Friday, April 4, 2014

What happened to all the horrifyingly plausible distopias?

I'm kind of obsessed with good dystopias. 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, The Handmaid's Tale, and The Stand all speak to me in ways that very few books ever really achieve. They're educational and somber and depressing and sobering because they suggest a terrifying possible existence. The flipside of my love affair with dystopian fiction is that I am hypercritical of anything that I see as a bad dystopia - that it, any dystopia that is so laughably overbearing that it's implausible. I wish that I was only looking at Battlefield Earth when I'm talking about bad dystopias, but unfortunately Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games series falls under the same umbrella for me.

The Hunger Games
One of the biggest things I need to really appreciate a dystopia is plausibility, and of the whole series the first book is the most plausible. Yes, there are some fantastic elements but nothing that's really verging too far on the edge of magic or really unlikely politics except the central focus of the book, that for seventy four years people in the 12 districts of Panem have sent their children off to be murdered on television for the entertainment of the citizens of the Capitol and as a reminder of the districts' powerlessness.

I'll give you genetically engineered muttations (and yes, I'll even give you the stupid name); I'll give you ridiculous surgeries and bizarre cosmetics - that shit is happening now; I'll give you giant arenas full of deathtraps because humans are pretty damn good at making things that are very bad for other humans. But what I won't give you is a privileged population of about a hundred thousand maintaining a dictatorship so absolute that a population of 1.8 million people are willing to let their children be murdered for the amusement of the Capitol (and yes, even if you include District 2 and its peacekeepers with the capitol you're still looking at three hundred and thirty thousand versus 1.6 million people). But more about implausibility later.

The Hunger Games is actually a pretty good book - it's well constructed, there are interesting characters with interesting problems and challenges. Katniss is a pretty round, dynamic person while still having the Keanu-esque woodenness that allows the reader to project onto her. We can all sympathize with wanting to save children and with being scared of a pack of murderous teens and not wanting our families to starve to death. The reader can get right in there and freak out with her a little bit and that's fun - it's a page-turning experience even if it is about a nightmarish civilization.

What I strongly dislike about the book (and the series as a whole) is this:

I kind of want to go "Yeah, that's awesome - fuck Twilight," but I can't because Twilight isn't the problem with this image. The problem is WHO THE FUCK DECIDED TO PUT A LOVE TRIANGLE IN THE MIDDLE OF MY TELEVISED FIGHT TO THE DEATH? People like to talk about Katniss as a strong female character but the entire series that revolved around which boyfriend the "strong female character" would keep instead of HOLY SHIT YOU GUYS LET'S OVERTHROW THE CAPITOL.

Let's go through a quick list (just, like, a TON of SPOILERS below):
Katniss is blindsided by Peeta's confession before the games and then her whole winning strategy revolves around saving her "boyfriend."
Katniss decides she needs to escape because the Capitol is going to force her to marry Peeta.
Katniss decides she really needs to escape because the Peacekeepers whip Gale.
Katniss decides she's not going to escape because she needs to save Peeta.
Katniss decides she's going to die in the second arena so that Peeta can live.
Katniss decides that she'll only join the rebellion if they'll pardon Peeta.
Katniss decides she can't fight because Peeta is being tortured.
Katniss decides to open up about her past for the FIRST TIME IN THE WHOLE SERIES because Gale is part of Peeta's rescue team and she might lose one or both of them.
Katniss decides to question her entire mission and purpose because Peeta has been trained to hate her and she needs him to be a good dude.
Katniss decides to go to the front of the war because she can't handle being close to brainwashed Peeta.
Katniss is so sickened by Gale's trap that she pleads in person with refugees and gets her ass shot.
Katniss decides to train and fight in the Capitol so that she can kill Snow. (Because seriously, fuck that guy).
Katniss decides not to kill Peeta even though he constitutes a clear and present danger.
Katniss kills Coin because she was so sickened by the use of Gale's tactics.
Katniss snaps out of her months-long stupor because Peeta comes back to District 12.
Katniss (the poster-child for PTSD) has kids - which she has decided all by herself and before she had a boyfriend that she doesn't want and isn't ever going to be prepared to handle - because Peeta (the poster-child for schizoid implanted memories) wants kids so badly.
          (Okay, this really needs to have a whole separate article for my rant, but FUCK, she recounts her pregnancy as an extended period of constant terror with an overwhelming understanding that what was growing inside of her was unwanted and alien; she says that the fear of having the child could only be surmounted by the love of holding the child (which is pretty much exactly why Texas requires unnecessary sonograms before abortions) and WOW that is what her loving, sweet, nice-guy husband asked her to suffer through FOR HIM and she said YES and this is what we're calling a strong female character? A woman who doesn't want to have kids and has been victimized and abused her entire fucking life deciding to do the thing that she wanted to do LESS THAN SHE WANTED TO GO TO THE HUNGER GAMES because her husband wanted to breed so badly is what our society sees as a strong female character. I'm only triple-checking here, but did we seriously decide that a woman sacrificing her body autonomy and best interests to her husband, who is potentially more damaged than she is and once tried to choke her to death, is the character we want little girls looking up to? We did. Okay. I HAVE A PRETTY SIGNIFICANT PROBLEM WITH THIS.)

