Dystopian novels often read like predictions for the not so distant future. Quite often, their predictions do come true with time – The ruthless teenagers of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, the omnipresent eye of Big Brother in 1984 by George Orwell and the vacuous society of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 are no longer confined to the pages of fiction. One can only hope that the worlds of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go among others remain firmly within the pages of books. I have read too many good reviews of Cormac McKathy’s The Road but as the reviews indicate a storyline that is too disturbing, it remains on my list of books to be read and I don’t see myself reading it anytime soon. In fiction as in real life, like most people I prefer good triumphing over evil and people getting rewards and comebacks according to their actions, good or bad.
This is perhaps one of the reasons why Alexander McCall Smith’s books (though they are firmly set in the real world and are none of them remotely dystopian) are so hugely popular. It is reassuring to read that the law of Karma applies even in this age of Kali.
Unlike the books mentioned above, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is a rather light read for a dystopian novel. It is set in a distant future in which the United States has turned into twelve districts ruled by a group of power hungry, debauched people ruling from district 1 who change their faces almost everyday through cosmetic surgery and live decadent lives, while the poorer citizens of the outer districts barely manage to scrape a living. One of the highlights of the government’s activities is a yearly event in which children from the twelve districts compete in a bizarre reality show that is broadcasted live across the country. The losers of the game literally lose their lives. The winner survives and is supported by the state for the rest of their life.
Sixteen year old Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12, the poorest district and supports her depressed Mother and fragile little sister by hunting. When her sister is chosen to take part in the hunger games, Katniss volunteers to go instead of her. Her male counterpart from District 12 is Peeta Mellark, her schoolmate who has a crush on her and had once surreptitiously saved her and her family from the verge of starvation. The rest of the story follows Katniss’s adventures as she witnesses her competitors kill each other, gets to kills one or two of them herself and strikes up a unlikely friendship with Peeta as they progress towards the grand finale.
Perhaps as it was written with a teenage audience in mind, Katniss’s gruesome escapades come across not as a dark, disturbing story of a world gone horribly wrong, but rather like an animated computer game. There are no shades of grey here. The characters are either good or evil in a straightforward manner. Incidents that ought to evoke sympathy such as the death of a character and mercy-kiling of another turn out to be flat and one-dimensional. There are too many coincidences and too much serendipity in the way Katniss gets the things that she needs to survive at about just the right time. However, the lack of depth does not deter one from enjoying the novel which has an interesting plot, is well written and keeps the reader hooked until the last page.
The Hunger Games is a popular best seller and the film adaptation has been a hit. But it is unlikely to be placed among other great literary dystopian classics which are mirrors to real life and the world.