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Why the Hunger Games Is the Perfect Science Fiction for May Day

Military recruiters, student debt, cyclical poverty: seeing ourselves in the trilogy's dystopian future.

| Wed May 2, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

When I was growing up, I ate books for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and since I was constantly running out of reading material, I read everyone else's—which for a girl with older brothers meant science fiction. The books were supposed to be about the future, but they always turned out to be very much about this very moment.

Some of them—Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land—were comically of their time: that novel's vision of the good life seemed to owe an awful lot to the Playboy Mansion in its prime, only with telepathy and being nice added in. Frank Herbert's Dune had similarly sixties social mores, but its vision of an intergalactic world of disciplined desert jihadis and a great game for the substance that made all long-distance transit possible is even more relevant now.  Think: drug cartels meet the oil industry in the deep desert.

We now live in a world that is wilder than a lot of science fiction from my youth. My phone is 58 times faster than IBM's fastest mainframe computer in 1964 (calculates my older brother Steve) and more powerful than the computers on the Apollo spaceship we landed on the moon in 1969 (adds my nephew Jason). Though we never got the promised jetpacks and the Martians were a bust, we do live in a time when genetic engineers use jellyfish genes to make mammals glow in the dark and nerds in southern Nevada kill people in Pakistan and Afghanistan with unmanned drones.  Anyone who time-traveled from the sixties would be astonished by our age, for its wonders and its horrors and its profound social changes. But science fiction is about the present more than the future, and we do have a new science fiction trilogy that's perfect for this very moment.

Sacrificing the Young in the Arenas of Capital

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins's bestselling young-adult novel and top-grossing blockbuster movie, is all about this very moment in so many ways. For those of you hiding out deep in the woods, it's set in a dystopian future North America, a continent divided into downtrodden, fearful districts ruled by a decadent, luxurious oligarchy in the Capitol. Supposedly to punish the districts for an uprising 74 years ago, but really to provide Roman-style blood and circuses to intimidate and distract, the Capitol requires each district to provide two adolescent Tributes, drawn by lottery each year, to compete in the gladiatorial Hunger Games broadcast across the nation.  

That these 24 youths battle each other to the death with one lone victor allowed to survive makes it like—and yet not exactly like—high school, that concentration camp for angst and competition into which we force our young. After all, even such real-life situations can be fatal: witness the gay Iowa teen who took his life only a few weeks ago after being outed and taunted by his peers, not to speak of the epidemic of other suicides by queer teens that Dan Savage's 'It Gets Better' website, film, and books aspire to reduce.

But really, in this moment, the cruelty of teens to teens is far from the most atrocious thing in the land. The Hunger Games reminds us of that.  Its Capitol is, of course, the land of the 1%, a sort of amalgamation of Fashion Week, Versailles, and the KGB/CIA. Collins's timely trilogy makes it clear that the 1%, having created a system of deeply embedded cruelty, should go, something highlighted by the surly defiance of heroine Katniss Everdeen—Annie Oakley, Tank Girl, and Robin Hood all rolled into one—who refuses to be disposed of.

Now, in our world, gladiatorial entertainment and the disposability of the young are mostly separate things (except in football, boxing, hockey, and other contact sports that regularly result in brain damage, and sometimes even in death). But while the Capitol is portrayed as brutal for annually sacrificing 23 teenagers from the Districts, what about our own Capitol in the District of Columbia? It has a war or two on, if you hadn't noticed.

In Iraq, 4,486 mostly young Americans died.  If you want to count Iraqis (which you should indeed want to do), the deaths of babies, children, grandmothers, young men, and others total more than 106,000 by the most conservative count, hundreds of thousands by others. Even the lowest numbers represent enough kill to fill nearly 5,000 years of Hunger Games.  

Then, of course, there are thousands more Americans who were so grievously wounded they might have died in previous conflicts, but are now surviving with severe brain damage, multiple missing limbs, or other profound mutilations. And don't forget the trauma and mental illness that mostly goes unacknowledged and untreated or the far more devastating Iraqi version of the same. And never mind Afghanistan, with its own grim numbers and horrific consequences.

Our wartime carnage has been on a grand scale, but it hasn't been on television in any meaningful way; it's generally been semi-hidden by most of the American media and the government, which censored images of returning coffins, corpses, civilian casualties, and anything else uncomfortable (though in our science-fiction era when every phone is potentially a video camera, the leakage has still been colossal). Most of us did a good job of being distracted by other things—including reality TV, of course.  The US Ambassador and military commander in Afghanistan were furious not that our soldiers struck jokey poses with severed limbs, but that the Los Angeles Times dared to publish them last month. And those whistleblowers who made the effort to reveal the little men behind the throne are facing severe punishment.  Witness one Hunger-Games-style hero, Bradley Manning, the slight young soldier turned alleged leaker, long held in inhumane conditions and now facing a potential life sentence.

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The Return of Debt Peonage

In The Hunger Games, kids in poor families take out extra chances in their District lottery—that is, extra chances to die—in return for extra food rations; in ours, poor kids enlist in the military to feed their families and maybe escape economic doom. Many are seduced by military recruiters who stalk them in high school with promises as slippery as those the slave trade uses to recruit poor young women for sex work abroad.

A Paradise Built in HellAnd then there's another form of debt peonage that is far more widespread in our strange and ever-changing land: student loans. The young are constantly told that only a college education can give them a decent future. Then they're told that, to pay for it, they need to go into debt—usually into five figures, sometimes well into six. And these debts are, in turn, governed by special laws that don't allow you to declare bankruptcy—no matter what.  In other words, they are guaranteed to follow you all your life.

One of my close friends wept when her husband began to earn enough money to pay off her $45,000 loan, structured so that it looked like she would continue to pay interest on it for the rest of her life; not so dissimilar, that is, from the debts sharecroppers and workers in company towns used to incur.

In other words, we're creating a new generation of debt peonage. And my friend is not the worst case by far. Early in the Occupy Wall Street moment, she told me, someone arrived at Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan with markers and cardboard on which participants were to write their debt.  What shocked her was how many of the occupiers in their early twenties were already carrying huge debt burdens.

According to the website for Occupy Student Debt, 36,000,000 Americans have student debts.  These have increased more than fivefold since 1999, creating a debt load that's approaching a trillion dollars, with students borrowing $96 billion more every year to pay for their educations. Two-thirds of college students find themselves in this trap nowadays. As commentator Malcolm Harris put it in N + 1 magazine:

Since 1978, the price of tuition at US colleges has increased over 900%, 650 points above inflation. To put that number in perspective, housing prices, the bubble that nearly burst the US economy, then the global one, increased only fifty points above the Consumer Price Index during those years. But… wages for college-educated workers outside of the inflated finance industry have stagnated or diminished. Unemployment has hit recent graduates especially hard, nearly doubling in the post-2007 recession. The result is that the most indebted generation in history is without the dependable jobs it needs to escape debt.

About a third are already in default. You can only hope that this bubble will burst in a wildcat strike against student debt, and if we're lucky, a move to force tuition lower and have a debt jubilee.

The rest of us, the 99%, need to remember that, when it comes to public education, the crisis has everything to do with slashed tax rates—to the wealthy and corporations in particular—over the last 30 years. We went into bondage so that they might be free. Getting an education to make your way out of poverty and maybe expand your mind is becoming another way of being trapped forever in poverty. For too many, there's no way out of the hunger labyrinth.

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