The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

When the name “Primrose Everdeen” is called out at the lottery, Katniss volunteers to take her younger sister’s place as District 12’s female participant of the annual Hunger Games, a cruel punishment and system of oppression created by the government that rules the fictional country Panem. As heroic as Katniss’ act may sound, she is not portrayed as an idealized heroine. She is aggressive, selfish and always keeps her guard up, no matter what.

Collins creates a dystopia where Panem is what is left of North America after wars and natural disasters. Panem consists of twelve districts (the thirteenth district was allegedly destroyed years ago, in the old days of rebellion) and the Capitol, from which the entire nation is controlled. While most inhabitants of the districts live in poverty and starvation, the inhabitants of the Capitol enjoy life in luxury and exuberance. Every year the Hunger Games are arranged. A boy and girl of each district are sent to the arena, where they are forced to fight for their survival until only one of them is left alive.

I admit I was a bit sceptical towards The Hunger Games at first, due to the terrifying concept of the Hunger Games themselves. Twenty four children, some of them young adults, are thrown into an arena filled with weapons and deadly traps, where they are forced to kill each other, for the amusement of the shallow citizens of the Capitol. All of these young characters will have to perish and our main character will probably have to kill some of them. We get to know some of them closely, we come to care about them, and all of them will have to die in order for Katniss to live. I did not know how I could possibly like this story, but I was proven wrong. Even if the concept of the Hunger Games is filled with horror, the story was really worth reading. It is worth reading because of the horror of the Hunger Games.

The story is very dark and it’s subject matter is dealt with seriously. Perhaps some of the deaths in the arena are only brushed upon and dealt with quickly, but that is a result of the first-person perspective. Since Katniss is our narrator we only get her view of the battlefield. Due to this, we never know what threat awaits her around the corner, which adds to the thrill of the story. The story was a real page turner and made me want to read the sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay.

America in the fifties, a futuristic robot, charming characters…

… in The Iron Giant. I re-watched it the other day and was taken again by it’s charm and the heart warming story. It’s beautifully drawn too. Autumnal forests drowning in earthy colours, the diner’s bright and perky pastels, the cool shades of grays and blacks of the robot and the junkyard. The movie deals with many important questions of life, identity and death. It portrays how the robot and the young boy come to terms with who they are. And the all important message – you have the power to choose your own identity.

A lovely movie with lots of feel good moments. And (perhaps most important) an awesome robot!

Imagining the end of society as we know it is not fun, but sometimes rewarding, somehow…

I wrote this piece of flash fiction for a contest a couple of years ago. I thought I might as well share it here.

SPRITES

The overgrown, discarded remnants of Ancient Europe lay in ruins behind her, an abandoned shadow of humanity. Layers of plant life covered the dead streets, smothered frozen statues, crawled through deserted vehicles and climbed crumbling buildings.

Cities had risen, flourished and fallen.

She had seen the birth and death of them all.

Roma III, New London, Det Andra Stockholm.

She had lived through them all.

Lived. That word would not describe the throbbing of her synthetic heart, driven by chemically induced electricity. That word could not explain the swelling of her engineered lungs as she drew breath after breath of toxic air, purifying the soiled atmosphere through bio-chemical processes as it passed through her body. That word did not illustrate the flow of the bloodlike substance, described by scientists and alchemists long since dead as the elixir of life, that pulsed through her veins and rejuvenated her body.

Once the white drops were discovered, it had all been a race for survival.

“Immortality, immorality,” she mused and her hoarse, useless voice was the last echo of a mother, a sister, a daughter, resounding across the void of dark space and despair that lay before her feet. Earth was a lonely place for those select few still living.

The ugliness of humanity had truly peaked following the discovery of immortality during the third century. The ability to stop, and even reverse, aging – to put an end to wrinkles, hair loss and varicose veins – was the discovery of the century, an evolutional revolution equivalent to that of the discovery of fire, of language or of electricity.

 With these drops, you will age no more…

… and death by deterioration of body and mind is no longer a threat.

      Immortality. There was no such thing. It was a mere illusion. The elixir of life meant the end of aging, but not the end of dying. The Immortality Wars raged for decades, stretched into centuries. Resources grew sparse. Starvation, poverty and disease claimed the lives of the Mortal. Violence, poison and murder reduced the numbers of the Immortal.

“We thought it was a cure, but it was poison.”

Her voice was silenced by thunder. Arcs of white light illuminated the clouded heights of heaven as electric storms raged across the surface of the Earth, a dark rock once again, no longer illuminated by manmade sources of light. No longer bound by the hours, minutes and seconds of mankind.

