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Catching Fire by Suzanne CollinsUK edition2.5 stars

Buy from IndieBoundCatching Fire is better than The Hunger Games in some key areas of storytelling, but it does not redeem this blockbuster trilogy of its principal flaw: its future is never fully believable. I suspect that, like Twilight fans, what appeals to the bulk of its fan base is not just the action-packed premise, but the love triangle at the heart of the tale, between put-upon teen heroine Katniss Everdeen, her Games partner Peeta Mellark (with whom she must put on a show of romantic feeling, though on his part the emotions are genuine), and Gale, her longtime friend from home whom she realizes too late is the boy she truly loves. That’s all well and good, and Collins does build upon the emotional core of her story this way, though the “which boy will I choose?” trope became YA cliché almost immediately. 

As a longtime SF reader who is just a tiny bit older than the target demographic here, I cannot help but read an SF novel for the whole package. That package includes convincing world building. This, Collins has not done. Consider: we are asked to accept a post-apocalyptic future in which the United States has been replaced by a nation, Panem, who fascism is so awesomely ruthless it would make Heinrich Himmler shudder. Fully 75 years after a series of rebellions, Panem’s Capitol still feels the need to select two dozen teenagers from the twelve (formerly thirteen) Districts it controls, and have them slaughter each other in high-tech gladiatorial combat. As there could be little punitive value in the practice after 75 years, all that can be realistically motivating the Capitol is senseless bloodthirst. Why the obsession with dead kids as entertainment? Did everyone forget how to play football? 

Let’s look at the Capitol. It is a glistening, media-obsessed, higher-than-high-tech metropolis whose citizens lack for nothing and can indulge their every hedonistic pleasure. In contrast, the Districts’ citizens would be better off in the pre-WWII Warsaw ghettos. The Capitol has the technology to create arenas for its Hunger Games that include all manner of tricks, traps, genetically engineered beasts, artificial seas, controlled weather conditions, with the whole affair surrounded by an invisible force field. When you've got invisible force fields, you’re into Star Trek territory. The threat level from a bunch of starving poor people must be negligible at best.

And yet, 100% of the resources of the Capitol appear to be directed towards the Hunger Games, the only goal of which is to oppress and humiliate peasant populations from deprived districts, some of whom barely get enough to eat, and whose districts, in many cases, provide resources that the Capitol clearly doesn’t even use. (District 12, where Katniss is from, mines coal.) Thus, Panem’s economy must be based on other things than what it scrapes up in tribute from its Districts. Super-arenas with invisible force fields can’t come cheap, after all. But Collins gives us no sense of any larger world outside the immediate scope of her story. Do other nations exist? Do they share diplomatic relations with Panem? If so, how do they view the Games? Does Panem, in fact, have any sociopolitical agenda at all other than gloating over teenage murder? We hear of corporate sponsors who support the Games. But who produces their products, if not the Districts? What are their revenue streams?

And on and on. Yes, I am thinking of things that probably no fan of this series is thinking about. The problem is that Collins didn’t think of them either. Her future is therefore shallow, and, in being so shallow, isn’t fully believable. What makes an SFF future believable is when you can tell that there are many other stories that can be set in it other than the one the writer happens to be telling. Middle-Earth, Niven’s Known Space, or even the settings of such purely commercial creations as Star Trek and Star Wars, have shown themselves to be a bountiful source of story ideas beyond the immediate adventures of Frodo, Kirk, or Luke. You don’t sense that here. Panem and the Capitol are evil for the sake of being evil, simply so that Katniss can fill her archetypal role as heroine and liberator. In other words, it’s not meant to be a realistic future, just an easily-grasped symbolic one. Which is fine, except that I think a writer with a stronger background in SF than Collins obviously has wouldn’t have treated it as an either/or narrative choice. 

I noted that Catching Fire was a better story, and it is. One thing about being a 17-year-old in a society that has devoted itself heart and soul to killing you horribly is that it would certainly result in some serious psychological trauma. Katniss’s inner turmoil in this book is ratcheted up to nearly intolerable levels, and in the book’s best moments her distress will tug at your heart, far more honestly than the ham-fisted emotional manipulations Collins threw at us in book one. One thing I am sure resonates with the series’ fans is to imagine what it must be like to have all hope stripped from you at a time in your life when the joy of youth should have your cup running over with hope. Taken on these terms, Catching Fire will engage fans of the trilogy even more than The Hunger Games did.

Katniss learns that the clever ploy she used to keep both herself and Peeta alive at the end of book one has sparked a new spirit of rebellion in the Districts. The Capitol is coming down on all this with the expected brutality. There are hints that the ruins of the long destroyed District 13 may be home to a secret underground resistance. Katniss, whose mockingjay pendant has become the rebellion’s logo, must watch her every move and every thought, as she’s had it made abundantly clear she is on the shit-list of Panem’s President Snow. (Collins’ fondness for glaringly obvious, and just as glaringly ironic, symbolic character names is undimmed here.) But Katniss has no way to suspect what fate he actually has in store for her.

While the first third of the book — it’s divided into three parts, like book one, which I am sure made the screenplays easy to write — has the trilogy’s best and most chilling storytelling to date, by the time we’re near the end, in what amounts to a lengthy rehash of the first book, it has no surprises for us. Even the cliffhanger ending feels inevitable. However, it hints that we’re finally, maybe, about to get to the good stuff in the final volume at last. I’m hopeful, but not terribly optimistic, that once the downfall of Panem gets rolling, this trilogy will at last begin to satiate my hunger.

Followed by Mockingjay.