Tl;dr:* if you are feeling like reading The Hunger Games, just read Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed instead.**
I’m about three-and-a-half chapters in to The Hunger Games now, and the main thing that strikes me – apart from the fact that the lead character appears to be a psychopath, which I find a bit peculiar in terms of how and where my sympathies are being solicited/directed – is how fundamentally the universe doesn’t make any sense. I think this is because the author is so profoundly embedded in contemporary urban consumer capitalism that even when she’s writing a book whose major selling point is its depiction of a dystopic future subsistence economy/totalitarian regime… she basically makes it all about shopping.
I found this annoying enough to want to go in fairly slow motion through the opening chapters of the book, trying to figure out exactly where and how the worldbuilding is broken. So that’s what this post is for. I’m going to go through the first few chapters more or less in order, but occasionally refer forwards or backwards when I needed to combine textual details/information to make sense of something (or when I couldn’t help combining textual details/information even though it stopped the text from making any sense whatsoever).
This is a very, very long post, so I’ve put it under a fold:
Without further ado, here’s the opening of the book:
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother… I… see them[:] My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body.
So they all sleep in the same room – because they’re poor, I guess – but they have two separate beds. Because… they’re not that poor? Because there are strong cultural taboos about parents and children being in the same bed, but not against them being in the same room, like in… no other society I’ve ever heard of. Like when you go to a hotel, maybe.
Anyway, Prim usually sleeps in with Katniss, but when she needs comfort, and only then, she goes in with her mother. Because this is easier and more comforting than snuggling in to the person she’s already sleeping with, for some reason.
So eight sentences in, the only thing I have discovered about this universe is that the layout of Katniss’s family home is (a) economically/historically nonsensical and (b) designed to create a constant incestuous competition for who-gets-to-sleep-with-the-beautiful-little-blonde-girl-child.
I tried to drown [our cat] in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas… I had to let him stay. It turned out OK. My mother got rid of the vermin and he’s a born mouser.
Surely the cat got rid of the vermin if he’s a born mouser…? Oh, no, wait, I see. (This turns out to be one of those books where the author doesn’t like repeating nouns and uses irritating circumlocutions instead: I should have realized that when Prim named the cat Buttercup, insisting that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower. Later, when Collins is bored of using the word ‘vomit’ we’re going to get the particularly stylish and natural-sounding phrase ‘the slippery vile stuff from his stomach’, too. [p.58])
I swing my legs off the bed and slide into my hunting boots… I pull on trousers, a shirt…
Boots before trousers. Good plan, Katniss. I can see you are very competent and intelligent. Perhaps the trousers are very wide? This seems like a bad choice for trousers when you are going hunting, but what do I know.
On the table, under a wooden bowl to protect it from hungry rats and cats alike, sits a perfect little goat’s cheese wrapped in basil leaves. Prim’s gift to me on reaping day.
She got it from the organic delicatessen round the corner, I expect. Because if she had a goat, and produced goat’s cheese on a regular basis, this wouldn’t be much of a gift, would it? Because they would be eating it all the time, right?
Anyway, off she goes with her goat’s cheese and her enormous trousers (p.5):
Separating the Meadow from the woods, in fact enclosing all of District 12, is a high chain-link fence… it’s supposed to be electrified twenty-four hours a day as a deterrent to the predators that live in the woods… that used to threaten our streets. But since we’re lucky to get two or three hours of electricity in the evening, it’s usually safe to touch.
So who’s in charge of this fence? It encloses all of District 12, as if the Capitol put it up to keep people in, but it’s electrified (everywhere, or only in this section by the woods?) to protect the streets from the predators, so did the District electrify it? Did the Capitol put it up and then the District decided to electrify it? Can you electrify a fence that’s not designed to be electric? If it’s rarely live, how come they don’t have predators on the streets any more?
