I have just read Suzanne Collins’ series The Hunger Games. ‘Read’ is probably not the right word: ‘devoured’ is more like it. Once I’d started, I had to finish. As I’ve said before I think good writing has a “hook” which makes you want to read on, but also makes you think about people or the world in a different way. This particular set of books is not the most elegantly written series in the world — Collins is not Patrick White — but it has a killer hook (literally) and asks the question, “What if things were like this?” in a way that is distinctly disturbing, and haunts you for days afterwards. I haven’t seen the movie of the first book yet: I’m a little nervous about film adaptations of books I enjoy.
The novels are set in a post-apocalyptic society in the former United States. A central district (the Capitol) rules the other twelve districts (which only have numbers eg, District 12). Each district specialises in producing a particular kind of product. Previously there were thirteen districts, but after the districts rebelled against the Capitol, the ringleader in the rebellion, District 13, was annihilated. Since the rebellion, once every year, each district has to provide two children between the ages of 12 and 18 (a girl and a boy) to participate in an event called ‘The Hunger Games’. This is designed to remind the Districts of why rebellion against the Capitol is not advisable. The Hunger Games are a literally a fight to the death: the last surviving child wins. The children have to fight against each other, and against the different obstacles developed by the Gamemakers to keep the Games ‘interesting’. In addition, there is a survivalist aspect, as the arena has been designed to force participants to have to search for clean water or to forage for food. The Games are a reality television show which is compulsory viewing in every household. Grotesquely, each child has a design team and a stylist who designs costumes for the opening ceremony and for media appearances. People bet on who the winner will be and participants gain sponsors from watchers who take a particular liking to them. The sponsors send parcels to participants which may be food, medicine or useful implements. Previous winners of each District are required to act as coaches for the children of their District.
There is a clear class divide in this world. The Districts are successively more impoverished the further they are from the Capitol. People in District 12 do not have enough to eat, and regularly starve to death. Their primary industry is coal mining, which means that the likelihood of an industrial accident removing the primary breadwinner is high. Many people supplement their diet with illegal hunting and via the black market. By contrast, the people of the Capitol never want for anything. They are decadent and many spend all their time worrying about banquets and the latest changes in fashion, genetically engineering themselves to look ever more extraordinary. None of their children are ever called up for the Hunger Games, as they were not involved in the rebellion. Interestingly there does not appear to be a particular racial divide, nor is there a particular religion apart from the compulsory veneration of the state and the Games.
If a District produces a winner in the Hunger Games, this means that the District gains extra food and money. Consequently, some Districts (principally the central districts) train up children with a view to them winning the Games. These children are called the “Careers” by the other games participants. There are also alliances between children, but because of the nature of the game these alliances can only ever be temporary (a phenomenon which will be familiar to anyone who has watched one of those ‘winner takes all’ reality television shows). Of course the competitiveness and the isolation takes its toll. Even in our present-day more tame reality television shows, the psychological pressures are sometimes more than people can bear.
I should note that the books do not glorify violence. At the end of the first book, there is an interview with Collins, in which she explains that her father was in the Air Force, a military specialist, a historian and a political scientist. During her childhood he was in Vietnam. In the Epilogue to the entire series, one of the characters talks about explaining the upshot of the saga to the children:
We can make them [the children] understand in a way that will make them braver. But one day I’ll have to explain about my nightmares. Why they came. Why they won’t ever really go away.
I’ll tell them how I survive it. I’ll tell them that on bad mornings, it feels impossible to take pleasure in anything because I’m afraid it could be taken away. That’s when I make a list in my head of every act of goodness I’ve seen someone do…
This made me wonder what Collins’ father told her when she was growing up about his experience in the Vietnam War. I suspect he might have had this very kind of conversation with his daughter. I think it’s pretty likely that any person who comes away from war comes away deeply psychologically scarred once they have seen their friends and colleagues die, and once they have killed other people (even indirectly).
Collins’ books leave one in no doubt that the upshot of violence, insurrection and war is extreme psychological and physical injury. Many “good” characters die unjustly and in tragic circumstances throughout the series, and those who survive are generally grievously injured in one way or another. (As an aside, I always dislike fantasy/sci-fi books where the heroes and heroines miraculously survive unscathed while cutting a swathe through the enemy — much as I loved it as a teenager, David Eddings’ Belgariad series is the epitome of this — he can’t bear to kill off any “good” main characters.) Further, Collins’ books are morally complex. If one is fighting an unjust authoritarian regime, when is it okay to resort to tactics which are as cruel as those of the regime itself? When is it just to kill innocent bystanders and children in pursuit of the greater good, if ever?
