The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games #1)

I know, I know, I’m two thousand and late with this one but lately starting a new book I’ve never read has been difficult. I’m re-reading the Harry Potter books and I decided to revisit The Hunger Games trilogy as well. I’ve never actually read Mockingjay (the third book), only seen the terrible movies, and this will be my chance to see if the book is better.

The first book in this trilogy goes so fucking hard. Honestly the speed with which Collins moves you through the absolute, gut-wrenching trauma of this universe is really spectacular. The first chapter manages to familiarize us with District 12, Katniss, her family’s history, her survival skills, her love for her sister, and the 74th Hunger Games reaping all in one short chapter and it’s simply amazing. I’ve read this book before and I was still hooked immediately and couldn’t stop reading.

What I like most about the story is the bright elements of humanity scattered throughout. In the midst of teenagers murdering each other for the entertainment of the entire nation, we still see friendships, empathy, support, grief, and love. I would argue that these elements are made even more stark when staged against the bloodbath and terror of the games. They give you a moment to breathe before you’re watching Katniss or Peeta fight/run for their lives again.

The trilogy as a whole (again, I’ve never read the third book, only seen the movies based on it) tracks Katniss’ journey from having no choice to being able to choose and claim agency. In this first book her survival skills and management of her family’s day to day operations is not her choice, it is essential and necessary if she wants to keep them all alive. Her inclusion in the games may seem like a choice, but again keeping her family alive and safe isn’t a choice, it’s duty to her. There was no other option but to volunteer in Prim’s place. Even in the Games she has no choice but to act like she is in love with Peeta because their “star crossed lovers” routine earns them sponsors and gifts in the arena, and she has promised Prim to try to win. Everything in this first book is something she must do, not anything she chooses to do.

This is a book that speaks to me on many levels. The idea of an obligation being disguised as a choice happens to people who are on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder all the time. Just because we are presented with options does not mean that they are all viable choices we can make. The choice Katniss has between poaching and death, learning safe, edible plants or dying, volunteering for the Games or having Prim go and die – none of these are choices between this or that. They are obvious directives.

Right now we are in the middle of a global pandemic, and school districts around the country are boasting about offering parents a choice: online or back to physical school. Aren’t we magnanimous to offer these options! Parents get to choose what is best for their families! In reality more well-off families, or parents who work from home will be able to keep their students SAFE, while other parents must send their kids back because they have to go to work and while they are given options, they don’t really have a choice.

Even farther down (further down? fuck it, I’m not looking it up) teachers were given options too! Come back to physical schools, teach a combo of online or in-person, or teach online only from home. If none of these worked for a teacher, they could resign, retire, or take a leave of absence. The only trick was that the availability of online only or the combo options depended on the responses from the parent survey. So, for example, if a school had 100% of the kids say they were coming back, no teacher assigned to that school would be able to teach safely from home even if they chose that option. Even if they had cancer. Even if they had asthma. Even if they had any number of conditions. Even if they were simply scared to work in unsafe conditions. Teachers had no choice at all – their preference was left to the mercy of however many kids came back or not.

Is it The Hunger Games? No, but the spirit of the Games is present here in America in 2020. No choice, fighting for survival and resources, and lining up to see the case and death numbers rise without doing anything to stop it. At all the state and federal Capitols they sit in their money and glamour and watch as we fight and try to survive, and it doesn’t even touch them. They have no concept of what living in America costs, whether those costs be financial or emotional, and even if they do they do not care. It’s more entertaining to watch us fight for scraps.

Reading this book right now is so necessary, it’s so relevant. If you haven’t read it before, you should. You might recognize more themes from our own reality than you expect. Go get you some.

Recursion

Recursion

Dark Matter

I have loved writing this blog over the past 4 years because it has helped me to understand the kind of books that I really love, and those that I would be better to pass by and leave on the shelf. Books that tell futuristic stories that are SUPER plausible are some of my favorites. Recently I read Stephen King’s The Institute which was gripping because 99% of it was plausible and it made the prospects of the psychological fantasy elements that much more terrifying.

Recursion felt to me, at first, a strange Matrix-like story. A chair is invented that can chart your memories, store them, and then reload them into your brain later so you can experience them like it was the first time. It was meant to help people with dementia or other degenerative brain conditions. The chair’s inventor, Helena, is working on this chair to help her mother specifically and is about to run out of funding when she is approached by an Elon Musk-like character Marcus Slade who offers her unlimited dollars to join him on his super-villian-esque oil rig that has been refitted as a research facility and finish her work on the chair. This begins a chain of events that seem very tangled at first but as you read become terrifyingly clear.

This story is not a memory story but a time travel story, and the idea is so bold and so well executed that I was awe-struck by Crouch’s ingenuity. Where did he get this idea? This is wild and amazing and captivating. The second half the book, a full 150 pages, I read all in one night because I could not put it down. Then I spent the next week thinking about which memories I would choose to travel back to in order to change my life. And not to leave anything undone, Crouch also weaves in fairly severe consequences for traveling in this way, making me think twice about whether it would be worth it.

