Monday, September 6, 2010

The Girl Who Led a Revolution

John Lennon might have believed a better future was within reach when he penned "Imagine" nearly forty years ago, but my considerably-more-pessimistic take on humanity causes me to conclude that his vision was little more than a sweet-but-naive pipe dream. (I mean, sure, I enjoyed all the various iterations of "Star Trek"--with the wholesome "Prime Directive" and the "we're-all-equal-pals" federation--as much as the next sci-fi geek did... but it was all those other TV shows and movies set in outerspace--the grungier, nastier ones free of any lyre-playing--that I actually found sort of believable.) So, while Lennon's little wire sunglasses had a rosy cast, my own plastic ones sport a murky, grey-brown tint--and it's through them that I'm picturing a very un-Lennonesque tomorrow... a world full of hungry, desperate people, who never seem to have enough of anything--money, resources, or opportunities--and are concerned only with basic survival. A world full of people without hope, in other words.
Grim, yes... but when you consider that you have only to pick up a newspaper or flip through the TV channels to be inundated with countless images of unhappiness and hard times, it's almost impossible to think otherwise. There's never a shortage of stories about blighted areas, or scenes of lands utterly devastated by natural disasters, or pieces on war-torn countries full of displaced people who have nothing left. Real-life isn't painting us a pretty picture here, folks.


It's hardly surprising, then, that so many writers choose imminent doom-and-gloom scenarios for their subject matter; there are tales aplenty cautioning us against letting all the bad stuff subvert what little good still exists. The warnings aren't always delivered with the force of a sledgehammer, either; in the best examples, the message is carefully couched in elegant prose, vivid imagery, and fantastical situations--hovering just beneath the pretty, shiny surface for anyone who cares to look for it. So I'm really not surprised that there are some very good dystopian stories out there; what floors me is the realization that my hands down pick for the absolute best of these works isn't shelved in the "literary fiction" or "sci-fi" sections at the bookstore... but instead, can be found in the "young adult" area.


I can remember making many trips down the aisles of what used to be called the "juvenile" or "children's" section when I was a young child--but definitely don't recall finding much there that I'd have wanted to read as a pre-teen or teenager (let alone as a grown-up). Times have changed, though, and a perusal of the YA section these days nets even bonafide adults some intelligent and thoughtful reading... including, notably, the flat-out brilliant "Hunger Games" trilogy by Suzanne Collins.
The recently-released Mockingjay is Collins' grand finale in the trilogy, and what a finale it is. (I honestly can't say that this third book is better than either of the preceeding ones--The Hunger Games or Catching Fire; each book in the series is a beautifully-rendered piece, telling a complete part of the story while meticulously uniting all the threads together.) Mockingjay is simply the perfect ending to a magnificent--even important--body of work.   
For the benefit of anyone not well-versed in it, the series is set in a post-apocalyptic world at some unspecified (but probably not-so-distant) future point, and centers on an area (which seems roughly-comparable to the U.S.) known collectively as "Panem". Panem is divided into thirteen districts--the Capitol, where life is sweet, and the remaining twelve districts, which fall under the Capitol's rule. Each district specializes in producing something (mining, crops, textiles, etc.)--the proceeds of which mostly wind up benefiting the Capitol, with only minimal sharing amongst the other districts. Such a system leaves most of the districts very poor, full of hungry people who enjoy few (if any) pleasures. Strict rules are in place regarding what the people can and can't do; personal freedom doesn't exist. In a world like that, hope is in short supply.
By far the most demoralizing aspect of this lop-sided relationship between the Capitol and its districts, however, comes in the form of an annual event with mandatory participation. In this event--known as the Hunger Games--two children are plucked from each of the twelve districts each year and forced to compete in a brutal, no-holds-barred, gladiator-style match to the death, which is televised live--and is required viewing--all across Panem. (Only the Capitol's children are exempted from the yearly lottery drawings which determine those youths participating.) The victor--the last boy or girl standing--is then allowed to live a life of relative luxury, back in his/her district, along with the victor's family. (Meanwhile, the other twenty-three families have to deal with not only the same undesirable living and working conditions as they had before, but also with the mind- and soul-numbing heartbreak of losing their children to such barbaric and senseless deaths, for the "amusement" of a privileged few.)


