So I read these books people are talking about. What follows is a long, disjointed ramble. Thar be spoilers, so skip if you want.
I have to say, I finished pleasantly surprised. Overall, I think the books were decidedly grim, which is good – it respected the integrity of the debate it was having about the horrors of warfare and authoritarianism and whether of humanity as a species was deserving of redemption. Very few of the characters who ever acquire names survive to see the new Panemian “republic” arise from the ashes of the ancien régime but were it any other way the costs would feel less burdensome. The last deaths of Finnick so shortly after his wedding and Prim at the hands of the rebels felt especially brutal and really sank in the final screws that made the books so painful. The epilogue, too, feels right, that a surface vision of peace is slight reward for the suffering endured. The books are best understood as a blend of parable, allegory, and myth, weaving together disparate elements of fantasy, science fiction, historical cherry-picking and very modern concerns about warfare and mediated reality, and from that perspective the whole thing “clicks” really nicely.
However, for all her strengths as an allegorist and a thought-provoker I have to say that Collins is at best an uneven writer. A lot of clumsy phrasing and awkward beats, a lot of brushed-over details swallowed by the relentless pace of the plot, even as some sections are really sharply written and some details brilliantly observed. There is some equation that is one part “respecting the internality of the character,” one part “working within the confines of YA fiction,” one part just “Collins’ limitations with the pen” but I can’t really pinpoint what falls where which is distracting. There is a chronic issue with failure to telegraph, in which at decisive moments a key character’s skill or Katniss’ history or something similar plays a crucial role in saving a life or solving the puzzle or otherwise directing the flow of the narrative in a specific direction, but often the salient fact isn’t known until just that moment which feels deus ex machina-ish and makes the whole thing feel like a first draft at times. There is an over-reliance on end-of-chapter cliffhangers and a lot of Katniss being knocked unconscious and having events explained to her after-the-fact. All this doesn’t fatally wound the books but it does hobble it some, leaving me feeling like there was a more-perfect version of these books stowed away inside the version I had. I would still give these to my kids to read but not before a lot of other stuff even though I think there is a lot the young mind could gain from reading these books, and the old mind, too.
For me it is fun to think a bit more literally about the diegesis and I can’t decide how convincing I actually find the world of Panem to be. Much of that falls on how exactly you choose to fill in Collins’ blanks and model it in your head and there are enough variables that there’s no one definitive version. There’s been a lot of yeoman’s work done on this – I especially like this attempt to map Panem and this attempt to project Panem’s population, which I think is a very important number to have in mind when considering everything else. Centives comes out with 4mm after doing some really great work, but I think that ends up being a major undershoot extrapolating from some disputable assumptions – mainly, that D12’s miners have a similar labor productivity to what we could see today and that coal is the sole source of Panem’s power. Matt Yglesias is right-on in discussing the labor productivity issue (though I think his final conclusions are a bit off), but perhaps even more importantly we know with near-certainty that D12’s coal is not the only energy source for Panem. Beyond the fact that it would be hard to imagine the incredibly energy-intensive lifestyle of the Capitol being supported on coal alone, we know they have access to nuclear plants as well as sophisticated solar power, which I’d imagine must make up a big share of their grid. Plus, at the end of Catching Fire D12 is bombed into the ground and yet the Capitol nor D2 seem to suffer from any energy shortages so unless they’ve been doing a pretty tremendous job stockpiling coal reserves they must have some alternate source of power. However, I still think D12 is a good indicator of Panem’s population, simply because if coal made up a relatively small fraction of Panem’s energy consumption I can’t imagine it would cost-effective to fund the sophisticated police state apparatus that keeps it in line so I have to believe that coal slakes some major portion of the Capitol’s energy appetite even as it also guzzles nukes and sun (and I’d wager wind and hydro, too). So unless D12 is being kept afloat for purely political purposes (entirely possible) then I’d say you could cap Panem’s population at somewhere around 15-20mm, which makes more sense to me intuitively. We hear nothing about the world outside Panem, which is apparently autarkic, so to have the kind of specialization and density we see in the Capitol while still have enough people in the other 12 Districts to provide for their “needs” you would have to have much more than 4mm. Keep in mind that at one point we are told explicitly that the other Districts are “much larger” than D12 which would square with my numbers, which is still less than the population of the North American continent when Andrew Jackson was President and something like 2-3% of its population today. Given the concern by both the Capitol and the Rebels that protracted war could reduce the human population below sustainable rebels I think it could be as low as 10mm but I’d wager the real number is around 12-14mm.
