sequel to The Hunger Games
Read by Carolyn McCormick
Scholastic audiobooks, 2009
Finished: late march 2010
Source: the aether
Genre: dystopic YA novel
On the Scales: welterweight

“Katniss, Katniss!  Just when we thought you’d made up your mind!”

I must have said this twenty times while I was listening to the audio version of Catching Fire.  Well, not actually said it; I was thinking it, groaning and holding my hands over my ears and wagging my head from side to side.

Katniss emotes a lot in Catching Fire, which is different from having emotions.  She emotes more than in the Hunger Games.  Strange, because it seems to me she’s forfeited some of her emoting rights by not facing mortal danger the whole time.  I’m no longer a fan of Carolyn McCormick.  She gives Katniss this throb in her voice, as though every decision puts her into complete bewilderment, and every conflict inspires her to desperate pleading.  It made some sense in the arena, but not anymore.

I can’t write a review of Catching Fire that isn’t a spoiler.  It’s very existence is a spoiler for The Hunger Games: by now you know that Katniss survives the arena in that book.  I wasn’t sure she would.  I didn’t know if she’d show up in the sequel, and I purposely didn’t find out.  I like to come to a book totally raw.  My atrocious memory helps me with this, since I can read a review, and as long as there are no earth-shattering spoilers, the plot details are all gone in a couple of weeks.  How about you?  Do you mind knowing the plot ahead of time, even when it’s a popular novel?

While I enjoyed Catching Fire, I found I couldn’t listen to it while I was eating dinner because I was apt to snort and cringe.  The Hunger Games was a very tightly focussed story, whereas Catching Fire covers a lot of time and space.  This is often a problem for me.  It is hard for an author, unless she is Jean Webster, to write the kind of chapter that begins “It was a chilly spring,” then proceeds to cover several months in several pages, and do it well.  As a reader I usually feel alienated by this device.  I can’t believe nothing much worth mentioning happened in a whole three months.  And if it didn’t, that’s your fault, author lady, for not making every moment count!  You’re the one who decides when character-developing incidents take place, and how!  You could have done a lot more with that spring than just making it chilly, and having a lot of people get whipped half to death!

Oops.  Spoiler.  Sorry.

Well, not so much of a spoiler, because if you read Hunger Games you knew the Districts of Panem were a powder keg.  That’s the way trilogies go:  First book: personal.  Second book: personal and political.  Third book: political with frantic action, then personal at the very end.

Yeah, it’s a trilogy.  At least.  I didn’t know that for sure, coming in.  Not on a conscious level, but I soon realized there wasn’t going to be time to wrap everything up in Catching Fire–beside the fact that publishers don’t believe in duologies when the first book is a smash-hit-sensation.  Then I kept thinking, “How is there going to be a third book, the way things are going?  The pacing is all wrong.”  Then right at the end it became pretty clear how there was going to be a third book, and just what it was going to be about.

Half an hour after we popped out the last CD, Der Mann and I looked at each other.  “It’s just like Star Wars.”  And then I had an uncontrollable urge to go listen to “Fists Up” by the Blow because of the lines:

The vigilantes can’t agree on who’s in charge.
They gave their souls for the cause,
but the love that they were after’s still at large.
See this faith in which they found allegiance
Ripping at the seams as hope is running its course.
The rebels just can’t muster the force…

Really, the whole song is perfect for the Hunger Games series.  I am listening to it now.  I proclaim it the official Katniss anthem.  Or maybe Suzanne Collins’.

I don’t want to come to the point of this song, because the point of this song would have to be so long (long long long long long long long)…

Tor, 2008

Finished: late February 2010

Source: end of year reviews on Nymeth’s blog

Genre: YA near-future dystopic adventure

On the Scales: middleweight

I’ve sat down to review this and I’m having a hard time.  It’s about the kind of privileged teenagers I’ve never met, in a city I’ve never visited, with consuming interests that overlap very little with my own.  Why did I love it so much?

Here’s me trying to explain it to myself:  Even though this book is set in San Francisco, instead of using things you already know about San Francisco or being a teenager or politics to grab your sympathies, reel you in, and get you interested in the story, Doctorow builds everything from scratch like a fantasy world.

It helps that he’s not from the U.S.  As a Canadian currently living in Europe, Doctorow’s own culture runs parallel to the one he’s using for his near-future dystopia.  He’s got that insider knowledge / outsider objectivity I always enjoy so much in an author’s voice.