Lest anyone shrug off the idea of the Games as absurd, merely some convenient fictional device, remember that this sort of thing is hardly without precedent... and nor is having an enthusiastic audience bearing witness to the "sport". Gladiator death-matches in ancient Rome were popular events, and all manner of publicly-viewed punishments (beheadings, hangings, burnings-at-the-stake, mutilations, etc.) have been eagerly-attended throughout history. What purpose do they serve? Often, they're a means of exerting control over people, and such is the case here, too, as the downtrodden districts are kept in line by being forced to participate every single year in the agonizing lottery drawing and the Games which follow. (It's an "if you think this is bad, just imagine how much worse we could make things for you, if you don't toe the line" form of control, and it's fairly effective.) Also, don't forget that we actually have modern-day versions of such contests (albeit, non-lethal ones); consider the huge popularity of the TV show "Survivor". Although it's purely for sport and entertainment right now, a precedent of sorts has been set by leaving us comfortable and familiar with the whole spectacle.  
When the first book begins, we find ourselves following the journey of one Katniss Everdeen (only 16 years old when she first volunteers in place of her younger sister in the District Twelve drawing) and her co-competitor, Peeta Mellark, as they prepare to compete in the 74th Games. What follows is every bit as horrifying as the worst nightmare; the Gameskeepers can control what sorts of obstacles the competitors must contend with, so not only do the children face off against each other--armed with weapons meant solely for the purpose of killing--but they also have to deal with the capricious whims of the Gameskeepers, who delight in throwing impossible survivalist situations at them... all to create a more exciting spectacle for the viewers. To say that it's a truly shocking turn of events when the outwardly cold and calculating Katniss and her partner from Twelve, the generous and considerate Peeta, somehow manage to pull off a joint win, is an understatement.


The Capitol, naturally, is displeased at being shown up by a couple of teenagers, and in the second book we see them punish the pair exactly one year later, as part of the special, 75th-anniversary Games--by engineering it so that every winner (still living) from the past seventy-four contests will serve as the current year's competitors. (If you're wondering whether you did the right math in your head--that teenagers and octogenarians, alike, will be pitted against combatants of every age in between--then yes, you did.) The majority of the players die... but this time, there's a handful who band together--forming friendships in some cases and alliances in others--and manage, somehow, to come out alive.


The Capitol is once again in a state of shock... but there are huge shocks in store for Katniss and Peeta, as well, when they learn that they're actually an integral part of a much-larger scheme... a plot, many years in the making, to overthrow the oppressive Capitol by first uniting all the Districts in a common cause. The impetus for uniting the disparate peoples? Katniss herself, the co-winner of not one, but two, Games, now to be restyled and fashioned into a colorful, daring heroine: the Mockingjay, face of the new rebellion. (Peeta's job, meanwhile, is to be the calming, levelheaded partner to her flash and impetuosity.) The Capitol isn't about to sit idly by while the Mockingjay goes into action, though, and the second book ends on a bad note for the rebels, with some casualties, several people captured and imprisoned, and many others seriously wounded.


The third and final book, then, revolves around the role of the Mockingjay, leader of the people--but it is so much more, besides. We learn who survived and who perished, and we discover the fate of those who are in a sort of mental limbo, a place between sanity and insanity. We observe as the rebels train--with the meager supplies, equipment, and forces they can scrounge together or create--all so that they can go out on insanely-dangerous missions in an attempt to win the support of the other districts before Capitol forces can come in and wipe everyone out (because they realize that only an entirely-united front has any shot at succeeding against the wealthy and well-equipped Capitol). We're privy to the tiny, rare moments of something akin to joy. We see unexpected friendships and even love blossom, much like tender little shoots poking up determinedly through rocky, unyielding soil. We have front-row seats to the war once the rebels are ready to wage it. We hold our breath as they try desperately to figure some way out of yet another terrifying, certain-death situation. We cringe as we see them suffer; we cry as we watch them hurt and bleed and (some), die.


And, we exalt when we realize that some of them survive. Not, necessarily, who or how we might have thought (or hoped), but... there are survivors, those on whom it will fall to carry on, to honor those sacrifices which have been made over the years, to rebuild all that has been destroyed, and to finally just... live.


In the end, we're left wondering what tomorrow might bring, both for the former rebels... and for ourselves. It is somewhere in all of that uncertainty that our fragile future lies. What we make of it, though--whether we aim for Lennon's idealized, more utopian world or just settle for a bleak, dystopian one--is up to us.

GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 5 out of 5 mousies!