That is a list of sixteen pretty goddam major life-changing decisions. Exactly ONE of those decisions is not the direct result of something one of her boyfriends did or something that happened to her boyfriends. There is ONE TIME in the entire series that Katniss decides she doesn't need either of her boyfriends and it is when she overhears them discussing which one of them she'll pick and how it will be based on her neediness. And she's not pissed about them talking about how she needs one of them to survive - she's pissed off that it makes her sound really cold.

But the first book doesn't have a lot of that bullshit in it, it's just about a super tough girl who pretends to love a kind of useless boy and joins in a suicide pact with him after they kill a bunch of other kids. So yeah, I'm not pretending The Hunger Games isn't fucked up, but it's fucked up in a kind of awesome way.

Catching Fire
The second book in the series is a little more problematic than the first, largely because it makes no goddamn sense. NONE of it makes any sense. The Katniss/Peeta/Gale triad is all effed up, Snow's manipulation of Katniss when he MUST (as a crazy and long-standing dictator) know that she's not going to be able to do anything about the uprising seems like it's evil for the sake of evil (which is a really good way to inspire your population to overthrow you as a dictator, as Snow must know), the Quell makes no sense at all ("In order to remind you of how terrible your leaders are, every twenty five years we'll make an effort to be significantly worse so that every generation has a fresh reason to kill us"), the arena makes no sense (write down every cool death-trap you can think of and then arrange it in a circle and just sort of hope that your readers forget that there are 12 numbers on a clock 'cause you could only think of 7 sort-of cool death-traps in the first place - it's like something the fucking Riddler would do), but what makes the LEAST sense of ANY of all that other shit is that there's a rebellion going on (one that would seem to rely on Katniss participating and being seen in support of it) and fucking NOBODY tells her about it.

Oh, what a silly faux pas Plutarch Heavensbee made when he flashed Katniss the mockingjay - he made a Capitol fool of himself because he assumed that the face of the rebellion was aware that there was a fucking rebellion.

And it's lucky that Katniss has some kind of psychic relationship with Haymitch because if she didn't she might have electrocuted Enobria instead of the arena and then been killed because she was given SHITTY INSTRUCTIONS and could be forgiven for misinterpreting them.

Let's count all of the things that have to go right for the arena escape to work. If these things DON'T happen the escape doesn't happen at all:
1 - Katniss has to learn about the weak points in force fields.
2 - Katniss has to be clever enough not to let on that she knows about the weak points in force fields.
3 - Katniss has to understand that Beetee's wire is worth protecting AND has to be willing to risk her life to retrieve it.
4 - Katniss has to not die protecting Peeta, something she is completely resolved to do.
5 - Katniss has to understand that the people all around her, actively trying to kill her, aren't her real enemies.
6 - Katniss has to have not wasted her arrows protecting herself or Peeta, and has to be in good enough physical condition, after getting hit in the head and having a tracker dug out of her arm, to fire an arrow at a fair distance through a target that is only a couple of inches wide.

So what happens if Katniss decides NOT to talk to Beetee and Wiress during training? None of the plan works. The arena doesn't explode. No one escapes and the revolution fizzles without a strong face to represent it and give hope.