It works for the narrator, too.  Marcus is a popular, well-adjusted techno-geek with a past weakness for live action role playing games.  He has a keen sense of fairness–something his his loving parents have clearly had a hand in.  He is part of a close knit group of friends.  By the end of the book he is a hunted revolutionary facing prison and worse.

Doctorow is saying, put someone normal like Marcus in the furnace of injustice and he may very well come out red hot.  He’s saying, understanding and caring what the system is doing right now is the first line of defense when people start making it a tool for evil.  I don’t think evil is too strong a word.  Doctorow unfolds all the little ways apathy and paternalism erode freedom.  Most of all: blind trust.  In Marcus’ world, the ones who don’t trouble themselves to understand the ways technology is being used by those in authority, and who rely on the established media for information, are the adults.  They tend to assume everything that’s being done is okay, because isn’t it being done to protect us?  The teenagers in Little Brother get their information from each other.  They are used to questioning authority and thinking about the world not in terms of what’s safe, but what’s right.  They are the ones who see Big Brother taking over.

Yes, this is a politically charged book.  It’s about the teenagers of San Francisco against a DHS gone wild in the aftermath of another terrorist disaster.  But there are silly, fun parts too.  In the midst of a surveillance nightmare there are rock concerts, LARP, Mexican food, and interviews with clockwork pirates.  Little Brother is also a fascinating introduction to privacy ethics and cryptology.

Or, in this case, statistics:

If you ever decide to do something as stupid as build an automatic terrorism detector, here’s a math lesson you need to learn first.  It’s called “the paradox of the false positive,” and it’s a doozy.

Say you have a new disease, called Super-Aids.  Only one in a million people gets Super-Aids.  You develop a test for Super-AIDs that’s 99 percent accurate.  I mean, 99 percent of the time, it gives the correct result–true if the subject is infected, and false if the subject is healthy.  You give the test to a million people.

One in a million people will have Super-AIDS.  One in a hundred people that you test will generate a “false positive”—the test will say he has Super-AIDS even though he doesn’t.  That’s what “99 percent accurate” means: one percent wrong.

What’s one percent of one million?

1,000,000 / 100 =10,000.

One in a million people has Super-AIDS.  If you test a million random people, you’ll probably only find one case of real Super-AIDS.  But your test won’t identify one person as having Super-AIDS.  It will identify ten thousand people as having it.

Your 99 percent accurate test will perform with 99.99 percent inaccuracy.

I knew about the paradox of the false positive–vaguely–but I never heard it explained so well, or it’s implications framed as incisively as Doctorow does in his novel.  Actually, he’s doing a ton of different things at once in Little Brother, and it’s seamless.  That rarely, rarely happens!  The mini-lectures are never misplaced as interruptions.  The humor is perfectly timed.  The romance doesn’t feel sappy or tacked-on.  The violence could easily become a caricature of itself, destroying our empathy for the sufferers, but it doesn’t.  His ideology isn’t heavy handed.

If Little Brother were a preachy book, Marcus’ parents would be the enemy and Marcus would be a bronze statue of a revolutionary hero.  I love how Marcus makes convincingly teenager-y miscalculations.  And when his movement gains its own momentum, we get to see how he responds to that.  Doctorow doesn’t gloss over the stupidities inherent in blind rebellion any more than the ones in blind trust.

“This is California Live and we’re talking to an anonymous caller at a pay phone in San Francisco.  He has is own information about the slowdowns we’ve been facing around town this week.  Caller, you’re on the air.”

“Yeah, yo, this is just the beginning, you know?  I mean, like, we’re just getting started.  Let them hire a billion pigs and put a checkpoint on every corner.  We’ll jam them all!  And like, all this crap about terrorists?  We’re not terrorists!  Give me a break, I mean really!  We’re jamming up the system because we hate the Homeland Security, and because we love our city.  Terrorists?  I can’t even spell jihad.  Peace out.”

He sounded like an idiot.  Not just the incoherent words, but also his gloating tone.  He sounded like a kid who was indecently proud of himself.

The Xnet flamed out over this.  Lots of people thought he was an idiot for calling in, while others thought he was a hero.  I worried that there was probably a camera aimed at the pay phone he’d used.  Or an arphid reader that might have sniffed his Fast Pass.  I hoped he’d had the smarts to wipe his fingerprints off the quarter, keep his hood up and leave all his arphids at home.  But I doubted it.  I wondered if he’d get a knock on the door sometime soon.

I even liked the ending: bringing in the adults and discovering they’re good for something after all.  Thank heaven they are, since when the last door gets knocked on, as Marcus would say, “it’s a doozy.”