The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
How the world ends: The usual–droughts, storms, fires, rising sea levels. When the dust cleared–over what used to be the U.S., at least–we were left with the nation of Panem, with its Capitol surrounded by 12 (once 13) districts that are entirely subservient to it and produce the goods to sustain it. The districts did try to rebel once, and lost, and as a result every district is required to select a girl and a boy to participate in the Capitol’s yearly Hunger Games, a fight-to-the-death (literally–only one is allowed to survive) reality TV show that sets 24 young contestants against each other in the game arena.
As I think I commented when I read Surviving Antarctica: Reality TV 2083, my own personal dystopia is one in which our lives are television controlled. I don’t watch much TV, and reality television (what little–admittedly–I’ve watched of it) makes me acutely uncomfortable, because it seems to function on the basis of selecting and then manipulating its participants into various bits of not-admirable or at least not-quite-real behavior, and then working to convince us that this is how people are and that we’re seeing realistic portrayals of how people are. The “only one person can win” mentality of many of these shows exaggerates this, and denies the fact that in real life, people are cooperative, we work together–not over the short term but also over the long one, we have reasons to work together and besides we want to.
So this was not a comfortable read for me. The characters–even our protagonist, fiercely competent, independent Katniss, who claims not to be good with people but regularly puts her life on the line for those she cares about without a second thought–are acutely aware of the media and their audience, and of how both are watching them even as they play in the games. And it’s not idle awareness–if the audience likes you, sponsors will give you life-saving gifts; if they don’t, they won’t. In some ways, that was the creepiest thing of all, for me–that your survival might depend not only on your physical skills, but also on how well you can play to an audience.
I read this one pretty quickly. I assumed it would be an uncomfortable read, but I think the thing that made it truly work for me, at the end, was realizing that–the story actually gets how dystopic this stuff is, not just in the surface way I was expecting, but down to the prices it carries–prices that go well beyond the simple brutalizing effects of having to kill for the entertainment of others, and include the prices of having to create a persona–which may or may match your own, and in the end can even you really tell?–and perform for the cameras, as well. Good stuff.
The parallels to our own society go well beyond the reality TV aspects, too. Some chilling things there, too, almost on a par with M.T. Anderson’s Feed at times, though perhaps not quite as bleak. (But you can work in a lot of bleak before you get as bleak as Feed.) There was also one moment that made me cry, but talking about that would be a pretty serious spoiler.
(With many thanks to taterjane for the ARC!)