Brandon's Notepad

April 1, 2014

Catching Fire


After reading Hunger Games, I immediately started listening to the Catching Fire audiobook. Just as with my post about the first book, this post is not meant to be a complete summary, but a brief synopsis and a handful of observations and supporting research.


Synopsis

This is the second book in the Hunger Games series. If necessary, read my synopsis of the first book.

At the time of this writing, I still have not yet seen the movies, so I cannot attest to their faithfulness. As the storyline progresses, however, I do find myself contemplating how they portrayed this event or that on screen, so I may have to bite the bullet and watch them after all. [As a sidenote, while I was reading this book, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died tragically in a drug overdose. He played a key role, and it will be interesting to see if/how they change the storyline to accommodate for this loss.]

* * *   SPOILER ALERT   * * *   SPOILER ALERT   * * *   SPOILER ALERT   * * *

Six months after Katniss and Peeta win the Hunger Games, they must participate in the Victory Tour, travelling to the other districts to deliver speeches as part of the Capitol’s never-ending propaganda campaign. She is paid a surprise visit by President Snow who warns her to calm the people in the other districts. The trick she pulled to win the 74th Hunger Games has been popularly interpreted as an act of defiance against the Capitol, and Panem is potentially on the brink of rebellion. On the Victory Tour, Katniss and Peeta must maintain the appearance of being star-crossed lovers who were tragically cast together into the Hunger Games Arena as mortal enemies and who, through the benevolence of the Capitol, were allowed to share the victory. The tour begins in District 11, home of Rue (Katniss’ former ally) and Thresh (who showed her mercy). After her speech, the people salute Katniss in unity. This is seen as a dangerous sign by the Capitol and several members of the crowd are publicly executed on the spot by the Peacekeepers. Their visits to the other districts are given little treatment. When the tour arrives in the Capitol, in an effort to convince President Snow and Panem that they are still deeply in love, Peeta proposes marriage to Katniss and she accepts. Snow is not convinced, however, and Katniss knows it. While still in the Capitol, Katniss meets the new Head Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee, who secretively discusses plans for the next Hunger Games as they dance at a private reception. Katniss and Peeta return to District 12, the final stop on the tour. After learning that there has been an uprising in District 8 and making a failed attempt to escape the district herself, Katniss colludes with her friend Gale to escape with their families. Gale is subsequently captured and tortured by a new Head Peacekeeper for hunting illegally outside the fence that surrounds the district. Katniss then turns to Peeta and their Games mentor Haymitch to determine what the right course of action should be. Escaping to the woods to hunt and think, Katniss encounters two refugees from District 8 travelling through the woods to District 13. They believe that District 13 has not been destroyed, despite what Capitol propaganda claims, but continues to thrive in isolation, a last bastion of freedom in Panem. As Katniss tries to return home, she discovers that security in the district has tightened significantly. Months pass and a special announcement is made regarding the 75th Hunger Games: it is a the third Quadranscentennial of the Capitol’s victory, which they call a Quarter Quell, and to celebrate, tributes will be reaped from living victors. Katniss is the only living female victor from District 12, so her return to the Arena is inevitable, and she will be joined by either Peeta or Haymitch. The three begin to prepare themselves, not only physically, but also by reviewing footage of prior Hunger Games so that they may better understand their pool of potential opponents. After the (pointless) Reaping, they travel to the Capitol for the opening ceremonies, training, etc. The action then shifts to the Arena, and the Games play out in much the same way as they did the previous year with a few notable exceptions. In this Games, Katniss and Peeta have no shortage of allies, some of whom willingly sacrifice themselves to protect them. Also, the Arena is unique in that it does not appear to be a merely natural terrain of unknown shape and size, but a circular design with twelve regions that resemble a clock face. Each region contains a particular danger that is made manifest at the top of each hour in clockwise fashion as the day progresses. A tidal wave, poisonous fog (nerve gas?), and violent monkeys are three of the plagues used by the Gamemakers. The allies eventually understand the pattern and try to find a way to leverage these dangerous traps to their advantage. Katniss eventually realizes that her odd exchange with Heavensbee in the Capitol months before could have been a warning, a clue about the mechanics of the Arena. In the end, Katniss and at least one other victor-tribute escape the arena when the force field is short circuited by one of Katniss’ arrows (cleverly grounded by thin wire). Katniss is nursed back to health only to discover that Heavensbee, Haymitch, and the victor-tribute named Finnick are co-conspirators in a plot to incite a revolution in the districts. She also discovers that Peeta and a few other tributes were captured during the escape.

