Tuesday, December 24, 2013

And I Awoke and Found Me Here On the Cold Hill's Side, by James Tiptree, Jr.

Back just briefly--after today I am diving into another very long book so will be awhile.  Tonight I went back to 1972 and reread a story I've read a few times before.  And I Awoke and Found Me Here On the Cold Hill's Side had Hugo and Nebula nominations for best short story in that year.  Tiptree's fiction mostly explores sexuality, and this one is a fine example.  We might think it a little na├»ve now to think that alien life would resemble us enough to be an object of sexual desire--and yet, people are attracted to the very strangest of things, most anything at all might work.  The speculation here is that our fascination with glamorous strangers would lead us to ruin (a very direct analogy is drawn to the early Polynesians).  And I'd have to say Tiptree is probably right--if aliens were anything like us at all and not lethal to us, we would think they are glamorous, at first at least.  Unless they were refugees, per District 9.  I enjoyed this as much now as I did then, and give it three stars with a recommendation to go try it, now that it's available free online.

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.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire is the second in the Hunger Games trilogy.  Second novels are the tough ones in trilogies, since they do not have the natural advantage of either introducing or finishing a story.  They pretty much just need to move things along, and that's happening just fine here.  Panem goes from decadent to desperate in this one as the districts start uprisings.  Katniss is the unwitting and unwilling spark.  The Arena becomes even more high-stakes in the Quarter Quell, when all the past champions are pitted against each other. Something has to break here, and it does--at the end we have yet another uprising and the surviving tributes taking part in a revolution.  But Katniss is not in on the secrets and is unhappy at being used as we close.

We see potential for a shift here.  Will Katniss come around and be the symbol?  Will she cave and sell them out?  Or something else?  Something Else is always the most interesting choice, but we won't see that until volume 3.  No new message here yet, so I'll give this one four stars and let's move on.