Thursday, May 31, 2012

Dune, and The Hunger Games

When I was a kid, I absolutely fell in love with Frank Herbert's Dune.  It was uber-geek fantasy, with overtones from the past, yet set in an all-too convincing dystopic future. I was a history nut even then, and the setting of Dune echoed medieval history, Arabic history, monastic history.  Paul Atreides, the book's hero, was scion of the House of Atreides--and we were in fourteenth century Europe.  His mother was a Bene Gesserit witch--reminiscent of those powerful eleventh and twelfth century convents, when mothers' superior, like Hrosvitha of Gandersheim, consulted with emperors--plus, you know, with the addition of magic.  Paul lands on Arrakis, a desert planet, populated by the nomadic Fremen--sorta kinda the Arabic tribes at the outset of Islam.  He becomes Maud-dib, a sheik warrior, fighting against the Padishah Emperor--all of it very Roman Empire, with overtones of Persia. (Love that, the thought of Mohammed leading his tribes against the might of Imperial Rome.)  Paul's also the Kwisatz Haderach--a Messianic figure for the Bene Gesserit, and the Lisan al-Gaib, the Fremen version of the Imam Mahdi--the messianic figure of current Shi-a Islam.  Oh, it was all there, including each chapter beginning with a quotation from the Orange Catholic Bible.  I couldn't get enough--read it over and over.  Even saw the very weird unsuccessful David Lynch film Dune.  

Here's the thing: Herbert wrote several sequels, all of which I read, and all of which sucked.  Well, seriously disappointed, let's say.  No, that's too nice: Children of Dune blew

They just didn't work, the sequels.  Everything that made the first novel distinctive and awesome just disappeared.  Mostly, it was Paul Atreides.  He was a terrific character, in Dune.  Then he became emperor, and I stopped caring.  Maybe it was good for me--maybe it was a reality check I needed but wasn't ready for. Take the really interesting kings in history: Henry V, say, or Charles II.  You follow this charismatic, brilliant leader, and then he becomes king, and suddenly, he's flabby and corrupt and arbitrary.  Like, say, Henry VIII became.  Henry V gave way to his weakling son, VI (whose wife had all the balls in that family).  Charles II gave way to James II.  "Yes we can" Barack Obama gives way to, well, our current President, fighting to retain that puny health care compromise, drone-bombing American citizens abroad on flimsy pretexts.  (Sorry. I am going to vote for him, but let's not pretend his Presidency isn't disappointing.) 

Okay, huuuuuuuuuge leap here: The Hunger Games II: Catching Fire

I'm not going to try to convince you that Catching Fire (which I'm kicking myself for staying up past midnight to finish reading last night) has anywhere near the depth and texture and metaphoric power of Dune.  They're quite literally in different universes. (Including length).  Still, there are parallels--dystopic futures, echoes of specific historical moments, including ancient Rome.  Okay, Hunger Games just has ancient Rome, while Dune is reminiscent of, like, ten ancient cultures.  Still, both have gladiatorial combats entertaining The Masses.  Both feature massive insurrections against established imperial powers.  Both have vicious and corrupt dictator characters Our Heroes fight to overthrow.  Hunger Games is YA fiction for girls; Dune was YA fiction for seriously nerdy guys. 

And in both, the sequel kind of sucks.

I do get that I'm not the target audience for The Hunger Games.  I read the first book, saw the movie, liked both a lot.  But Katniss spends a lot of time agonizing over the Two Boys Who Like Her, and that's an issue about which I care not at all.  Both guys are great.  Pick one.  It doesn't matter. 

And for most of Catching Fire, the premise of the first book was bearing fruit.  Katniss wins the Hunger Games, but defies President Snow to do it--her gesture awakens long-suppressed aspirations and resentments in the Districts, revolution is in the air.  So President Snow doubles down on violent oppression (like every dictator ever), and makes the serious blunder of staging another Games--that'll show 'em!  And Katniss--Peeta again by her side-- has to get her Game on once again.  At which point the novel falls completely apart.  Why?  The author violates our heroic expectations for the hero.

In the first novel, Katniss was a terrific heroine--brave, tough, loyal, smart, motivated, plus awesome with bow and arrow.  In the second novel, she's all those things again--up to a point.  The last quarter of the novel, however, she stops making decisions, stops driving the action of the novel forward, and becomes a pawn, and an annoyingly weepy one to boot.  Suddenly, her Games becomes a vehicle for plots and machinations by other characters--Haymitch, a brand-new character named Finnick, a completely uninteresting conspirator, Plutarch.  Katniss never knows what's going on, and what's really damaging to our interest in her, she never figures it out.  And we do--she's the narrator, she gets the same clues we do, we're miles ahead of her.  When finally all is revealed, we learn that the conspirators want her as window-dressing--as the figurehead for the revolution--a walking, arrow-shooting Che tee shirt.  She gets miffed, and even decides to die--they have to force-feed her. And this passive-aggressive nonsense is what she decides to do INSTEAD of actually, you know, doing something positive, to rescue Peeta, to fight the bad guys, to actually lead the revolution. We don't blame them for not trusting her with much.  By that point in the novel, crying looks to be about all she's up for. 

It would have been so fixable.  I spent the night imagining the conversation between Suzanne Collins and her editor, after she turned in this early first draft of her second novel. "Come on, Suzanne," says the editor (me).  "How about this.  Katniss figures out what's going on.  Katniss leads.  Katniss revises the conspirators' plot in useful and interesting ways. Katniss shoots someone bad, instead of just a bunch of orange monkeys.  I don't care about her feelings.  I want her to do something."

Maybe it's for the best.  Revolutions aren't won by sixteen year old girls, after all (pace, Joan of Arc).  She's been through a lot.  Maybe it's best if she's just a pawn.  Probably, that would happen. The grown-ups would take over.  Sigh. It just doesn't make for a very interesting novel.  


  1. I have just finished reading all six of the original Dune novels, and suspect that you owe it to try to read them again. God Emperor of Dune, the fourth novel, is perhaps the greatest novel I have ever read. Dune was about a messiah, and Dune Messiah flipped it on its face and showed the world what a messiah did for them. Paul's reign as Emperor was bad, and that doesn't appeal to people in the common hero journey arc. Children of Dune was perhaps my least favorite of the six, but the philosophy and beauty of the God Emperor is frankly unmatched in anything I have ever read.

    "Most civilization is based on cowardice. It's so easy to civilize by teaching cowardice. You water down the standards which would lead to bravery. You restrain the will. You regulate the appetites. You fence in the horizons. You make a law for every movement. You deny the existence of chaos. You teach even the children to breathe slowly. You tame."
    -God Emperor of Dune

    1. As I wrote this, I thought--yeah, I really do need to re-read them all now. I think I wasn't old enough back then. Thanks!

  2. "Both guys are great. Pick one. It doesn't matter."

    AMEN. I completely agree that the sequel just doesn't work. I really like the world Collins sets up, and I also really like Katniss at first—meaning in the initial HUNGER GAMES volume. But that all seems to fall to bits rather quickly, and I found both the second and third books very disappointing. I think a big part of the problem with Katniss figuring out what's going on is that she does so in first person/present tense. With this story, I think it totally gets in the way—it forces us to spend too much time in Katniss' head. And the more time I spend in her head, the more frustrated I get with her as a character, since that's where she's all "Which boy?" and "What do you mean, I'm the Mockingjay?" and not much else. Frustration!