Because I want to see the movie soon but want to read the book first, I'm finally getting around to reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. It's set in a dystopian North America several hundred years in the future, as explained in this spoiler-free passage from the first chapter:
He [the mayor of the narrator's "district"] tells the history of Panem, the country that rose up out of the ashes of a place that was once called North America. He lists the disasters, the droughts, the storms, the fires, the encroaching seas that swallowed up so much of the land, the brutal war for what little sustenance remained. The result was Panem, a shining Capitol ringed by thirteen districts, which brought peace and prosperity to its citizens. Then came the Dark Days, the uprising of the districts against the Capitol. Twelve were defeated, the thirteenth obliterated. The Treaty of Treason gave us the new laws to guarantee peace and, as our yearly reminder that the Dark Days must never be repeated, it gave us the Hunger Games.
The rules of the Hunger Games are simple. In punishment for the uprising, each of the twelve districts must provide one girl and one boy, called tributes, to participate. The twenty-four tributes will be imprisoned in a vast outdoor arena that could hold anything from a burning desert to a frozen wasteland. Over a period of several weeks, the competitors must fight to the death. The last tribute standing wins.
Taking the kids from our districts, forcing them to kill one another while we watch [on television]—this is the Capitol's way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy. How little chance we would stand of surviving another rebellion. Whatever words they use, the real message is clear. "Look how we take your children and sacrifice them and there's nothing you can do. If you lift a finger, we will destroy every last one of you. Just as we did in District Thirteen."
"It is both a time for repentance and a time for thanks," intones the mayor.
That certainly gets the story off to a chilling start, and I've heard it only gets darker.
Pretty much all of my friends have read the novel and/or seen the movie. Those who haven't probably will soon. How has it affected them? What lessons will they get out of it? Will they apply the lessons and warnings and morals of Collins's story to the world we live in? Will they ever see the similarities between the totalitarian nightmare of Panem and the real government they put in power, with its constant manipulation, its spinning of violent intrusion as benevolent helpfulness, its use of aggression as a matter of course, its dehumanizing and divisive influence, its elevation of the mighty government above its subjects, and the complete immunity with which its leaders commit atrocious crimes? Or will they (more likely, in my opinion) conclude that because they sympathize with the protagonists and hate the villains, their own democratically elected government and its president must, for the most part, reflect their righteousness? They could never imagine the United States devolving into such a brutal, oppressive nightmare (unless, of course, Republicans had their way). I mean, a television show where children are forced to kill each other, and everyone cheers as they watch it at home? Is that really even useful as an allegory or a forewarning for our society?
That got me to thinking: How unrealistic is a totalitarian government like Panem and its Hunger Games? Is it really so radically different from the oppressive regimes that much of humanity has suffered under for much of its history? We've all read about the unthinkable, unspeakable, heinous, inhuman atrocities committed by governments from ancient times to modern. We know humans are capable of barbaric things.
Which is more unthinkable: the Hunger Games or the Holocaust? Which society is more barbaric and uncivilized: the Panem that has not only lived under but celebrated and reveled in the televised Hunger Games for decades, or the world that perpetrated the Holocaust, the Stalin purges, the Great Leap Forward, the Killing Fields, and numerous other genocides all within a span of a few decades? If you were living 100 years ago and read about two alternate dystopian futures, one with a government whose oppression included the Hunger Games (disregarding whatever incredulities you would have about the science-fictional concept of television at that time) and one with genocide after genocide after genocide, most of them perpetrated by thousands of willing soldiers and officials of supposed governments of the people, which would you consider more absurd? (One of them is only in North America and the other includes the whole world, but close enough.)
Our parents and grandparents lived through a brutal time, unprecedented and hopefully never to be repeated, but we are living in a more brutal age than we might care to admit. Governments across the world kill their own citizens every day for crimes far less egregious than murder (sometimes no crimes at all). The president of the supposed freest nation on Earth kills thousands of foreigners a year who are not soldiers, terrorists, or any other type of threat, and the supposed freest nation on Earth imprisons a higher proportion of its citizens than any other nation by far. Every communist or fascist country of the 20th century was a dystopia. We would do well to remember that real humans with previously normal lives committed mass murders only recently, and that genocide is made much easier by a powerful government, a single powerful executive, a large military, and an unarmed populace.