Oh, look, Collins has thought that bit through, at least (pp.5-6):
Electrified or not, the fence has been successful at keeping the flesh-eaters out of District 12
But… then why electrify it? Especially with an unreliable electricity supply? Hmm. ‘She’s thought that bit through’ might have been a bit of an overstatement.
[In the woods beyond the fence] there’s also food if you know how to find it. My father knew and he taught me some ways before he [died].
But obviously most of the people living in the subsistence economy and dying of starvation (‘Starvation’s not an uncommon fate in District 12′, p.33) have not bothered to figure out how to obtain FREE FOOD, because… they’re stupid? They’re brainwashed by the Capitol’s propaganda? There are such effective measures against going into the woods that most people would prefer to die of starvation than face the consequences of their actions?
Even though trespassing in the woods is illegal and poaching carries the severest of penalties, more people would risk it if they had weapons.
Okay, they won’t go into the woods because they don’t have weapons and they’re scared of predators. But why don’t they have weapons, Katniss? Seeing as you have decided to spend the day explaining the rationale behind everything you see to yourself?
My bow is a rarity, crafted by my father… My father could have made good money selling them, but if the officials found out he would have been publicly executed for inciting a rebellion. Most of the Peacekeepers turn a blind eye to the few of us who hunt because they’re as hungry for fresh meat as anybody is. In fact, they’re among our best customers. But the idea that someone might be arming the Seam would never have been allowed.
This looks like an attempt to fix a plot hole (weapons are banned, but some people have weapons), which just ends up creating more plot holes and hurting my head. Are the ‘Peacekeepers’ and the ‘officials’ the same people? Because the ‘Peacekeepers’ clearly have found out that some of the people of the Seam have weapons, because they buy meat from them. But if the officals found out, they would publicly execute the people with weapons. Or maybe Peacekeepers and officials are the same, and the point Collins is trying to make is that you can use weapons, but not sell them? But why would this be? Or is it that her father is the only person who can make weapons, so if he doesn’t sell them, no-one can have any? Why is her father the only person who knows how to make weapons and what foods are edible? Where did he learn it and why does he keep all this knowledge to himself when his neighbours are starving?
Also, just to note, the Peacekeepers live in the District and are subjected to the same living conditions as the others. That seems like a weird way to run a violently repressive society: usually the overseers get better food.
In the autumn, a few brave souls sneak into the woods to harvest apples. But always in sight of the Meadow. Always close enough to run back to the safety of District 12 if trouble arises.
So people do go into the woods, after all. It seems that the ‘trouble’ that might arise is probably predators in the woods, since staying in sight of the Meadow sounds like an excellent way to get caught by the officials for trespassing in the woods, which, we remember, is illegal. But nobody is worried about this. Any more. Though they were a couple of paragraphs ago.
On another note, it’s a bit of a shame that no-one has thought to save the seeds from their apples and grow their own apple trees, but oh well, you can’t think of everything anything.
Anyway, finally we have escaped from p.6, which is a particular doozy of a page, and Katniss goes on to muse about her tactics for survival in a repressive regime (p.7):
Do my work quietly in school. Make only polite small talk in the public market. Discuss little more than trades in the Hob, which is the black market where I make most of my money.
There’s compulsory schooling for sixteen-year-olds in this subsistence economy? When does Katniss get time to go to school, given that she is hunting every day? Is truancy not punished? If not, why does she go at all?
Also, Suzanne Collins thinks that ‘the black market’ is a place. I wonder what makes it a ‘black’ market? If it’s illegal, how come it manages to continue trading? Or is it another of those things that is VERY ILLEGAL except that the law has never been enforced in the five years that Katniss has been trading there?
She meets up with her friend Gale, who gives her some bread (p.8)
It’s real bakery bread, not the flat, dense loaves we make from our grain rations… I hold the puncture in the crust to my nose, inhaling the fragrance… Fine bread like this is for special occasions.
So they get grain rations, and they mill the grain into flour, and they make it into flatbread at home, but… they don’t have any raising agents? Because the baker is hoarding the sourdough starter and refusing to distribute the yeast? Or it’s too labour-intensive to make crusty bread? Milling flour, okay, but not kneading dough, that would be CRAZY TALK.