Across the plain she saw the silhouette of a man in a bionic suit similar to hers, moving toward her. He was illuminated by stray light from sprites that shot through the skies above the cumulonimbus clouds and vanished into the blackness of space.

“We were sprites,” she whispered softly, “and we will soon vanish.”

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? she said. He didn’t answer. He went into the bathroom and threw the lightswitch but the power was already gone. A dull rose glow in the windowglass.

At the beginning of the novel we wake up with the main characters of the story, a man and his son. We are in America, post-apocalyptical time, and I get the feeling that this would be in a not too distant future. The father and son travel along the Road on their way to the coast, a desperate attempt to survive the oncoming winter. Society has collapsed, all animal and plant life has died off and a constant downfall of ash covers the world in a gray dust. The sun cares little and does not show it’s face to those few unfortunate remaining on the surface of the earth. Eternal fires, forest fires and fires un-defined, fill the atmosphere with smoke, blocking out the sunlight.

No sign of life. Cars in the street caked with ash, everything covered with ash and dust. Fossil tracks in the dried sludge. A corpse in a doorway dried to leather. Grimacing at the day. He pulled the boy closer. Just remember that the things you put in your head are there forever, he said.

The boy wants to know if you forget some things. No comfort is found in the father’s answer. You forget the things you want to remember, and remember the things you want to forget. The man guides his son through this landscape, with only a shopping cart filled with their belongings to ease their way. Their struggle for survival is desperate, painful and realistic, given that you are able imagine a scenario such as the one McCarthy draws up in his novel. The man and the boy gets by on canned food, but they are constantly starving. Other survivors have given in to more animalistic ways of survival, by resorting to cannibalism. Strangers are the biggest threat in the novel. Other survivors and starvation. Eat, or get eaten. Kill, or get killed. Most seem to live by those rules in the new world and the father and son encounter several man eaters along the way, commonly described as “the bad guys”. The description of the first bad guy we meet is haunting. “Eyes collared in cups of grime and deeply sunk. Like an animal inside a skull looking out the eyeholes.”

Man is an animal like others, a comparison that McCarthy comes back to at several points in the novel. The man and the boy hide like scared foxes in a forest clearing, beating hearts and racing pulses. McCarthy manages to do what great science fiction should do – he makes the reader feel like an insect. Reading The Road makes me understand how infinitely small we truly are. Solitary ants working our way through the grass, part of an eco system that is as fragile and unstable as it is changeable.

And then the poetry of the text. The poetic beauty amidst all the horror and despair. “Dark of the invisible moon. The nights now only slightly less black. By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp.”

The outer journey tells how a man brings his son through the inland to the coast. The inner journey shows how a father comes to terms with the thought of leaving his child, the only thing anchoring him to earthly life, and how he fights to give the boy the best chance of survival possible. The man clings on to life with sheer force of will, in a body that is completely broken, with a soul sick with longing, wanting to loose itself in the forbidden memories of a world long gone. And while the novel tells how the father struggles to save his son, we also see how the boy tries to save his father. Especially one scene in the book stayed with me, when the man and the boy has argued over an incident on the road, and the father tells the boy that he is not the one who has to worry about everything. The boy is convinced that he is. In his view, he is the one who has to worry about everything.

The Road was a very powerful reading experience. Sometimes a book comes along where the story sticks with you, so even when you’re not reading it you’re thinking about it. I could not let go of this story. If I wasn’t reading actively I would think of the man and boy, wandering through that gray, ruined world. While on a walk through a forest nearby the impressions from The Road crawled up on me, transforming the fur trees and pine trees into burned out skeletons, and I could see the world through McCarthy’s filter, where ash falls like snow over a doomed world that is burning, burning, burning. The story was with me all the time. The horror of it all was always at the back of my mind, and it still is, if I let myself feel it. The novel touches upon a sensitive part in our hearts. What if the world ended, and you were left, and you were about to loose the one thing you valued most. What would you do? And if you stood there, in the ruins of the only world you’ve ever known, stripped bare, with your heart of hearts at your side,  could you do what was necessary to keep that heart intact? McCarthy forces us to ponder these questions.

On the road there are no godspoke men. They are gone and I am left and they have taken with them the world. Query: How does the never to be differ from the never was?

I saw the movie before I read the book. The movie did leave a strong impact on me, but it did not capture the same depth of horror and despair as the novel does. Every last word imprinted in one’s soul while reading, sending shudders through one’s body. The darkness. The ashes. The regression to predator mentality. The broken shards of civilization. The long rattle of mankinds’ last breath.

