Night Shade, $14.99 (tp)
Here’s an obvious homage to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Barsoom” series, which lately made its debut as a film—but with a couple of twists: a tough woman protagonist, and a very twenty-first-century sensibility. While it’s an obvious enough take on the original, it’s not a easy trick to pull such a tribute off. Nearly a century after Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, it’s all too easy to fall into slavish copying, sophomoric parody, or unintentional camp. How well Long succeeds will probably depend on your personal taste; I think he does it well.
The setup is similar to that in Burroughs’ tale: Jane, who is a combat veteran who likes to hang out with bikers, is in a tough bar. She leaves after being hassled by a boorish man, but he follows her to the parking lot where, fending off his advances, she kills him. Afraid of the law, she runs away, taking cover in a cave. There she falls into what amounts to a matter transmitter that puts her on an alien planet. She quickly learns that the local gravity is lower than Earth’s, and that the local lifeforms are not exactly friendly—as demonstrated by the ambush of a party of travelers. Jane rescues the lone survivor—Sai, a rich noble of the humanoid species that dominates much of the world. It turns out he was on his way to meet his betrothed, and that the attacker was a rival for her favors.
Jane decides to help Sai get back his stolen bride, Wen-Jhai. But first she and the local are abducted and held captive by a race of six-limbed reptilians who are a fair simulacrum for primitive tribesmen, and who treat the humanoids as slaves. There, she begins to realize just how weird the world she’s gotten into is. With a combination of what amounts to superhuman strength, thanks to the light gravity, her military training, and her street smarts, she wins her freedom from the captors, then lets Sai take her to the home of one of his friends—Lhan, another young lordling, whose world view is somewhat less conventional than Sai’s. The three of them set out to rescue Wen-Jhai, and a string of wild adventures ensues. They encounter pirates, evil warlords, imprisonment and escapes, occasional monsters, lots of combat—and way more sex than Edgar Rice Burroughs ever dreamed of.
Long does all this with verve and humor, and manages to conjure up at least the spirit of his century-old model without being trapped in the minutiae. All ends up well—and there’s enough ground for a sequel, if the author is so encouraged. It’s a romp—and if that’s what you’re in the mood for, this ought to do admirably.
These greater resonances actually work well in the context of large-scale space opera. I was reminded of one of the more ambitious novels of the late ’60s, Charles Harness’s The Ring of Ritornel, which drew deep metaphysics from the then-fashionable Steady State theory of cosmology, under the guise of New Wave space opera. This new book shows that same audacity of reaching for something bigger than most of the other writers are trying for—an even more impressive feat when you consider who some of the current practitioners of space opera are. It will be very interesting to see what else the author, John Love, has to offer.
By John Love
Night Shade $14.99 (tp)
This one’s a full-bore space opera with mystical overtones—as perhaps the title might indicate. The plot revolves around a berserker-like alien warship, dubbed Faith by its victims, that attacks space-going civilizations, although it has a history of not targeting undefended civilian populations. The military has been helpless against it—but there remains one last hope: that an “Outsider,” an extremely powerful warship crewed by the outcasts of all the races of the federation, can hold its own against it.
Early on, the enigmatic Faith defeats a number of expeditions sent against it, and the stage is set for the Outsider ship Charles Manson (all the Outsiders are named for heinous criminals). Its commander is Foord, like all his crew a sociopath chosen for his ruthlessness and cold calculation. His second in command is Thahl, a Sakharan—a native of a planet that was visited by Faith centuries before, and reduced to pre-space age technology. With the expansion of human civilization, the Sakharans became one of the outposts of the growing human empire. Now, it appears that Sakhar may be due for another visit by Faith.
The dramatic arc begins as Foord and Thahl attempt to return to their ship and escape into space—against fierce opposition by locals angry at the crew’s violence while on shore leave. The journey back to the ship turns ugly, and they reach it at considerable cost—with a trail of dead locals in their wake. Once in space, Foord deliberately cuts communication with the ground, determined to fight the berserker on his own terms.
The plot then builds through several encounters between Manson and Faith, with each ship damaging the other, but without a definitive conclusion. Each of the encounters brings out the skills of some of Manson’s crew, who are almost an evil parody of the conventional Star Trek cast: male and female, of several different species. They are all supremely competent within their specialties, but each is also eventually shown to have some trait that has twisted away from the normal.
It gradually becomes apparent that Faith is deliberately extending the fight with Manson, waiting for the ship to return for another round rather than breaking away to attack Sakhar—even when it could easily do so. What also becomes clear is that the two ships are in some way destined to carry out their dance of death to the final measure. Like Ahab and Moby Dick, they are somehow bound to each other. And in fact, the writer clearly means to give the conflict that kind of primal significance. Even the names of the two ships point to a larger meaning. The good vs. evil allegory is pervasive, though its resolution takes on considerable complexity.
Copyright © 2012 Peter Heck