Then we get a description of Katniss and Gale, seguing into a discussion of the class structure of the District (p.9):
Straight black hair, olive skin… grey eyes… Most of the families who work the mines resemble one another this way. That’s why my mother and Prim, with their light hair and blue eyes, always look out of place. They are. My mother’s parents were part of the small merchant class that caters to officials, Peacekeepers and the occasional Seam customer. They ran an apothecary shop in the nicer part of District 12. Since almost no-one can afford doctors, apothecaries are our healers.
Let’s take this in order.
(1) There is a racialized component to the class system in the District: in a rhetorical move straight out of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1805), the upper classes are blonder and whiter than the working classes, and this secures our sympathy for them even against our own class interests (‘Prim, whom no one can help loving’, p.28).
(2) Peacekeepers are different from officials. So let’s try and figure out the class system here: we have a District containing a small merchant class; a large mining class (the ‘Seam’); officials; and Peacekeepers. Apothecaries are ‘our’ healers, and ‘we’ throughout the book refers to the Seam, but the apothecary shop only occasionally caters to the Seam, and mostly caters to officials and Peacekeepers. (I have no idea how to parse that.) Anyway, officials and Peacekeepers are the apothecary’s main customers, so they can’t be the ‘few’ who can afford doctors, so in addition to the mining class, the merchant class, and the officials, there must also be a tiny aristocracy who can afford doctors. (Who are they? Maybe they’re… the doctors.)
(3) The Seam has no alternative means of healing, because apothecaries ‘are our healers’. Apothecaries must have a lot of specialized knowledge, but they count as merchants and only operate out of a shop. Because if you need it, it must be for sale: God knows small subsistence-level agrarian economies never share knowledge or resources, they just go shopping.
My father got to know my mother because on his hunts he would sometimes collect medicinal herbs and sell them to her shop to be brewed into remedies.
Ah. Once again the solution to all plot holes is Katniss’s father’s secret knowledge. I hate to tell you this, Katniss, but your father was a class traitor. Now he’s not just hoarding his ability to make weapons, but medicinal herbs, which obviously you would sell to the merchant class rather than keep within the Seam. Many, indeed, are the mediaeval herbaries which advise you to (1) gather the medicinal herbs at full moon with a silver knife, then (2) sell them to a tiny professional class who will price them out of your range, and (3) die of fever. If only there were some way to share goods and resources outwith a consumer-based monetary system! But alas, SUCH A THING HAS NEVER EXISTED AND NEVER COULD EXIST.
Later, we get a series of flashbacks to the period after Katniss’ father’s death, in which we learn that after five months the remaining family members reached the point where ‘for three days, we’d had nothing but boiled water with some old dried mint leaves I’d found at the back of a cupboard’ (p.35). It’s not until she sees a dandelion in bloom that she suddenly remembers that she has known all along where, and how, to get free food: dandelions, katniss roots, rabbits, eggs, ‘greens’ (which Prim gathers without even having to go into the woods), fish. So even the family which appears to be hoarding the SECRET KNOWLEDGE of how to survive on the FREE FOOD which is abundant all around everyone in the District doesn’t think of doing so for five months. Because… in a small agrarian community of starvation-level poverty, where people are frequently found starving to death in the streets, obviously you would not avail yourself of FREE FOOD, or tell other people how to get the FREE FOOD because that is such arcane and secret knowledge.
Anyway, back to the present day, and Katniss’s attempts to provide for her family (p.11):
With both of us hunting daily, there are still nights when game has to be swapped for lard or shoelaces or wool, still nights when we go to bed with our stomachs growling.
(1) Katniss is hunting daily. When is she going to school?
