The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The Maze Runner by James Dashner
I’m curious about why so many YA books—popular ones anyway—are about dystopias, lousy futures worlds where everything is wrong, the opposite of utopias. In the YA version of dystopia, the adults have sold out the kids. They have wrecked the world and are using the kids, mercilessly, either as experiments in making the world better or as scapegoats for the ills of society. As our current trend in American society leans to ‘helicopter parents’—those who hover over and meet every whim as well of need of their children, I wonder if teens’ understanding of the havoc we wreck on our environment and the potential this has for their futures is the fuel behind this trend.
Two books that I’ve just read on dystopias are The Maze Runner and The Hunger Games.
In The Maze Runner, Thomas wakes up in an elevator, very groggy and with no memory of his past—no sense of family, home, nothing. He’s not sure how old he is. He learns that he is in the Glade, an area surrounded by a vast maze with moving walls. About sixty boys live in this new home, with one new boy being deposited each month in the elevator. All are in the same predicament with no memories, no idea why they are there or who has done this to them. Life there is so bad that when Thomas asks questions, the only answer he gets is a sort of ‘You’ll see.’
Although the constant use of ‘you’ll see’ and ‘you don’t want to know’ is probably meant to add suspense to the novel, it actually pulls like a weight attached to the reader. Many pages in, you feel that you are not moving forward—you’re just reading the same thing over and over. However, there’s enough that’s strange and weird in the book to keep you going. Each night, doors from the maze open and hideous “Grievers”, half live, half mechanical, come out. If a boy is stung by one and manages to survive, he goes through a torturous changing that brings back some of his memory. Because of this, the boys are desperately looking for a way out, running the maze during daylight and mapping out the changes in the walls, looking for a pattern.
Soon after Thomas arrives, so does the first girl in the Glade—and with her the beginning of the end. The boys must find a way out to the world of the Creators, not knowing if their chances there are any better.
In The Hunger Games, sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen provides for her family—a twelve year old sister and a mother—after her father is killed in a mining accident. The family lives in a future nation, Panem, which is situated in North America. There, the Capitol demands punishment and yearly sacrifice from the twelve districts that had once rebelled against it. And here again, the sacrifice is children. Each district has a yearly lottery in which one girl and one boy, between the ages of twelve and eighteen, is chosen to participate in The Hunger Games. Katniss volunteers when her twelve-year-old sister is chosen. The unlucky boy, Peeta, is someone who had helped Katniss years earlier.
Taking place in an arena where the environment is controlled, the games are a fight to the death. Yet the pregame object is to make a good impression on the audience (all citizens of Panem are forced to watch) and accrue ‘sponsors,’ thus increasing the changes of winning the games. This is a sort of “Survivor” gone bad—and believe me, the book is an indictment of our love of reality TV and our predilection for violence. There are stylists for the contestants and the deep irony that these kids are treated to dizzying elegance and luxury just before they are sent out to kill one another, while many, especially in Katniss’s District 12 (formerly Appalachia, an area of the country synonymous, for centuries, with extreme poverty) have been days from starvation.
Peeta has always cared deeply for Katniss and this increases the suspense. Only one contestant can survive. What is the pair to do on this shifting moral ground? If you wonder about the difficulties of being fully human and fully present in the face of so much evil in the world, you’ll love this book. Then again, if you just want something that’s fast-moving and action-packed, you’ll love it as well.
If you like The City of Ember, The Giver or The House of the Scorpion, I think you’ll enjoy both of these books. If you are short on time and have to pick one, make it The Hunger Games, which is a better piece of writing and a tighter story.