The protagonist of the books is Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old girl from District 12, who becomes a participant in the games after her beloved younger sister is called up and she volunteers to take her sister’s place. District 12 only has one living winner, a drunkard called Haymitch Abernathy, who acts as the coach for his district. Things become difficult for Katniss when the other person picked in the ballot is Peeta Mellark, a boy who saved her life by giving her bread when she and her family were starving after her father died in a mining accident. I like the fact that the protagonist is female. I like the fact that she’s flawed as well; she makes mistakes. Of course there’s a romance aspect to the story, which adds to the allure of the books — you want to know which admirer Katniss will choose, presuming she can survive.
The books explore a post-apocalyptic dystopia; thus it’s no surprise that I liked them, as I have an obsession with human attempts to build a better world that end up in disaster. I am very cynical about any utopian vision, because I have a very cynical view of human nature. So many utopias seem to require humans to operate against the grain in order to achieve perfection; but this is always going to require some kind of authoritarian force to keep people in line, because otherwise, the true nature of people will out (and it generally does anyway, in the end, even if the people are horribly damaged in the process). I also have a fascination with the kind of pressures which may act on otherwise sane and generally decent people to force them to act in inhumane ways. Since my early teens I have been freaked out by the Milgram experiment, and later the Stanford prison experiment, in which people behaved in ways to treat others as inhuman in response to direction from authority. My constant hope would be that I would be able to resist that kind of pressure; but who knows until one is thrown into the situation?
These books had extra resonance for me because I’d recently finished reading Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker’s central thesis is that violence is declining in our society. This may seem a surprising thesis when the Twentieth Century saw two incredibly bloody World Wars which dragged a large proportion of the globe into conflict. Putting his argument briefly, he argues that central control (which he calls the Leviathan) helps to prevent violence from occurring, and that our history has seen a massive decline in violence as it transitions from hunter-gatherer societies (where the death rates from violent conflict can be very high) to agricultural cities to modern city states. Prosperity per se has nothing to do with it (the Romans were very prosperous and very cruel) but commerce has something to do with it (you’re better off leaving your neighbour alive so that you can sell goods to him). Another important factor is democracy. It is much harder for a democratically elected leader to engage in an unpopular war, because he or she will have to answer to the electorate, whereas an autocrat has to answer to no one but him or herself when making a declaration of war. States that are somewhere in between democracy and autocracy are less likely to go to war with other countries than autocracies, but more likely to become involved in civil wars. Furthermore there has been a massive cultural shift in the attitude to violence over the centuries — we no longer burn cats in sacks for entertainment or hang draw and quarter people as they did in medieval times. Part of it has to do with a developing idea that if we have to live with other people, we should treat them with respect, as equal human beings, and that this goes across the board (with full rights extended to women, minority groups and the like).
In any case the part of Pinker’s book which is particularly relevant to the Hunger Games series is not his thesis about the decline in violence, but the section where he outlines the ‘inner demons’ which cause us to be violent and the ‘better angels’ which cause us to refrain from being violent . Shortly, the five inner demons are as follows:
- Predatory or instrumental violence – violence deployed as a practical means to an end;
- Dominance – the urge for authority, prestige, glory and power;
- Revenge – the moralistic urge towards retribution, punishment and justice;
- Sadism – pleasure in another’s suffering; and
- Ideology – a shared belief system usually involving a vision of utopia which justifies unlimited violence in pursuit of unlimited good.
On the other hand, Pinker says that there are four motives which lead humans towards cooperation and altruism. Again briefly, these are:
- Empathy – particularly the sense of sympathetic concern leads us to feel the pain of others and align our interests with theirs;
- Self-control – this allows us to anticipate the consequences of acting on our impulses and to moderate them;
- Moral sense – a set of norms and taboos which may decrease violence (although sometimes they increase it too);
- Reason – this allows us to extricate ourselves from parochial vantage points and to deduce ways in which we could be better off.
The thing I like about Collins’ books is that you can see the full range of these conflicting motives in operation in her characters. One of the interesting aspects of the depiction of the characters is that a sense of empathy is not enough by itself to render characters non-violent. Katniss’ friend Gale hunts for his family, and part of the way in which he manages to be such a successful hunter is because he is able to get into the head of the animal and understand its motivation: he feels empathy for it in the sense that he can understand what it is thinking, but this does not stop him from killing the animal, as he is driven primarily by predatory violence — his family’s need for food overrides any sympathy he might have for the animal. In the same way, those in the book who hunt other human beings have the same empathy which allows them to put themselves enough in the other person’s shoes to understand how they might behave, but a variety of other motivators override this empathy which allow them to try and kill the other person (including predatory violence, dominance, revenge and ideology).
The motivator for violence which always freaks me out the most is ideology, as it can turn a good intention into a terribly bad outcome. Pinker says at pg 556:
Like predatory or instrumental violence, ideological violence is a means to an end. But with an ideology, the end is idealistic: a conception of the greater good.