(2) It is a shame that Katniss does not know that shoelaces can be made of leather, eg from the HIDES of GAME, and that lard is pig fat and could perhaps be obtained from the GAME she has caught, if this includes wild pigs. Then she would not need to go to bed hungry because she had swapped a carcass which would provide several months’ food, leather (for shoelaces and many other things), and lard, for… some shoelaces and lard. THINK IT THROUGH, KATNISS.
(Has Suzanne Collins never read the Little House books, btw? This is where I am getting all my ‘survival in a harsh landscape’ knowledge from.)
Katniss and Gale go fishing, then trading (p.13):
The black market’s still fairly busy. We easily trade six of the fish for good bread, the other two for salt.
So in addition to the public bakery, there’s a black-market bakery? Individual families don’t have raising agents, or the time to knead bread/let it rise, or a good enough oven to make ‘good bread’, or something, and there is a public bakery which sells ‘good bread’, but it’s still worth someone’s while to set up another, black-market bakery? HOW DOES THIS WORK???
Anyway, Katniss and Gale go and sell strawberries to the mayor and encounter his daughter, Madge (pp.13-14):
The mayor’s daughter… is in my year at school… Since neither of us really has a group of friends, we seem to end up together a lot at school. Eating lunch, sitting next to each other at assemblies, partnering for sports activities.
So Katniss is somehow going to school regularly as well as hunting daily. School is not class-based, since the Seam go in with the mayor’s children, but it is age-based: children are taught in year cohorts. There are assemblies, lunch periods (where students do not go home), and compulsory sports. School attendance is compulsory up to at least the age of 16, and possibly beyond. It’s… really quite like a contemporary USian urban school, isn’t it?
Later we hear about the school curriculum (p.50):
Besides basic reading and maths, most of our instruction is coal-related. Except for the weekly lecture on the history of Panem [their country]. It’s mostly a lot of blather about what we owe the Capitol.
This seems to be an attempt to show that school is (to coin a phrase) an ideological state apparatus. Except that (1) the usual way you sneak ideology into teaching is through basic reading (‘Peter likes to run! Jane likes to tidy up!’) and maths (‘If Peter runs at 60mph, and Jane totters along at 1mph in her lovely shoes, how long will it take Peter to catch Jane?’), and (2) if the school is designed to keep the Seam children in their place, (a) why are they going there rather than working in the mines, which seems a better way to learn about coal, and (b) why are the children of the merchant/official classes going through the same curriculum?
Also, we now have to add ‘teachers’ in to the professional demographic of the District, which is growing rapidly.
And now, it is time to head into town for the Reaping ceremony (pp.19-20):
At one o’clock, we head for the square. Attendance is mandatory unless you are on death’s door. This evening, officials will come around and check to see if this is the case. If not, you’ll be imprisoned.
Thank God it’s impossible to fake illness. Also, we now have to add ‘prison guards’ in to the District’s professions. And blimey, ‘officials’ get paid a lot of money for really menial jobs, don’t they?
The square’s surrounded by shops, and on public market days… it has a holiday feel to it… The square’s quite large, but not enough to hold District 12′s population of about eight thousand.
Shopping is surprisingly central to the economy of this poor mining district. A baker’s, an apothecary, and enough other shops to surround a square that doesn’t quite hold 8000 people. Do they only open on public market days, or are there also market stalls in the square on public market days? This ‘small merchant class’ is starting to look quite big.
Latecomers are directed to the adjacent streets, where they can watch the event on screens as it’s televised live by the state.
Televised BY MAGIC, obviously, as the District is lucky to get two or three hours of electricity in the evenings, and we already know it isn’t on at the moment because Katniss just checked the fence.
we… focus our attention on the temporary stage that is set up before the Justice Building.
There are 8000 people in this District and they have their own Justice Building. I suppose that’s where all the public executions take place, except for how they don’t because everyone is too scared to break the law except Katniss and she is selling meat to all the officials. So the Justice Building must just be full of officials twirling round on their office chairs and making paper-clip chains and collecting their pay cheques.
