Title: The Hunger Games
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publishing Info: Scholastic Press (September, 2008)
Pages: 384 (hardcover)
Genre: Science Fiction, YA, dystopian fiction
Review Copy: Purchased for Kindle from Amazon
Why did I read this book?
OK, that was rude. I first read The Hunger Games shortly after it came out. Can’t now remember why. I had borrowed it from the library and devoured it. I thought I was done; satisfied and yet feeling that sadness that comes when you’re done spending time with characters you care about. But then Catching Fire came out. Put it on hold at the library, devoured in a day. THEN Mockingjay came out. I really really really wanted to go get it but I was about to go on vacation. So, instead I bought all three books for my Kindle and took them with me. Finished all three in less than a week. Cried on the airplane while I finished up Mockingjay.
I can’t remember now why I read The Hunger Games. Had to read the next two because I loved The Hunger Games so much. I will TRY to make sure this doesn’t sound too much like a love letter to Collins…
And what did I learn from it?
Let’s start with world building. After certain of my writing partners have actually finished reading Mockingjay I may revisit and do something along the lines of how to start a revolution using fashion but for now, world building.
In regular ole non-genre fiction, it’s called setting. In historical fiction, it’s called research and accuracy. In speculative fiction (science fiction/fantasy), it’s called world building. Writers are creating a new world complete with, perhaps, new cultures, government, religions, methods for telling time, educational systems, etc etc etc. Speculative fiction writers have the opportunity to re-create EVERY damn thing in their new worlds.
And then they have the job of telling us readers about that new world they’ve created. Some do it really well, seamlessly blending the necessary information with the narrative. Some shoehorn it in, squeezing it in between the story like a rock stuck in your shoe.
Regardless of the skill of the writer, that world building is necessary. We as readers must understand the new world in order to understand, and care about, the main character’s struggles. If the writer does a good job, we’re likely to read that book again. If the writer doesn’t, well, there’s always the used bookstore down the street.
Way back when I first started choosing my own books, we didn’t have the Internet (OK, we barely had personal computers. It’s not so much that I’m old as that technology moves FAST). We didn’t have easily accessible book reviews on every book imaginable or book trailers or Amazon. We had bookstores and librarians. And if you liked to read something weird, like science fiction, you were lucky if you could find a bookstore that would stock book ONE of a series rather than books 3, 5 and 6. My childhood library didn’t have a teen services librarian and my school library pushed books like Where the Red Fern Grows.
I picked books based on their cover, the author, and sometimes, the blurb on the back. I rarely knew ahead of time what I was in for. Back then, I gave any speculative fiction book 50 pages before I put it down. 50 pages to show me this new world, teach me what I needed to know about it, and get me engrossed in the character’s life so I wanted to read more.
That’s a lot to ask in 50 pages but Collins delivers all that, and more.
It’s subtle at first.
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
1st paragraph in book.
Right away we learn that the family is probably poor. Sisters share a bed. Rough canvas covers instead smooth cotton sheets. We also learn something unusual is going on, something scary enough to cause nightmares: the reaping.
We watch as Katniss (although we haven’t heard her name at this point) puts on hunting boots and grabs a forage bag and rescues a goat cheese from hungry cats and rats alike. More evidence of poverty and an alien way of life. Who among us regularly hunts and gathers from someplace other than the local Safeway?
Collins never hits us over the head to point out the differences, she just shows them to us as Katniss deals with them: a mining community full of defeated, tired, depressed miners. A fence closing all of “District 12.” Electricity that isn’t consistent. Hunting with a bow and arrow; a rare weapon (as all weapons are rare). Learning that hunting is in fact poaching and illegal and yet necessary for survival.
Learning that spies of some sort are everywhere:
“District Twelve. Where you can starve to death in safety.” I mutter. Then I glance quickly over my shoulder. Even here, even in the middle of nowhere, you worry someone might overhear you.
Collins sprinkles these bits and pieces throughout the first scene before the reaping even takes place. By the time we learn of the reaping, we are well-prepared for this world with its oppressive government.
Even after the reaping, arguably the biggest difference between our world and Katniss’, Collins continues to provide those bits of world building to deepen our understanding of this new world.
This geographical advantage was a major factor in the districts losing the war that led to my being a tribute today. Since the rebels had to scale the mountains, they were easy targets for the Capitol’s air forces.
And Collins’ world building isn’t left to bald statements of fact.
What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by? What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol, besides decorating their bodies and waiting around for a new shipment of tributes to roll in and die for their entertainment?
At first blush, this just appears to be Katniss’ complaints about how hard her life is in comparison to those who live in the Capitol but wrapped up in it is a whole lot of judgment about the discrepancies between the Districts and this Capitol that can require tributes to die just for their entertainment.
By sprinkling these bits of world building into the narrative, keeping them in Katniss’s voice and consistent with her judgments, we learn everything we need to learn about this new world without feeling like we’re simply being lectured to and without feeling like the necessary information is interrupting the flow of the story’s action.
If you’re looking to write speculative fiction, read The Hunger Games trilogy and study how Collins not only builds a consistent, logical world but also communicates that world to the book’s readers.
Also, look at Patricia C. Wrede’s (lengthy) list of world building questions. The list seems daunting at first glance, and it is certainly not necessary to answer every question when building a new world, but perusing the list gives you a good idea of the type of depth involved in creating new worlds. (I’ve also found it to be a good idea generator when I’m truly stuck.)
I seriously cannot find a negative review of this book. Almost every review I… uh… reviewed … said the same thing: I couldn’t put this book down. Finished it in less than a day. Ignored my family/job/school to read it. So, if you hated the book and would like to write a well-thought-out review, I’d be happy to link to it here.