Saturday, December 21, 2013

Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games had been on my list for awhile, just because of its cultural significance--it seems to be the biggest thing in reading to come along since Harry Potter.  It is the biggest hit I can recall that has a female protagonist action hero, though those are becoming more common.  There's plenty of analysis out there for the series--with Mockingjay finished I now add my own small bit.

The series is a pretty trenchant critique of a current societal trend and its biggest side effect.  The societal trend is unequal economic opportunity, and the closely related symptom of blood sport.  Games for blood are as old as human society--the Roman gladiators being the most famous early example, but people have probably been paying to watch fights since long before any form of literacy existed.  And the contestants in these fights are always some form of oppressed group--the poor, prisoners and other powerless folk are the ones risking their lives, willingly, forcibly, or somewhere in between.

The modern twist on this is the female perspective, of course.  We have the uplifting message that women can be action heroes and win in combat--which means they end up being participants.  But what Suzanne Collins really brings out and properly emphasizes is the spectacle of it all.  One of Katniss' most important, and definitely most forthright, allies is her stylist.  What we end up with is Survivor for the highest stakes, complete with all the reality-tv tropes of elaborate massaging of the games to keep them competitive (the GameMaster is another very important character) and audience involvement.  In Mockingjay, though, Katniss goes beyond the arena and takes it to the streets.  Her leadership is figurative and her conscience is conflicted, but in the end she brings it all off.

A couple of issues, at least one being kind of minor and definitely un-PC:

  1. For the 75th games, they brought back 24 former winners, two from each district, male and female.  With 12 districts participating (we don't know when 13 dropped out), that would mean there were at least 12 female winners.  That is a stretch, unpopular as it is to say.  I am in favor of women as combat soldiers, mostly because I harbor the belief that war is somehow less physical than it used to be, based more on stamina than raw hand-to-hand combat strength.  And teamwork is more important, where women excel.  But one-on-one, where strength or spatial ability is any factor--you'd be lucky to have one or two.  Women can compete, but in just about any sport the men separate themselves significantly at the top end.  That shapes relationships in ways that pretend equality ignores.
  2. More importantly, while some find the ending to be a game-changer, I think it's a bit pat.  Katniss the conflicted hero takes out the scheming rebel leader who was looking only to be the evil President's replacement.  A decent human being gets elected instead.  It happens, but not without even more blood and tears than we see here, and that's the best case scenario.  Far more often in revolutions no heroes emerge at all.  For every Aung San Suu Kyi or Nelson Mandela, you have ten Nouri Al-Malikis or Thabo Mbekis.  Less often a Fidel Castro or Vladimir Lenin, who can lead and bring order but at a terrible price.  George Washingtons and Confucians are pretty rare.
It's easy to read more than is warranted into the series.  It's a powerful critique, but firmly rooted in the present, even though the themes are timeless.  The beauty of simple storytelling and well-represented emotions gives way to oversimplified solutions.  We see plenty of the simple banal evil of Coriolanus Snow.  Katniss is emotionally complex enough to see the way forward, but then hands off the resolution.  It's still a fine read, and a must if you want to be culturally literate.  Four stars.

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