Okay! Now we finally get a description of the CENTRAL MECHANISM by which this society works: the Hunger Games! My hopes, as you can imagine, are VERY HIGH (p.22):
The twenty-four tributes [a boy and a girl from each District] will be imprisoned in a vast outdoor arena that could hold anything from a burning desert to a frozen wasteland.
So… it’s a different arena every year? How does that work in terms of the Capitol’s control of territory? Or is it the same arena every year, but they manipulate the weather? That seems like a big ask for a country that is reliant on COAL for fuel. COAL FROM A NEAR-EXHAUSTED SEAM, mined by about THREE THOUSAND STARVING PEOPLE [8000 people is probably 5000 adults, of which I would imagine they need 2000 to be merchants, teachers, doctors, officials, Peacekeepers, prison guards, etc]. Or maybe they don’t actually need the coal, because they have infinite energy resources, and they just make the District 12 people mine coal in order to humiliate them?
To make it humiliating as well as torturous, the Capitol requires us to treat the Hunger Games as a festivity, a sporting event pitting every district against the others.
Leaving aside the fact that ‘torturous’ is not a word, and ‘tortuous’ means ‘twisty’, I’m not really sure how a state can require its peasantry to treat something as a festivity. It can ideologically manipulate them into thinking of something which is against their own interests as a festivity – eg First Communions or weddings – or it can require the peasantry to watch something, as with the vidscreens in 1984 that you can’t turn off, but no central state has ever really been able to compel its population to take a particular attitude to something.
Later, by the way, when Katniss has left the District, she wonders what her mother and sister have been doing:
Did they watch the recap of the day’s events on the battered old TV that sits on the table against the wall?, p.65
So one of the signs of poverty in this subsistence economy where TV-watching is compulsory (or I thought it was, but maybe not?) is having a ‘battered old TV’. Which may or may not work, depending on whether this is one of the evenings on which they are lucky enough to get two or three hours of electricity. I just think that if TV-watching is your CENTRAL FORM OF SOCIAL CONTROL, and you are a totalitarian regime, you would probably do better to go the 1984 or Fahrenheit 451 route and instal standard screens in everyone’s house, and ALSO make sure that, you know, they WORK.
But okay, never mind, the Capitol has chosen not to go that route, but just to rely on the idea that starving workers will spend money on TV sets and continue to watch regularly even when the service is entirely unreliable. So we need to add in ‘TV shop’ to the public market, and ‘small electrical repairs’ to the available trades. I’m also now a bit confused about why, since the houses must all be supplied with electricity, no-one seems to have any other electrical devices.
Okay, I’m going to have to stop taking it quite so slowly here, or we will all go crazy. But here’s just a few more key passages, in terms of trying to figure out the social/economic organization of this universe.
First, another flashback to the period after Katniss’s father’s death (p.32):
The district had given us a small amount of money as compensation for his death, enough to cover one month of grieving, after which time my mother would be expected to get a job.
A job? So this is a wage-based economy, it turns out. But what kind of job can Katniss’s mother do? Working in a shop? They all seem to be family-owned. Mining? Small electrical repairs? Stenographer in the Justice Building?
In any case, it doesn’t signify: she doesn’t get a job, because she’s too depressed (p.33):
If it had become known that my mother could no longer care for us, the district would have taken us away from her and placed us in the community home.
… because friends, relatives, and neighbours would not have stepped in, obviously, possibly as revenge for Katniss’s father hoarding all the food and medicine and/or selling it to the merchant class, but most likely because there are no extended families or informal support networks in this small semi-rural subsistence economy. And because the District is large enough, with a population of five thousand adults, to have its own community home for the orphans, just as it has its own Justice Building. Presumably when there aren’t any orphans, the people who run it just sit sadly in the community home, occasionally paying a child off the street to come in and ask for more gruel so they can refuse them.
