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The Road to Dystopia

Book #27 (August 20, 2010): The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Book #28 (August 24, 2010): Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
Book #29 (August 28, 2010): Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

When I was about two-thirds of the way through reading this trilogy of books,  my girlfriend and housemate Amy asked me what it is that makes YA — young adult — fiction different from adult fiction. It wasn’t a question I found easy to answer. Certainly it isn’t the absence of subtleties like good characterization, because no book for readers at any level can function without believable characters. (Well, maybe a Lee Child novel can, but I don’t think it’s fair to keep holding up Mr. Child as an example of poor writing because obviously he has an audience and obviously he’s adept at giving that audience what it wants.) It isn’t an absence of important issues of ethics and morality, because if anything young readers are more acutely aware of, and worried about, these things than adults are. And it certainly isn’t the lack of a compelling story. No kid is going to finish a novel that doesn’t have a story that compels the turning of page after page after page.

If anything, what separates a YA novel from an adult novel is the intensity with which these things matter. Young readers may not care about nuances of personality that would be of interest to an adult, but they yearn for a character they can believe in and have intense feelings about. Usually this means a character somewhere near their own age, who is concerned (but by no means exclusively so) with many of the same things the readers are. As for ethics and morality, often these issues become even murkier and more ambiguous in YA fiction precisely because these things are murkier and more ambiguous in a teenager’s life than in an adult’s. And plot — well, a YA writer had better understand how to create a plot that brings these elements together in ingenious and surprising ways. In other words, YA novels are like adult novels, only more so.

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins seems to be the hottest thing currently going in YA fiction that doesn’t involve vampires or youthful sorcerers. It’s not even a fantasy. It’s dystopian science fiction, a subgenre that was already regarded as a cliche when I was reading science fiction back in the 1970s. Like all cliches, there’s a solid reason for its cliche-hood: It works. There are few fictional plots more rousing, more compelling, or more morally ambiguous than those that pit an individual or group of individuals against an oppressive authority that wants to crush them, kill them and portray them as enemies of the state. It appeals to that part of a reader’s psyche that yearns for a cause, that wants to be part of something larger than themselves in a way that will help them make sense out of their own confused lives.

Suzanne Collins obviously knows this and plays the well-worn premise to the hilt. The Hunger Games trilogy is set in what remains of the United States at some unspecified time in the future after a vaguely described disaster, probably having to do with global warming, has reduced the country to 13 geographically separated, seriously depopulated districts ruled over by a totalitarian regime based in a capitol (called, simply, “the Capitol”) tucked away somewhere in the Rockies. 75 years before the story begins the 13 districts revolted against the oppressive regime and lost. As punishment, one of the districts, unlucky District 13, was apparently destroyed outright and the remaining 12 are subjected to an annual punishment known as the Hunger Games, where two teenagers from each district are chosen by lottery to come to the Capitol and fight one another in a carefully orchestrated deathmatch from which there can only be one survivor.

The central character and first-person narrator of the books is a 16-year-old girl named Katniss Everdeen and it isn’t much of a spoiler to tell you that she gets sent to the Capitol to participate in the games. The first book is largely about Katniss and 23 other teenagers trying to kill each other without being killed themselves. But it’s a trilogy, so Collins can’t just let everything end when Katniss survives or fails to survive the Hunger Games. Something larger has to happen. And with this being a dystopian thriller, it’s really not giving too much away to say that the larger theme of the trilogy is the full scale rebellion of the downtrodden districts against the totalitarian Capitol and that Katniss will be at the center of this.

This isn’t an especially original plot, though Collins manages to take a lot of overused plot elements and put them back together in a fairly original manner. And if some of the characters are stock figures, all of them are nonetheless believable. Collins’ real achievement, though, is that she’s made the trilogy into a riveting piece of storytelling, one that isn’t just targeted at adolescent females and that seems to have an appeal that has spilled over substantially into the adult market. I wasn’t sure when I picked up the initial volume whether I was going to go ahead and read all three, but by the time I was a few chapters into the first book I knew that there was no way I wasn’t going to finish reading the trilogy as a whole. This isn’t great literature with deep characterization or novel insights into the human condition, but as pure storytelling with just enough depth to the characters to make you believe that they would do the things they do and to make you care whether they pull through okay in the end, it’s first-rate stuff. If you want a book or three that will keep you up late at night reading, I strongly recommend the Hunger Games trilogy.

Even if you’re not a young adult.

About Christopher Lampton

Chris Lampton, a cofounder of the e-book design firm Illuminated Pages (see link in my Blogroll), is a writer, an editor, an occasional computer programmer, a voracious reader, and a fanatic video game player. In the course of his distinguished if haphazard career he has written more than 90 books, including the 1993 computer book bestseller Flights of Fantasy (Waite Group Press). He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend Amy and our cat Lola, and now spends much of his available time editing and rewriting novels for self-published authors.

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