You know the story, right? Post-some-undefined-apocalypse, the survivors formed a new society, and they called it Panem. Rule is from a capitol, called the Capitol, and the work happens in twelve districts, called the Districts. The Capitol has it easy, the Districts are subjugated by Peacekeepers and forced to work in such occupations as subsistence coal mining. Following me so far? Because this is sort of how the exposition goes in this trilogy. Telling, not showing.
Welcome to My First Sci-Fi Novel, with Extra Girl Appeal.
Seventy-five years ago, the districts rebelled, and they lost. In penance, child representatives are chosen by lottery each year from all twelve districts to compete in a death match in an arena filled with high-tech booby traps and genetically-modified monsters. The Capitol gets its entertainment, the Districts stay isolated and afraid.
That’s actually a pretty good plot. In point of fact, Suzanne Collins has a lot of good ideas. Just ignore how tangled up they get in sci-fi whiz-bang silliness, like solar-powered ray guns and “hoverplanes” with invisibility shields that can be taken down by a well placed bow-and-arrow shot. And coal miners. (No, I assure you they are aware of nuclear power, as nuclear weaponry is a pretty important plot point.)
The ridiculously childish science doesn’t make or break the novel, obviously. The real problem is our humble narrator and main character, teenage combatant Katniss Everdeen.
I like her. Driven. Stubborn. Clever. Says (and does) what she thinks. Doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking. That’s okay, characters are supposed to have flaws, just like real people. But in a set of novels with so much potential meat to chew — torture as entertainment, propaganda wars, terrorism’s place in a rebellion, the culpability of the bystander, and on and on — Collins chooses as her first-person narrator someone who has absolutely no interest in thinking about any of these things. Goes to great lengths, in fact, to avoid them, including constantly running off to hide in supply cupboards.
As a consequence of Katniss’s vacuousness, massive swaths of critical plot development are presented in the form of, “I was so angry about the bee sting that I refused to acknowledge him, but Haymich went on anyway, telling me that everyone I know and love died yesterday when the Capitol blew up my house. [Note: I made this up.]” This after twenty pages of painstaking detail about her beauty regimen and outfit selection. Which, to be fair, she doesn’t really seem to care much about either.
I’d like to learn more about the house blowing up, can we get into that? Oh, no, we’ve moved on to sulking in a closet. Right.
There are plenty more examples of things hinted at or briefly mentioned that deserve whole chapters, but I won’t mention any specifics so as not to spoil potential readers.
For readers who are not interested in this sort of intellectual exercise in their fiction but are looking instead for deep and complex characters with real emotions, I’ve got bad news for you too. At a pivotal point, Katniss disobeys orders and leads a band of loyal companions on a wild goose chase that turns out to be completely pointless but results in a half-dozen people she cares about being needlessly killed in horrific ways. She does not dwell on this, or question her decision. She is sad that everyone has died, but she has given up trying to puzzle out whether any of it is actually her fault.
Collins has created an amazingly rich and detailed world, chock full of beautiful scenery, horrifying violence, difficult choices, competing ideologies, class warfare, disturbing genetically modified animals, and a complicate caste system. She explores it only tentatively, quickly, as if afraid to make her book (or her narrator) too complex, to get bogged down in anything that might mean something. And that’s really sad.
In the epilogue, a girl with three books worth of mommy issues mentions almost in passing that she has had a couple kids of her own. No contemplation of whether she’s going to be a good mother to them, of course. That’s just not Katniss’s style.