Of course, how that population is distributed is also important. However, unless you imagine the Captiol as being quite small relative to its power, grandeur, density, level of specialization, etc, only 1-2mm at most, thus leaving ~1mm each in D1-11 (and the 8k in D12), then you have what seems to be an odd phenomenon – the many exploiting the few, rather than the few exploiting the many. In many ways Panem is reminiscent of many empires or “extractive” regimes of yore (I am reminded myself of pre-Revolutionary France). In many other ways you could draw numerous comparisons to the present day global economic arrangement –Paul Adler does a marvelous job drawing out a dependency-theoretic perspective on the books, and I myself have a pet theory that the “rebellion” is better described as a metaphor for the rising East wresting control of the “periphery” resource-rich nations of the Third World from the declining West. Culturally speaking, this jibes with both the decadent, hedonistic, debt-addled lifestyles of the Capitolians as well as the rigid, regimented lifestyles of the D13ers (even the low birthrate there is reminiscent of Japan or China). However, all these arrangements involve relatively small populations subsisting off the labor of relatively large populations – in fact, unlike Yglesias’ cryptic comments at the end of his post on D12’s labor productivity, this kind of arrangement is defined by an outsized share of overall production going to the hands of the few. If the Capitol represents nearly 50% of Panem’s population it would represent a pretty meager sacrifice to extend economic and political rights to the Districts, and the resultant economic growth from labor mobility, specialization and free trade would more than compensate, especially when you subtract the vast costs of enforcing the status quo. Frankly, the system in D12 as it stands makes next-to-no sense – for the cost of keeping D12 sufficiently oppressed you could probably just pay a couple thousand volunteers quite handsomely (along with generous life insurance) to relocate for a term of some years from the Capitol to the mines and allow the existing residents to freely provide the wealthy miners with goods and services. The only way you can really make sense of this is to estimate Panem’s population on the very low side (it has to be more than 4mm, but maybe less than 10mm) and imagine that the vast majority live in the Districts. Indeed, we know the Capitol can’t provide enough bodies to voluntarily fill the needs of the Peacekeeping Corps, which D2 compensates for. Also, the lower your estimate of the population the less you have to grapple with Yglesias’ astute point about tesserae inflation, since the likelihood of that occurring is definitely sensitive to the individual odds of conscription into the Games, though that fate is so severe it probably dampens that possibility beyond what a mere probabilistic analysis would suggest.
There is a lot more to like about the books, as well as more puzzles. From here out I’ll just fire off questions and observations that struck me as I read:
- I have no idea how to explain D3. Ygelsias says it’s hard to imagine an economy of advanced production of complex electronics working without a complex market with multiple buyers and sellers, but I’m more struck by the fact that any kind of innovation, either by leaps or by increments, isn’t totally stymied by the total lack of incentives. It’s easy to put a gun in someone’s back and say “dig faster” or “chop down another 20 trees today” but it’s a lot harder to order somebody to “invent more!” or “systematically improve efficiency throughout your supply chain!” I tend to be skeptical of the Econ 101/politically conservative perspective that boils everything down to dollars and incentives, but given that only so many people can possibility have the proclivity towards high-tech innovation, and especially without any labor mobility (what is a would be D8 inventor to do?), I just can’t imagine that they can actually keep apace. It is, though, unclear exactly how far in the future the book is set – we know that it takes place after global warming results in near-extermination (though the climate seems to have oddly settled back into its prior routine) and 75 years since the first Rebellion so it’s quite possible that the technological state of play in Panem has indeed been stagnant. But they do seem to have lots of cool stuff – hovercraft, incredible biological and chemical engineering, crystal clear night-vision glasses – that we don’t so there must have been a pretty good deal of innovation in the centuries between now and then (my gut is that it’s less than <500 years).
- Another issue with D3 – it makes sense that both material and civil deprivation would scale with the size of the population so as to prevent the possibility of surplus on either ledger. That is, it makes sense that, at least when the books begin, D12 is treated relatively leniently because a few thousand people aren’t going to successfully overthrow the Captiol. But D11, on the other hand, is much larger so there needs to be even lower per captia standards of living so internal inequality wouldn’t lead to an elite or a faction being able to hoard materiel, and repression has to be more thorough to preempt the organization any kind of resistance. But this formula can’t work in D3 because they have access to so much technology that the repression required to keep them in line would be monumentally brutal, but that level of oppression would make it even that much harder to foster any kind of inventiveness or challenging of the status quo.
- I couldn’t find anywhere else to slot this in, exactly, but it’s a terrific exegesis on everything I’ve been talking about above by Dan Nexon.