Finally, just before Katniss figures out how to get the FREE FOOD, while she’s still trying to get food by shopping (p.34):
I had been in town, trying to trade some threadbare old baby clothes of Prim’s in the public market, but there were no takers. Although I had been to the Hob on several occasions with my father, I was too frightened to venture into that rough, gritty place alone.
I really don’t understand the difference between the public market and the Hob (except that one is more pleasant to be in, because it’s outdoors), given that you trade the same goods in the same way in both of them.
Also, Katniss, I have to say, I think it would have been a better idea to trade in some of your mother’s beautiful and expensive dresses, rather than the threadbare baby clothes. (p.17: ‘my mother wears a fine dress from her apothecary days… My mother has laid out one of her own lovely dresses for me… with matching shoes’; p.41 ‘I know velvet because my mother has a dress with a collar made of the stuff’). This, plus the thing where you put your boots on before your trousers and then trade in ‘a carcass full of lard, shoelaces, meat and other goodies’ for ‘some lard and shoelaces’, is not really making me think you will do well in the forthcoming tests of your intelligence and resourcefulness.
In short, I can’t make any sense of the social or economic conditions in which Katniss is living. From the publicity around the books and the film, and the fact that the country they live in is called Panem, which must be an allusion to the Latin phrase panem et circenses (‘bread and circuses’),*** it seems like Collins wants us to understand that she’s writing about a totalitarian state where the central urban power (the Capitol) exerts control over the people of District 12 through controlling the food supply and through spectacular entertainment (the Hunger Games). But a society that worked like that wouldn’t look like this one. In particular, we’re given no social/economic explanation for why the people of the District don’t avail themselves of the free food that’s growing all around them and/or share their knowledge about how to get free food, or for why the Hunger Games are watched by everyone (or, indeed, even how, given that, again, THERE IS NO RELIABLE ELECTRICITY SUPPLY.)
On a different sort of level, one of the major pleasures of dystopian/utopian fiction for me is its immersiveness; the pleasure of finding oneself in a different world, and in particular the pleasure of the fit between the outer and the inner landscapes. 1984 is a bit of a clunky example, but nonetheless a telling one: think of the way that the poverty of Winston Smith’s imagination, the narrowness of what he’s capable of dreaming or feeling, is echoed by the deliberate impoverishment of language in Newspeak and the cold, hard, joyless physical world that surrounds him. The Hunger Games doesn’t have any of that: descriptions are minimal, and although Katniss spends a lot of time going ‘Ooh, this chocolate is delicious, this couch is made of velvet, I’ve never eaten so much rich food before’, there’s no heft to the world, either physically or emotionally. And here’s where I just think I’m going to give up on The Hunger Games and treat myself to a reread of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. Let’s just end this saga with a direct comparison between the two. Here’s Katniss on her first night on the luxurious train taking her to the Capitol, and Shevek on her first night on the luxurious spaceship taking him to Urras.
We are each given our own chambers that have a bedroom, a dressing area and a private bathroom with hot and cold running water. We don’t have hot water at home, unless we boil it. There are drawers filled with fine clothes… I peel off my mother’s blue dress and take a hot shower. I’ve never had a shower before. It’s like being in summer rain, only warmer. I dress in a dark green shirt and trousers.
The blank walls were full of surprises, all ready to reveal themselves at a touch on the panel: washstand, shitstool, mirror, desk, chair, closet, shelves. There were several completely mysterious electrical devices connected with the washstand, and the water valve did not cut off when you released the faucet, but kept pouring out until shut off – a sign, Shevek thought, either of great faith in human nature, or of great quantities of hot water. Assuming the latter, he washed all over, and finding no towel, dried himself with one of the mysterious devices, which emitted a pleasant tickling blast of warm air. Not finding his own clothes, he put back on those he had found himself wearing when he woke up: loose tied trousers and a shapeless tunic, both bright yellow with small blue spots. He looked at himself in the mirror. He thought the effect unfortunate.