Analysis

Maps. Maps are invaluable tools, always in the real world, but sometimes in literature too. Just imagine traversing Middle Earth with out a map! I know I can’t. Search for a map of Panem online and you will find a wide variety of them, most of which are drawn by fans based on clues in the text. Of the ones I’ve seen, almost all of them place District 12 in the vicinity of Pennsylvania, which is a logical choice since coal is the primary export. Districts 13 and 11 are to the north and south respectively and the Capitol is situated in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. This placement of the Capitol makes perfect sense as the high elevation would ensure that it would survive the longest in another global flood. Districts 1 and 2 (and usually 3 and 4) are somewhere near the Capitol, but there is a lot of variance in relative placement and whether these are west of the Capitol or if the Capitol is the westernmost territory on the map. The remaining districts could be just about anywhere, and most people center them around major existing U.S. cities.

Sea Level. A major variance amongst the maps is the coastal boundaries of Panem. We know from the first book that the sea levels rose as a result of large-scale natural events. Curious to know how accurate the maps were in general, I used the Calculated Earth website to get a feel for what the basic shape of Panem might actually be. Using this simulator to create a map that resembles most of the Panem maps out there, one can reasonably conclude that the seas rose somewhere between 50 and 150 meters. In this range, most of New York and Pennsylvania remain dry, and the Virginias start to disappear at the high end. At 50 meters all of Florida and at least half of Louisiana are gone. At 150 meters, all of the Southeast is under water. Interestingly, it seems that most map makers assume that changes in sea level will engulf both coasts at the same rate. Most Panem maps show arbitrarily that the West Coast is flooded as far inland as the East Coast. This, of course, is not realistic. Again using the simulator, waters would have to rise 800 to 1000 meters to cover California, Oregon, and Washington, and at that level all of the states east of the Rockies would be submerged.

District 11. This is the first stop on the Victory Tour for the 74th Hunger Games. Katniss notes the warm climate and wonders just how far south they had travelled. Using this as a clue, most map makers place the heart of District 11 in the Deep South, encompassing Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Some include Florida, though most show that state to be completely covered by ocean waters. Some show the district extending into Texas and as far north as Ohio. Whether the Carolinas are in District 11 or District 12 is a toss-up. This placement is also supported by the fact that the chief industry of District 11 is agriculture. From a cultural perspective, it is interesting to note that the citizens of District 11 live in a walled and heavily guarded city, are forced to labor in the fields, are treated with unusual cruelty by the Peacekeepers, and are all dark-skinned. [Note: stills from the movie show a mixed, but predominantly black citizenry.] This reference to the oppression of African-Americans is pungent, though I hardly guess we should label them as such, for in the story there is no ‘America’ anymore and it is doubtful after seventy-five years of Capitol rule that they know much of their African heritage. This begs the question of how this demographic came about. Were people organized into districts based on outward appearance when Panem was formed? Or was segregation implemented by the Capitol after the first revolution? More innocently, did it start to occur naturally because humans undeniably tend to form closer relationships with those who resemble themselves? Katniss notes several times in the series how the people of District 12 share certain physical traits, especially those from the Seam, the poor community where her family is from. Is it then that prolonged isolation within a district results in the breeding out of certain traits and the homogenization of the people therein? Would this even be possible in only seventy-five years? Or is this a politically charged innuendo by the author that, regardless of circumstance, people with dark skin will always be oppressed? The books, of course, are silent on this issue so you are free to draw your own conclusions. The real question in my mind is whether or not the depiction of a segregated Panem adds any value whatsoever. At best — and I use that word with all possible cynicism — it spawns a few reactionary articles and blog posts on racism, a little controversy to help sell books. At worst, people start saying stupid and hateful things, which is exactly what happened on Twitter when fans of the book saw the first Hunger Games movie and decided to announce their disappointment that Rue and Thresh are black.

Quarter Quell. Every quarter-century the Gamemakers add some cruel twist to the Games. In the First Quarter Quell (25th Hunger Games), the tributes from each district were elected by popular vote instead of being selected at random in a lottery, and in the Second Quell twice as many tributes were reaped, thereby doubling the number of youth killed. As mentioned in the synopsis above, the Third Quarter Quell called for a reaping from a pool of all living victors in each district, and since Katniss is the only surviving female victor from District 12, she is guaranteed a second appearance in the arena. This is not an insignificant development. The Quells were defined when the Games were founded, and it is suggested that President Snow overrode the rule for the Third Quell in the hopes that Katniss, who he sees as a political threat, may be killed in the arena. The word quell is is an Old English verb for killing with violence, to torture, to murder, to suffer pain. The Quarter Quell is meant to be an especially painful time for the districts, and an opportunity for the Capitol to reinforce some lesson. In the case of the 75th Hunger Games, the lesson is that even the strongest of those in the districts (symbolized by the victors) remain subject to the Capitol’s rule. With the threat of rebellion mounting, this message from Snow is intended for the would-be rebels.