And why wasn't Katniss told any of this? So she couldn't be tortured for information if the plan failed. The way that Joanna, who knew about the plan, was tortured after it only barely succeeded proving that even the people in the know weren't given enough knowledge to seriously damage the rebellion. You know what avoids almost all of these problems? Haymitch saying to Katniss "There's a group trying to make sure that everyone gets out of the arena; listen to and trust everyone whose district token is a gold bracelet, and when someone tries to cut out your tracker let them."

But no, none of that happens. Instead everyone has to work around Katniss and Peeta because they think they're only trying to save each other, not literally every single citizen of their country. Oh, and for all you aspiring strategists out there: if your plan hinges on someone doing the thing you want them to do without being given explicit orders then you have a shitty, shitty plan on your hands. Compartmentalize, sure. Make sure that no single soldier knows the entire command structure you use or all the locations of hidden bases and general shit like that. But don't expect a plan based on cryptic hints and an injured 17-year-old girl's ability to shoot accurately and guess what you mean to be anything but a massive cockup.

But probably the thing that I like least about this book is that it's lazy. The arena is flashy, but nothing that happens there is interesting. The district tour talks about a lot of clothes with very little content to move the story along. All the conflicts are either not articulated and internal or overwhelmingly external; Katniss doesn't tell Peeta anything that's going on in her head and she is expected to stop an entire revolution by playing house with the boyfriend she keeps secrets from - so she's either in a one-on-one battle that she can't handle because she won't speak up or she's in a one-on-one-million battle that she can't do anything about because she's not allowed to communicate with or know anything about those million other people. Everything that happens is too convenient and therefore, in spite of acid mist and mutant monkeys and blood rain (seriously? blood rain is maybe a little gross but it doesn't appear to be dangerous in the story), everything is at least a little boring. Even the tear-jerker moment in District 11 feels lazy because Duh, obviously, of course the four-note song and three finger kiss are going to have to be repeated. Ugh.

And now back to plausibility: what in the name of fuck does the Capitol think the peacekeepers are going to accomplish? You have a starving population and you want to control them so you don't technically allow them to hunt but you look the other way. Suddenly you crack down on the hunting, whip people in public to serve as examples, and allow children to starve. You also close the coal mines - the only reason this district still exists - for two weeks so that everyone is even closer to dying of hunger and freezing to death in the middle of winter. When you're talking about levels of fascism that would sound outrageous to North Korea (and that don't even have the cult of personality to shore up the system) then you're talking about a government that would never, ever be allowed to survive for a decade, let alone the three generations that it has been around. Even Soviet Russia knew better than to demand that bourgeois children fight to the death in front of an audience of millions for the entertainment of Party loyalists. The fist clasped around the throat of every citizen of Panem has switched from frightening to funny pretty damned quickly. I mean, shit, the servants in the Capitol are people whose tongues have been cut out, some of whom were Capitol citizens (Pollux from Mockingjay, for example) - nobody, fucking NOBODY is well enough fed, entertained enough, or detached enough to think that a government that de-tongues its enemies and then uses them as servants in the public eye is a good government to live under. Nazi Germany didn't put their atrocities on display to remind the public that they were atrocious, and when you manage to make Nazis look like a class act you are laughably, hilariously, stupidly over-the-top bad and there is no way that I can suspend disbelief to pity the absolute idiots who haven't seen the weaknesses in their oppressors in all of this time. The Capitol citizens would have rebelled within ten years for the Avoxes alone, there's no way that the districts - without whom the capitol would freeze and starve - would put up with that sort of bullshit for seventy-five years.

This book has no idea what it wants to be. It's got way too much going on and could have been divided into two book that make at least a modicum of sense, but instead it's one book with an identity crisis. Katniss is in recovery from her last turn in the arena, and then she's training for an army, and then she's in an army, and then she's recovering from everything being terrible. I don't know if blogger has a word limit, but if it does I would go over it trying to list what's wrong with this book so I'll try to limit myself to just two things.