- The books engage in a really fascinating dialogue on mobility and exchange throughout that I think is one of the most valuable lessons. There is a lot of focus on the local, mostly-barter and charity economy of D12 and the black market that runs it – the very fact that the economy there is non-monetary also prevents the accumulation of capital on the part of autonomous individuals. Katniss and Gale are good at hunting and good at trading, but the economy seems to be mostly about food and medicines and there’s very little that can be stockpiled or saved. In addition, not only does Panem’s authoritarian system prevent ideas from being moved or exchanges but the control of transportation prevents people from being moved or exchanged. Your District seems to be your destiny in Panem, and most of the transport outside the Capitol, other than a few elite automobiles, is done by train. There is an American attitude that views roads and cars as being symbolic of freedom, and a subsequent strain of conservatism that views trains and other forms of public transit with suspicion as a means of social control. Now obviously when you have cars, trains, buses, planes, bicycles and feet to choose between the existence of a train is not in-and-of-itself oppressive, but as your only option even beyond the general prohibition on transit between Districts this does seem to allow the capitol to regulate the flow of people between the Districts as well.
- The more I think about it the more I think Panem, culturally, is really weird. Firstly, there seems to be no religion whatsoever on the part of anyone anywhere in Panem. This could be some sort of commentary on Collins’ part but it seems to me to be just a giant gaping hole, especially since she does discuss rituals surrounding death and marriage where religion would be most relevant. I just have trouble visualizing a world where religion has, essentially, gone entirely extinct. I have less trouble imagining one where the Capitol is suppressing religion but there’s simply not a mention of it at all. Secondly, race seems to be a very background issue in Panem. It definitely exists (much to the consternation of racist fans) but doesn’t ever get addressed explicitly as being an issue. Julian Sanchez makes some astute points about that, and I would note that his logic implies that if Panem is mostly white outside of District 11 then the climate apocalypse that rocked North America was disproportionately unkind to non-whites, which would be a silent commentary in-and-of-itself. It seems that people of different Districts don’t ever have a chance to interact, though, so perhaps each District’s population is homogenous enough and the system indiscriminately oppressive enough that no internal fissures arise. I do like very much the subtle dialogue about immigration and integration around the absorption of D12 into D13.
- I also like the focus on the books of soft power and media mediation. There is continually a symbiotic relationship between material outcomes and the ability to control the narrative as presented to the populace, and throughout the books advantage flows to those who are able to leverage success at one into the other. Much like the ideals of the Enlightenment precipitated the French Revolution as much as the economic facts on the ground, so is Panem’s fate often decided by perception, presentation, and control over information. This is not simply a simple case of asymmetric information but the far richer and more complex battle of competing stories, which as someone who majored in Film in college I dare say I appreciated quite a bit. A key aspect of this is about hope; the Captiol seems largely uninterested in providing any to the populace, there are no Horatio Alger stories of upward mobility or betterment to latch onto. The major exception to that is the victors of the Games, but that is as much stick as carrot, and the victors themselves are often treated to the worst torture of anyone. Ironically, however, the Captiol seemed to be sowing its own destruction with the Games, creating a class of extremely popular warriors in each District that could serve as rallying points, leaders, and symbols.
- Seems like the design of the third Quarter Quell was just a massive miscalculation on the part of Snow and the Capitol. It is strongly hinted that it was by design and that the drawing of the Quell’s structure was a ruse, in which case it seems to have backfired enormously on the Captiol, which doesn’t happen that often throughout the books. Bet Snow wishes he had a mulligan on that one.
- One of the very best part of the books’ central narrative is the moral confusion and internal division that authoritarianism and repression can sow. Throughout the books Katniss blames herself repeatedly for the loss of other lives; however, most of these people were killed by the Capitol. Yet the very fact that the Capitol behaves so monstrously seems taken as a given by Katniss and therefore it is her actions that have true moral culpability, like taunting a beehive or a bear. The fact that the system is so inculcated into people’s assumptions about the world perversely results in them exculpating it from blame for its own evils and turns recriminations on to themselves and erstwhile friends and loved ones for provoking the system’s wrath. This strikes at the crux of the moral and spiritual quagmire that sits at the heart of authoritarianism and totalitarian governments, one that ends up implicating everyone and nobody at the same time. It’s this kind of corruption and rot of accountability and agency that really shines through in the books and make them worthwhile teaching tools for young and old alike.
Now I have to go see the movie! All else aside Donald Sutherland seems an inspired choice for Snow.