The Mockingjay. This bird is a hybrid species descendent from the genetically engineered Jabberjay and common mockingbirds. Jabberjays were used by the Capitol for reconnaissance in the first revolution against the rebelling districts, but were turned against them when rebel counterintelligence started feeding them misinformation. No longer considered dependable, they were abandoned for military use, released into the wild, and mated with mockingbirds to bring forth mockingjays. The image on Katniss’ mockingjay pin becomes an effective rallying symbol for the rebels because the bird itself represents the idea that something better than the Capitol will naturally evolve from it. For the pre-game interviews, President Snow mandated that Katniss wear her wedding dress as a painful reminder that she will never actually see her wedding day (perhaps to also tell Panem in a subtle way that nothing in their lives is either certain or sacred); however, her cunning stylist, Cinna, modifies the dress to transform into a mockingjay costume. In a sense, Katniss becomes the Mockingjay — not only the spirit of rebellion, but a representation of the very ideals that are antithetical to those of Snow and the Capitol. The Jabberjay later returns to confront the Mockingjay in the arena (as a psychological weapon) but ultimately fails to defeat her. As this conflict mounted, I couldn’t ignore thoughts of Georg Hegel and his dialectic political philosophy.

The Arena. While reading Hunger Games, I assumed that the arena was simply a natural terrain, irregular in shape and surrounded by a fence or a wall. I also assumed that different arenas had been built across Panem to take advantage of climate differences (it seemed like a big stretch when I found out that the Gamemakers could manipulate the weather). After all, Panem is recovering from both an earth-changing natural disaster and a civil war. Why am I to assume that they possess technology far greater than that which exists today? Certainly, if they did, they would not choose to settle differences in barbaric death matches. In Catching Fire, however, I discovered that all of my assumptions were wrong. The arena in the 75th Hunger Games is round, surrounded by a force field, and is artificially arranged to resemble a clock face. Each “hour” (region) of the clock contains a hidden danger and at one point the entire arena spins on an axis to disorient the tributes. The infrastructure to support this arena must have taken years to plan and construct, and thus, several arenas must exist at one time. It would make practical sense to leverage existing sites on a rotational basis; however, there is a claim that the arenas are preserved as historical sites, and that they are not reused. There is no indication in the text that the tributes travel far from the Capitol and it is somewhat implied that the arena is always nearby. Like the map of Panem, the arena provides another opportunity for artistic fans to render their ideas.

Bizarre Love Triangle. The embedded teen-romance story began in the Hunger Games, but I didn’t cover it because I felt it added little to my analysis. This subplot thickens in the second book, however, as Katniss is required to maintain her staged affections for Peeta and her hidden ones for her friend Gale. Actually, she claims ad nauseam to be uncertain how she feels for either of them throughout. It goes something like this:

Oh Peeta! He’s so sweet. But I don’t know if I can trust him. It’s all a show for the cameras, right? I really wish I could confide in Gale right now, but we’re not talking. Not that it matters, because I’ll be dead soon anyway.

Yep, that just about covers it. This oft-contrived melodrama is the only thing that keeps this book out of the mainstream sci-fi section of the library. What I can’t figure out is why they let this situation get so out of hand in the first place. The whole idea is that Katniss made her bluff with the berries based on the premise that she and Peeta were so overcome with love for one another that they would rather die together than face life alone. It was an irrational move based on emotion. It is pretty obvious that she doesn’t love him in real life, so why not end the relationship a few months after the Games were over? Make it look natural? Why did Katniss feel compelled to play it out forever? They are just teenagers after all. Relationships do end badly sometimes, right? And why couldn’t Gale just deny having feelings for her instead of claiming to be her cousin? That really complicated things unnecessarily, as did Peeta’s exorbitant lie about their secret marriage and pregnancy. I would have preferred a legitimate rivalry between Peeta and Gale over the soap opera we were given.

Conclusion

I started listening to Catching Fire immediately after Hunger Games and began stubbing out this post shortly after. Unfortunately, life’s circumstances slowed my writing and added even more delay to editing and publication. So, I waited for Mockingjay to be returned by another library patron and then proceeded to listen to it straight through before I had a chance to return to these words again. As a result, I have several sections that started here, which I decided would best be covered under the next post. Having said that, it is difficult now to write this conclusion without being tainted somewhat by Mockingjay, making me wonder if I should have waited.

I found this book less realistic than the first, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing considering it is science fiction. I started this series expecting realism, and between the two books my expectations were reset. Seeing movie stills online didn’t help. This leg of the story also changed my mind about the overall value of the work as well. There is definitely a hint of the rebellious American spirit emerging, and human compassion and self-sacrifice take a front seat to barbarism. Since I already know now how it turns out, I will say no more.


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