The boy asks his father again and again if they are still the good guys. And the father reassures him that they are. Because they’re carrying the fire.

Secret technology, strange vehicles and adventures on distant planets…

… in Jack Vance’s The Five Gold Bands. This is one of my latest finds at my favourite second hand bookstore. The cover caught my eye, but it was the sub-title that sold the book – “The biggest manhunt in galactic history”. How could I resist a story of these epic proportions? (And at a mere cost of ten swedish crowns, I saw no reason to either.”

The greenish yellow color of the cover is almost nauseating. I get the feeling that this is a hostile, dangerous environment. The vehicle is awesome, but I can’t help but wonder what the dome on top of the roof is for? Probably has some kind of purpose…

Part of the description of the back:

Earth lacked the secret of the interstellar space drive. So when it turned out that the galaxy was chock full of wealthy planets and haughty aliens who had the star drive, it made our native world a backward place indeed.

The Five Gold Bands tells the story of how Paddy Blackthorne, from Earth, goes on a quest to get hold of the technology behind “star drive”. I’m guessing it’s worth reading, I mean “The biggest manhunt in galactic history” does create high expectations. Up until now I’ve only read Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth, which I liked a lot.  

The cities have all burned. The world is covered in soot. Gray snow falls from the sky. How can something so sad and depressing be so wonderful?

I’m reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and am astounded by the beauty of the story, an uncanny kind of beauty found amidst the darkness and the gloom. Ash, soot. Ghastly remnants of trees and buildings, of things burned in the early days of apocalypse. Dead nature. Grayness, grayness, grayness. The emptiness. The hollowness. The hopelessness.

And at the centre of the story – the raw love of a father, the precious son, the fragile yet indestructible relation between father and son. Their endless strife to survive, to get through yet another day. There is no yesterday. There is no tomorrow. There is onlynow.

I’m not even halfway yet, but I’ve been captivated since page one.

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

Psychologist Kelvin arrives at the station on Solaris to investigate the death of one of the three scientists currently manning the station. Solaris is a planet revolving around two suns, one blue and one red. Kelvin is immediately thrown into conflict with Snaut, the first character he meets. Older scientist Snaut, who has been on Solaris for some time, is behaving oddly, acting crazy. But things are not always as they appear. Within hours, even the sensible Kelvin can’t separate what is real from what is unreal, he experiences hallucinations so life like that he can touch them. Strange things are happening at the station. How did Gibarian die? And why did he leave coded messages for Kelvin to find?

The planet itself is an important character in the story. Contrary to belief, life can exist on a planet revolving around double suns, and on Solaris life takes the shape of a vast, biological ocean. Scientists agree that the ocean is a sentinent being, with the strange ability to affect the planet’s orbit around the suns. We are introduced to this being through the windows of the station and through the literature Kelvin recounts during the course of the story. It’s ever-changing hues and it’s strange manifestations are described with detail. Throughout the novel, I struggled to get a grip of this creature, and Lem kept me guessing up to the very end. The ocean looms around the station as a malevolent guardian, heavy and intense. Lem creates the feeling of being on board of a ship that is just about to sink, it’s crew members watching the over-powering ocean pushing against the sheaths of glass in the port holes. The heat of the double suns contributes to the tense mood and shifts in the lighting is used to create different feelings.  As warm red brightness is contrasted with cold blue and white shimmers, the characters are affected emotionally.

The mood is menacing and threatening from the first moment Kelvin lands on Solaris. Lem’s language is swift and full of movement, he pulls the reader through the story. Once and again, however, the story stalls and the text is weighed down by very scientific elements, such as re-tellings of the history of mankind’s research on Solaris. So the basic story of the novel, the exciting mystery to be solved, is balanced with a slow-paced story about the discovery of Solaris and the years leading up to the story’s present.

Solaris is a story about the First Contact and mankind’s attempt to communicate with an alien species. While the characters dissolve mentally under the influence of the ocean on Solaris, they analyse the ocean’s every act in order to find a message, to understand it’s purpose. But how will the human scientists ever be able to understand the intentions of a vast ocean of plasma? Kelvin goes to Solaris to investigate Gibarian’s death, but is caught in a dilemma of his own. He is forced to dig up his darkest and most painful memories, in order to save himself and his colleagues. In order to understand Solaris, he needs to understand himself.

This was a haunting, but fascinating story. Filled with elements of wonder and surprise, of fear and discomfort, of beauty and awe.