Unlike Katniss, Shevek doesn’t automatically know how to operate things he has never seen before, or what to call them; unlike Shevek, Katniss does not speculate about the differences between the Capitol’s and the District’s way of doing things, or try and reach conclusions about what she should do from the way things work, but seems to take for granted that the Capitol’s things are self-evidently good and normal, and the District is simply deprived of them.
Katniss on clothes and cleaning:
[in the morning] I put the green outfit back on since it’s not really dirty, just slightly crumpled from spending the night on the floor.
Shevek on clothes and cleaning:
He was putting on his old clothes, and as he pulled the shirt over his head he saw the doctor stuff the blue and yellow ‘sleeping clothes’ into the ‘trash’ bin. Shevek paused, the collar still over his nose. He emerged fully, knelt, and opened the bin. It was empty.
‘The clothes are burned?’ [the doctor has previously used the 'trash bin' for some paper, and explained that the paper is incinerated]
‘Oh, those are cheap pyjamas, service issue – wear ‘em and throw ‘em away. It costs less than cleaning.’
‘It costs less,’ Shevek repeated meditatively. He said the words the way a paleontologist looks at a fossil, the fossil that dates a whole stratum.
In the Le Guin passage, through the concrete details of behaviour and spaceship design we – and Shevek – begin to understand the ways in which different socio-economic systems give rise to different expectations, different value systems, different behaviours. In the Collins passage, we see that a girl raised in an agrarian subsistence economy who can barely afford to eat, let alone buy clothes, is marked out as particularly thrifty because she wears the same clothes the day after she put them on for a couple of hours to sit and eat dinner in.
Katniss on beds:
I just strip off my shirt and trousers and climb into bed in my underwear. The sheets are made of soft, silky fabric. A thick, fluffy quilt gives immediate warmth…
Shevek on beds:
When first aboard the ship, in those long hours of fever and despair, he had been distracted, sometimes pleased and sometimes irritated, by a grossly simple sensation: the softness of the bed. Though only a bunk, its mattress gave under his weight with caressing suppleness. It yielded to him, yielded to him so insistently that he was, still, always conscious of it while falling asleep. Both the pleasure and the irritation it produced in him were decidedly erotic. There was also the hot-air-nozzle-towel device: the same kind of effect. A tickling. And the design of the furniture in the officers’ lounge, the smooth plastic curves into which stubborn wood and steel had been forced, the smoothness and delicacy of surfaces and textures: were these not also faintly, pervasively erotic?
Now, I may be particularly aggrieved here because before I read The Hunger Games someone on the internet told me that it was incredibly well written, full of sensuous detail and immersive pleasures. And I immediately thought of the above passage from Le Guin (which is one of the great, life-changing, close-to-the-heart moments in my internal library) and set my expectations accordingly. And they turned out to mean that it contained sentences like ‘The sheets are made of soft, silky fabric’ and ‘A thick, fluffy quilt gives immediate warmth’.
Because, you see, The Hunger Games is selling itself as a book about the way social, political, and economic organization affects the way we see the world, the experiences we have and the stories we can tell… and so far the first four chapters have told me:
* that pretty blonde girl-children are universally lovable and must be protected at all costs;
* that poor people are literally too stupid to live (apart from the special ones with secret skills – oddly, these secret skills are in fact common survival skills for poor people; they’re only ‘secret’ from rich/privileged urban dwellers); and
* that hot showers and fluffy quilts are nice.
So I can’t help feeling somehow short-changed.
*my favourite internet acronym, partly because of the semicolon: ‘too long, didn’t read’
**This is a ridiculous thing to say, I know, because Le Guin is one of The Greats, so it’s sort of like saying ‘if you feel like reading Enid Blyton’s school stories, just read Diana Wynne Jones’s Witch Week instead’, but still.
***for grammar geeks, the reason it has to be an allusion to this specific phrase is that panem is in the accusative case in this phrase, because the phrase is only part of a longer sentence in which ‘bread and circuses’ are the object of a verb. If you were just naming a country ‘Bread’, you would use the nominative case, panis.