If you like sci-fi that keeps your feet on the ground and messes with actual systems and forces that run our lives day to day, you cannot miss Crouch’s works. They are close enough to real that they make you wonder about what is possible, and then freak you out because it might actually happen. Go get you some.

The Institute

The InstituteThe Institute was a popular one this past year, and when I first put a hold on it at my library I was number 84 on the list. It finally became available with no renewals, because of course someone else was in line behind me to read it, and so I had 14 days to get through this 600 page thrill ride or else send it back or accept the late fines.

I shouldn’t have worried about it. Once I started I couldn’t stop and I was able to finish it in about 8 days. Children are kidnapped from all over the country and taken to the secluded, northern woodlands of Maine to serve at the institute due to their telekinetic or telepathic abilities. Tests and shots and trauma are inflicted in an attempt to enhance these abilities, and then the children are sent to the back half of the institute, from whence they never return. Not surprisingly when our main character Luke is taken, he’s one of the smartest kids to ever enter the institute. When combined with a later arrival Avery, one of the youngest and most powerful telepaths to ever be brought in, they stage an escape that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

I think my favorite King books are the ones that are 90% reality and 10% fantasy. They are the stories that make you believe in the plausibility of the fantastic existing in a world where the daily and mundane tend to hold sway. This story is especially engaging if you know how many children are taken in the US alone every year and never found again; it’s not so unthinkable that something as wild as the institute might be where they were taken, when reality is that it would probably be something just as traumatizing or worse.

Also knowing what I know about northern Maine, you could hide just about anything up there if you had enough money. People say they love Maine but what they mean is that they love the ocean, or Kittery, or Freeport, or Acadia National Park. They don’t know Maine, and the heart of it comes out in so many of King’s books. The terrifying ruralness that hides a multitude of horrors because no one ever goes there to ask questions.

I strongly recommend that you get on your library’s hold list and read this book. It was a fast read for its length, and the story was 100% airtight the entire way. I loved it, and I’m sure you will too. Go get you some.

Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice

As we move into more highly technological times, discussions are often centered around the dangers of robots or AI becoming self-aware and sentient, and then turning on humanity to become Matrix-like overlords. Ancillary Justice presents us with an alternate argument: what if an AI became its own person and was capable of love, compassion, and revenge – a force for good.

I wish that descriptions of this book had leaned more heavily on the fact that it is really a love story, a love rooted in loyalty and friendship. The ship Justice of Toren has ancillaries: humans that have been repurposed as hosts for the consciousness of the AI that runs the ship. Each level of the ship has ancillaries and they identify as that. The main character of this story is Justice of Toren One Esk, and worked directly with the captain of the ship. When the supreme leader of the empire commands it to shoot this captain, it must obey, but it also splinters into separate pieces, with One Esk escaping the explosion of its home ship to roam space, planning revenge on the leader who is herself a collection of ancillaries.

This book is so different from what I usually read, but it had that central theme that I am really drawn to: revenge. Especially revenge for wrongs done to loved ones. There is not a surer way to get your hooks in me to pull me through the book. The only downside to reading was that sometimes the story got confusing, especially when I was trying to keep track of who was who. The central idea is that the supreme leader is fighting a civil war with herself, and her ancillaries are all split and fighting each other. One Esk balances this out with the realization that she has a choice, that even though she is an AI that knows how to take orders and must follow the orders of the supreme leader, she doesn’t have to follow those orders blindly and with great effort could refuse to follow those orders if she wished.

You will watch this grow from a story about love and revenge to a story that explores what it means to be human and who qualifies for personhood. Beautifully told in a new and exciting universe from a perspective that is usually feared. It’s a great read and you should try it. Go get you some.

Invasive (Zer0es #2)

Invasive

This book showed up on a number of top science fiction lists, and so I requested it from the library. It is my first Chuck Wendig novel, and I feel bad because I did not realize that Invasive was #2 in his Zer0es series. To be honest it stands on its own well, and you don’t have to read the first book to enjoy the second (although the beginning of this book does spoil the first one, so if you’re a purist you might want to read the first book Zer0es first).

The plot is this: someone made a hybrid ant a la Jurassic Park that eats Candida (yeast) on people, basically skinning them alive, and Hannah Stander is an FBI consultant that is called in to research and discover who is behind their creation and distribution. Her search takes her to the secluded island of Kolohe, part of the Hawaiian islands, and she is caught on island when the culprit decides to release the ants and escape with more colonies, supposedly to bring about an ant apocalypse (think when Nedry steals the embryos and tries to escape but dies and the power on the entire island shuts down, and chaos ensues – it’s really similar to that but with more bodies).

This story is not character driven. The characters could be named with letters of the alphabet and this story would still be compelling. I kept reading because what was happening was horrifying and I had to know how it would all end. There were some points toward the end where I thought it might end with the ants actually taking over and destroying everything. I won’t spoil what actually happens; maybe they do take over and destroy everything. Ants are terrible creatures.

If you like mystery, thrillers, or science fiction, you should definitely give Invasive a go. It’s a quick read by virtue of its fantastic story – you won’t want to stop until you’re done. Go get you some.