Sequels. We live in a time of sequels, though, as I had cause to point out just the other day, it's easy to imagine the audience at the Globe Theatre grumbling that Shakespeare was just grinding them out. "'Enry Four? It's all just sequels now, innit? And he's just cashing it in nah, breaking it up into two parts anall. Sod this, I'm off dahn the pub."
I'm not sure if Suzanne Collins knew at the outset that she was going to need to write three books about Katniss Everdeen, but I have my doubts that it was all fully fleshed out in her head as she picked up her quill for page one of The Hunger Games. Turns out that I was wrong about cultural stasis persisting in Hunger Games land for thirty years; it's persisted for 75 years. I'm trying, without very much success, to think of a period of history where a whole continent stayed under one management for 75 years without any real change to the arrangements. It's easy enough to argue that the US has been under a single management for more than two hundred years, until you pick apart those two hundred years and all the changes in society which have swept through the continent in that time. You need to go back centuries before you can find a society which bobbed along with no real dynamism, and in most cases our impression of stasis is really down to ignorance of detail. There are enough throw-away lines about new consumer distractions and inventions for the wealthy that science has to have been plugging along, and with new inventions come new ways of looking at things and social change in their wake. No, it just doesn't make sense, any more than the convenient notion that the former USA can break into twelve districts each of which specialise in a different primary production sector. That's the kind of dynamic you see in a computer game, not the real world.
But those are the quibbles of the last book, persisting into the second when I'd hoped they might be sorted out a bit. What actually happens in the second book? Some good stuff, actually, at least from a character point of view. Our three main characters remain a little bit too good to be true, but I like it that the ludicrously chaste love triangle doesn't turn into some angst ridden pain in the neck. I like it, too, that Katniss is starting to hate herself for what she had to do to get as far as she has. And that despite this, she's toughened up a bit; killing people isn't bothering her as much as it used to, which seems to be pretty much the way that it goes for people in the real world. There's something real going on in her mind, for all the nonsense going on in the actual world, and I like that.
Stlll, it's a very middle-y book. An awful lot of running time goes on a victory tour which doesn't really deepen our understanding of the world enough, and just feels like marking time. And then we get the big obstacle; oh noes, Katniss has to go back in the arena again. Because the Capitol keeps changing the rules, and just when you think you're safe, they wind you back in. This is a perfectly worthwhile piece of vileness, but it happens at the wrong point in the action, so that resolving it winds up rushed and awkward, and indeed almost as though Collins has run out of ideas and all she can think of is to chuck her protagonist back into the arena again because that worked so well the last time. There was a different, and perhaps better, arena to be navigated; this would have been the ideal place for Collins to show us more of the Capitol, and the inner workings of the lunatic government which controls all of this sadism. That's more or less what I'd been expecting, but instead we're kept back in the narrow compass of District 12 and then the arena, and we still have no better idea of how this show could be kept on the road or what's going on below its surface. There are any number of hints that there's a deeper game in play, but they're not pulled together in a way which convinces. One big plot twist is that Haymitch survived the last 25th anniversary games, which were made extra ugly by doubling the number of players; it's weird that this was never mentioned before now, since it would have been quite the talking point at the time, and indeed, it was designed to be a talking point so that each generation would be aware how screwed they really were. Which is a good moment for me to mention that I can't think of a single government in history which has prospered by telling its population that they're screwed and there's nothing that they can do about it. Even the really nasty ones still insisted that they were actually benign and had everyone's best interests at heart. Bwahaha is NOT a headline strategy for a working polity.
The good news, I suppose, is that by the time we get to the end of the book, everything has fallen thoroughly apart and it doesn't seem that likely that we're going to get ANOTHER oh noes, back to the arena reveal in the third book. But before I can figure that out, I have to go and follow the footsteps of that great humanitarian, Hannibal Lecter.