Yet for all that idealism, it’s ideology that drove many of the worst things that people have ever done to each other. They include the Crusades, the European Wars of Religion, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the Russian and Chinese civil wars, the Vietnam War, the Holocaust, and the genocides of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. An ideology can be dangerous for several reasons. The infinite good it promises prevents its true believers from cutting a deal. It allows any number of eggs to be broken to make the utopian omelet. And it renders opponents of the ideology infinitely evil and hence deserving of infinite punishment.
Pinker goes on to explain at pg 557:
…the puzzle in understanding ideological violence is not so much psychological as epidemiological: how a toxic ideology can spread from a small number of narcissistic zealots to an entire population willing to carry out its designs. Many ideological beliefs, in addition to being evil, are patently ludicrous — ideas that no sane person would ever countenance on his or her own. Examples include the burning of witches because they sank ships and turned men into cats, the extermination of every last Jew in Europe because their blood would pollute the Aryan race, and the execution of Cambodians who wore eyeglasses because it proved they were intellectuals and hence class enemies. How can we explain extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds?
Groups can breed a number of pathologies of thought. One of them is polarization. Throw a bunch of people with roughly similar opinions into a group to has them out, and the opinions will become more similar to one another, and more extreme as well. The liberal groups become more liberal; the conservative groups more conservative. Another group pathology is obtuseness, a dynamic that the psychologist Irving Janis called groupthink. Groups are apt to tell their leaders what they want to hear, to suppress dissent, to censor private doubts, and to filter out evidence that contradicts an emerging consensus. A third is animosity between groups. Imagine being locked in a room for a few hours with a person whose opinions you dislike — say, you’re a liberal and he’s a conservative or vice versa, or you sympathize with Israel and the other person sympathizes with the Palestinians or vice versa. Chances are the conversation between the two of you would be civil, and it might even be warm. But now imagine that there are six on your side and six on the other. There would probably be a lot of hollering and red faces and perhaps a small riot. The overall problem is that groups take on an identity of their own in people’s minds, and individuals’ desire to be accepted within a group, and to promote its standing in comparison to other groups, can override their better judgment.
Incidentally, I think this is why I deeply distrust groups, and why I follow my very own wing. I’d hate to be caught up in groupthink. I just don’t do groups well. Unsurprisingly, I’ve never been able to be a member of a religion or a political party either. It is also why I really value blogging with people whose views are different to mine: it keeps me honest and hopefully unpolarized. And my co-bloggers are people with whom I feel very comfortable airing a contrary opinion. I suspect that this was a reason why I identified with the Katniss Everdeen character the Hunger Games series – she was not someone who liked groups, and who followed her own path.
To wrap up this post, I think I’ll finish with a quote from Pinker, and relate it back to fiction in general and dystopias in particular. Pinker explains that one of reasons why there may have been an expansion in the sympathy we feel towards other human beings from the Enlightenment onwards may be linked back to the expansion in literacy and the growth of the novel (at pg 175-6):
Realistic fiction, for its part, may expand readers’ circle of empathy by seducing them into thinking and feeling like people very different from themselves. Literature students are taught that the 18th century was a turning point in the history of the novel. It became a form of mass entertainment, and by the end of the century almost a hundred new novels were published in England and France every year. And unlike earlier epics which recounted the exploits of heroes, aristocrats, or saints, the novels brought to life the aspirations and losses of ordinary people.
Lynn Hunt points out that the heyday of the Humanitarian Revolution, the late 18th century, was also the heyday of the epistolary novel. In this genre, the story unfold in a character’s own words, exposing the character’s thought sand feelings in real time rather than describing them from the distancing perspective of a disembodied narrator. In the middle of the century three melodramatic novels named after female protagonists became unlikely bestsellers: Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748), and Rousseau’s Julie or the New Hélöise (1761). Grown men burst into tears while experiencing the forbidden loves, intolerable arranged marriages, and cruel twists of fate in the lives of undistinguished women (including servants) with whom they had nothing in common. A retired military officer, writing to Rousseau, gushed:
You have driven me crazy about her. Imagine then the tears that her death must have wrung from me. …Never have I wept such delicious tears. That reading created such a powerful effect on me that I believe I would have gladly died during that supreme moment
Hunt suggests a causal chain: reading epistolary novels about characters unlike oneself exercises the ability to put oneself in other people’s shoes, which turns one against cruel punishments and other abuses of human rights.
I think that ultimately, this is why dystopias are important, and why I find them fascinating. If, in popular fiction, we explore with the ideas of how various utopian designs of society can go wrong, and feel sympathy for the victims, hopefully we can guard against being swayed by such visions. Of course the inner demons and the better angels will always be in battle within us, but if we can be aware of this, with an eye on the terrible consequences of violence, then I hope that none of these dystopias will come to be.