1 - The pods in the Capitol are utter fucking bullshit. It's shiny and exciting to read the first time around, but then you realize that the Capitol put deadly traps on every single surface they possibly could and then what, just crossed their fingers and hoped really hard that there would never be a computer malfunction? Most of the damage done in the battle for the Capitol is done by the pods, and they don't have a limitless supply of the things, so either they're hoping for a Pyrrhic victory or taking the "if I can't have it no one can" attitude to the city where they live. What happens if they DO win the battle - all of the citizens now know that their rosebushes are mined and that the streets are programmed to drop people into a stew of acidic chemical horribleness AND they know that their government doesn't particularly care if they're dropping enemies or refugees into the pit. Bullshit. Shiny, happy, lazily-written bullshit.

2 - Katniss, after going through two Hunger Games, the battle of the Capitol, losing her spleen, and watching her sister explode (while also catching on fire herself) goes back to the (conveniently) only still-standing part of her district that she used to live in. She mourns and is so miserable and broken and fundamentally incapable of caring for or about herself that when she stands up flakes of skin the size of playing cards fall off of her. And what makes her want to get up and go when her get up and go got up and went? Peeta.

The weekly calls she was supposed to make to her doctor, the availability of an older mentor with similar life experience, the companionship of an animal that was a link to her lost sister, the possibility of a phone call to her mother, and the assistance of a woman whom she had known as a child do nothing, over the course of several months, to help Katniss recover. The simple proximity of an appropriately aged breeding partner, however, does make a difference. And then they have babies. Katniss, who woke up screaming and strangling in a cupboard full of scarves and couldn't be bothered to wash herself for several months, has babies with Peeta, who was kidnapped and tortured for most of a year before being brainwashed into thinking that his mate-to-be was a genetic experiment built to destroy him. The only way they can express their "love" is by asking whether it's real that they love each other. These are people who have a fractured and completely codependent relationship, and they decided that procreating is a good plan. Actually, PEETA decides that procreating is a good plan and Katniss goes along with it because he wants kids so badly. Her terror and damage and mental health are ignored because she wants to please Peeta and he allows that to happen either because he's exactly the selfish, calculating person he appeared to be when he sided with the Careers in the first book or his headmeat is so fucked up that he doesn't realize how incredibly unhealthy the situation will be for everyone.

Katniss ends her narrative talking about how someday she'll show her kids the book of kills she's written and tell them that the lullaby she sings to them is the same song she sang to a dying little girl after being forced to sacrifice her life to save her sister's life. And this is presented as a GOOD thing, as a HAPPY ending. If a soldier came home from Iraq and started showing his kids drawings of people he'd killed or gazing silently at photos of the children of his dead battle buddy with his daughter on his lap, what would we say? Probably nothing because we'd be bustling him off to get some therapy for his PTSD, stat. And we might consider that leaving him alone with children, when he's prone to violent flashbacks and blames himself for the entire war, is probably not a good idea. Katniss, years after the fact, is not in a place where she is healthy enough to have children. It doesn't sound like she's ever going to be in a mental state where she would be allowed to keep her kid if current Child Protective Services standards were in place.

It is really and truly shitty to write a three-book series that centers around a female protagonist, make all of her choices hang on male action, and then end with the "joy" of motherhood. I completely DO NOT understand why people keep calling this a "feminist story" or Katniss a "feminist character" because neither is actually true, and if you look at the arc from provider to fighter to symbol to wife and mother Katniss has LESS control over her destiny and is MORE beholden to the male figures in her life than she was before she volunteered.

Not every book marketed to girls needs to have a freaking love story, and if we are going to keep selling love stories to our daughters can they at least be love stories where the woman has some agency? The closest Katniss comes to making a stand on her relationships is realizing that she'll never be able to trust Gale - she isn't even the one who brings this up, he simply cedes her to Peeta and goes on his way, leaving her to rot in Victor's Village until Peeta shows up and provides her with a male to live for.

Augh, SERIOUSLY, what the fuck?
Screw your hetero-normative, patriarchal, procreative agenda. Katniss wins the whole fucking war and kills the next tyrant without consulting anyone but is too weak and frail and feminine and womb-having to control her own fucking life.

WHO DOES THAT? Suzanne Collins I am very confused and concerned about why you thought this was an okay message. 

And you know what, if I have daughters they're not allowed to read The Hunger Games until I know that they've read and understood The Handmaid's Tale.

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. Scholastic Press. 2008.
Collins, Suzanne.  Catching Fire. Scholastic Press. 2009.
Collins, Suzanne. Mockingjay. Scholastic Press. 2010.

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