What happens when you blend together Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four with just a dash of teenage angst? You get a truly excellent trilogy: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mocking Jay.
On the advice of a student, I picked up the first book and found myself hooked. While I found the writing interesting and story engaging, I was an obsessed reader because of the books social and political messages. Even resistant readers will find it difficult not to compare the Capitol of Panem to much of the West and the Districts to the developing world. The decadence of the Capitol, including its collective compulsion for fashion and physical alterations, rivals the U.S. The overindulged citizenry focuses much of its attention on entertainment and their civic engagement begins and ends with their votes in a fight-to-the-death style show, The Hunger Games. The districts that surround Panem each specialize in a resource needed to maintain the luxurious lives of the Capitol inhabitants, yet the district citizens are very poor and starvation is common. Again, it is difficult to miss the comparisons being made here – even when you close one eye.
While the first book could easily be dismissed as a testament to teenage rebellion, the other two books backseat age to address interesting and complex questions about collective challenges. For example, the book adeptly discusses the complexities of leadership, movement symbolism, and collective identity, and, even, addresses how challengers devise and execute tactics in repressive regimes. Most readers, of course, will probably not see illustrations of sociological concepts in a work of fiction. Or, will they?
Since we live in a heavily mediated environment, it is not surprising that media messages help shape our attitudes and beliefs. There is a long line of research on how (and who and when) media messages influence in Communication Studies (Milestones in Mass Communication Research: Media Effects is a good starting point). And, there is a growing body of research outlining the utility of educational entertainment to persuade individuals to adopt pro-social behavior in certain circumstances. It begs the question: What do readers (regardless of age) learn from their fiction? Can their stories teach future activists what they should consider before they launch a collective challenge or future leaders about the perils of power?
To be sure, readers are sympathetic to the ideas presented in a book and their protagonists. It probably is not surprising to learn that I have always been fond of strong, female protagonists in fiction. I (repeatedly) read all of Pippi Longstocking and Nancy Drew adventure books as a kid. But even beyond my affinity for certain kinds of books, I find that there something new to learn from a good book. Good fiction can get you to think more deeply about your intellectual projects. Exceptional fiction makes you question global social and economic relations as well as your role in it.