Monday, December 13, 2010

Hungry future.

Last week I serendipitously read both James Howard Kunstler's The Witch of Hebron and Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games. Although both are post-apocalyptic, dystopian works, their philosophical foundations diverge wildly.
The Witch of Hebron is the sequel to World Made by Hand. I read World but didn't realize that Howard meant to make it a series. There's really no reason to, World doesn't need one, but I have a feeling that Howard is about to go all Wheel of Time on us and never let it end.

The World Made by Hand series is set in New England. Peak oil has peaked, Washington's been nuked, the U.S. has crumbled after an ill-advised war in the Holy Land, there's been a disastrous influenza epidemic that's decimated the population, and life has gone back to the 18th century. The series centers around Union Grove, a small, closely-knit community where members soldier on with various levels of despair. Union Grove has become home to the New Faithers, a group of vaguely Mennonite-ish Christians who nonetheless like a stiff drink and a rousing barn-raising. The New Faithers are led by Brother Jobe, a man who speaks like he's country-fried stupid but has some mysterious and deadly powers. The New Faithers have built a compound that resembles a beehive - most of the activity is directed towards feeding and caring for an obese, epileptic woman they call Precious Mother who has the ability to see snatches of the future during her 'fits' and the equally bizarre ability to deliver quadruplets every nine months, like clockwork.

Jasper, the son of the town's doctor, runs away after his puppy is accidentally killed by the New Faithers' stallion. The novel follows Brothe Jobe and the men of the village as they set out in search of Jasper, who has fallen in with a psychotic young murderer who calls himself "Billy Bones" and styles himself as a homicidal highwayman. The titular witch is a mysterious, irresistably attractive woman.

I find Howard's writing very uneven. There are legitimately chilling moments, such as when the men searching for Jasper find a cellar filled with enslaved children, but Howard writes cringe-worthy love scenes and his increased dabbling in the supernatural with this second novel feels clunky and awkward.

Collins' Hunger Games is also set in a dystopian future America, but her universe, while borrowing heavily from other works, is dazzlingly imaginative. Hunger Games takes place in Panem, a conglomeration of Districts ruled by an oppressive and exploitative Capitol. At one point, the Districts rose up against the Capitol and were crushed. As a reminder of their rebellion, the Capitol instituted the Hunger Games: every year, the names of all the children between 12 and 18 are put into a lottery and two, a boy and a girl, from each District are selected. Those chosen are taken to the District, put in a constantly changing arena designed by Gamemakers, and fight to the death while the whole show is televised live and the inhabitants of each District required to watch.

The novel's heroine is Katniss Everdeen, a resourceful and intelligent teenager who supports her widowed mother and gentle younger sister by hunting and trapping in the woods that surround their District, District 12, which seems to roughly correspond to the coal-mining towns of Appalachia. Katniss' younger sister is chosen in the lottery, so Katniss takes her place, and is sent to the Capitol along with Peeta, a childhood friend.

The Games have become a giant festival - the winner and the winner's District is showered with food and prizes - and there are children called Career Tributes who have trained their entire lives for a chance to win in the arena. Peeta and Katniss go up against the murderous Careers and, heartbreakingly, a handful of young contestants who don't have a hope of surviving.

Hunger Games is a YA book and is a fast and snappy read, but Collins' Panem is excellently drawn. The idea of a televised death match is nothing new (2010's "Gamer," Battle Royale) and there is a long and rich tradition of dystopian YA fiction (The Giver, "The Lottery," House of Stairs). Although Collins draws from some obvious sources - her Panem and the Hellenic names of the inhabitants of the Capitol brings Rome to mind - her skillful mix of futuristic elements combined with the rural, subsistence life of District 12 feels gritty and real. There's one fumble in a scene where Katniss and the suriviving Tributes have to face off against a pack of mutated predators and what should have been one of the most terrifying scenes of the book becomes cartoonish, but overall, Collins handles the horror of Games premise without veering into the grotesque.

Reading Hunger Games right after finishing The Witch of Hebron made me very glad that Collins is out there and that her series has become popular. The disturbing thematic elements of World Made by Hand are more present in Witch and pretty much ruined any enjoyment I could have wrung out of it. Collins' Katniss is smart, quick, intelligence, and resourceful and stoic without being brutal. She's willing to kill to defend herself or someone else, but balks at the savagery of the other tributes. Katniss saves herself and her fellow tribute, Peeta, keeping him alive after a life-threatening injury and finally masterminding a way to get them both out of the arena alive.

In Howard's future, women don't get to be smart or sneaky or even savage. They can be wives, mothers, prostitutes, or rape victims. Howard even has one of his characters whack three swaggering, armed assailants with a samurai sword after they invade his bedroom while his wife cowers in a corner in what comes across as an aging man's gleeful fantasy. Sure, a preadolescent can successfully perform emergency surgery using only hemostats and brandy and we're supposed to buy it, but the idea of a woman succesfully defending herself is so preposterous to Howard that it never, ever happens.

It's pretty obvious in this and Howard's first book that he kind of digs the idea of going back to the 18th century, even if it takes a nuclear war and an epidemic to get there. Personally, I really like things like eyeglasses, anesthetic, advanced dentistry, and the rule of law. I think what makes Howard's series such a slog is that it never ends. Things will never get better or improve, so the characters just sort of try to survive, and if you're a chick, well, it really sucks to be you, because if you don't die of childbirth or something you're probably just going to get attacked at some point so the manly men of Union Grove have a reason to go be manly all over the countryside. The whole post-apocalyptic thing is really sort of beside the point - Howard could have saved all the exposition and just set the series in an 18th-century frontier town and it would have been more or less the same.

After Witch, Hunger Games was like a welcome breath of fresh, coal-dust-tinged, dystopia-scented air. Katniss isn't out of danger yet - pissing off the Capitol is about to bring the wrath down like a ton of bricks on her starving town - but you get the feeling that she'll claw her way through, and personally, I'm more excited about the second book of the series than I have been about any new release in quite some time.

Check out this interesting article in The New Yorker about dystopian fiction for young adults and why it's such a fascinating and varied genre.


  1. assuming I get lunch breaks this week I'll get the 2nd book to you probably by Friday!