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Interlude. Next the games begin.
We're done with the first part of the book, so now seems a good time to look over what we've seen so far.

In the comments there was some discussion of what starvation really does.

There's this cute anime called Puella Magi Madoka Magica (go watch it, kids!). In it, one character is introduced eating and always has food around when she appears.

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This characterizes her as casual and a bit impolite. Perhaps it's a sign she's not taking things seriously or just gluttonous.

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She's...seriously always eating.

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Constantly eating.

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SHE WILL CUT YOU IF YOU FUCK WITH THE APPLES.

In general, something maladaptive is a normal tendency taken to extremes. So the first time you see it, it'll look normal. When it keeps cropping up, you might think the person is weird or rude. Stick around long enough and you'll eventually realize that they're not rational about this and they have a problem.

Common responses to long-term hunger are paying too much attention to food (ie, Katniss, not the gamemakers, should be the one who's distracted and fixated on the banquet), eating until you throw up, hording food, and a preoccupation getting food when it's not there. The closest Katniss gets is eating until sick, which she's been doing in an extremely calculated manner.

I took care of a kitten for a while that had this problem, and we progressed very quickly through the stages of thinking it was cute, thinking it was annoying, and realizing he was fucked in the head from long term abuse and finding it extremely upsetting. I see related issues in a lot of pet animals - they've been fed according to a strict diet all their life, and they lose the ability to stop eating when they're full.

It's not a little quirk to give characters a touch of vulnerability.

Now, going by what we're shown, rather than told, you can make a good case that she actually wasn't that hungry. She should still be showing some neurosis - especially the food hording issue, that's really common - but she seems to have had access to food often.

In fact, she should be doing fine. As far as I can tell, she and Gale are the only hunters in the area. This is an area that supports several separate packs of wild dogs AND numerous cougars AND lynxes. It has to be huge. These are apex predators and obligate carnivores, and they require more food per day than she does, despite being worse at hunting than humans because seriously, we're pretty fucking awesome at hunting. In America, where she lives, humans singlehandedly wiped out most large game. Do you know why there are no native horses? BECAUSE THEY ARE DELICIOUS. Do you know why there are no native camels? DELICIOUS. Arguably, they should get an even higher kill count than the official, because the surviving species of a number had such major physiological and behavioral changes that they don't resemble the original. Bison, for example, were not originally herd animals.

Here is a list of American shit we killed off because humans are just that awesome. With a couple of them, climate change probably beat us to the punch, but make no mistake, humans were there eating the last members of the species and we'd have gotten it eventually. Note the dates on most of those, that was done with bows and spears. For more animals that earned a species-wide Darwin award for not fleeing the continent when we showed up, check out how well we did in Europe and Asia.

Katniss knows how to make snares, shoot game, and fish. The only other person in the area is Gale, who she's working with. She should not have any trouble getting food even before we get into the fact this place seems to be overflowing with edible plants as well. Humans survived just fine like that for a long time. We only switch over to farming when population pressures exceeded the amount of food an area could produce.

And about farming. While extensive farming is labor intensive and generally sucks, and Katniss may not have the time to do it since she's still in school, she is entirely capable of more minor things. For example, I was complaining earlier about there being apple trees in the forest, because they'll be starved for light. One good idea would be to kill off the competing trees around them. Even if Katniss isn't able to actually cut the larger trees down (if she knew what she was doing, she could do it with fire, but I'm willing to accept she doesn't), she can ring their bark. Dead trees that don't leaf out won't block as much light. She can also clear the area around her strawberry patch to encourage that to grow bigger, tear up ground to either expand the blackberry patch or transplant it to more areas.

For actual crops, potatoes are amazingly easy to grow and harvest. She can't really do anything that requires watering without running into problems, but she has an entire forest, she can find the areas that aren't too dry (or too wet). And potatoes don't show any fruit, so if someone is keeping their eye out for this kind of thing (they're clearly not, but possibly the book wants to pretend they are) the potato patch wouldn't be a red flag. As a bonus, it's possible to harvest potatoes at all points in the year, so she can dig them up early whenever hunting is bad or even leave them in the ground during the winter to preserve them.

Now, all of this would normally be explained by not wanting to get caught, but no one seems to patrol the woods and Katniss obviously isn't worried about it because she doesn't worry about a mesh net being an obvious sign of human presence.

It could also be explained by Katniss not being fucking starving. As I said, humans originally were just hunter-gatherers, and only begin to do the more labor intensive farming when they run into problems. If Katniss is eating well, all the problems evaporate. Once you have enough food, you can act like this - you sell the berries you need to sell and eat the rest, you trade the wild dog because you don't like eating it either, you trade fish for bread because you're got plenty of fish, you don't bother with trying to farm the plants because you're working hard enough as it is and it's easier to just go out and find wild ones.

But that just creates a new problem.

See, even if Katniss isn't starving, other people are. She's full of righteous indignation that the evil government lets them starve, but she isn't doing anything to help.

Now, for the record, I strongly support government programs and hate the idea charity should have to step in to fix problems. But this isn't a democratic government whose job it is to take care of people. Once could even make an argument about if this kind of thing actually counts as their government at all, when it really seems more like an occupying force. In those cases, you functionally do not have a government of your own.

There's the obvious - she could give those starving people who die on the street her scraps instead. Even just that dog meat she can't sell or the entrails she doesn't want. She remembers starving and being saved by a boy giving her bread. She sees starving kids just like her all the time. Why doesn't she?

Now, when we're introduced to Katniss, she's clear that the whole world can go fuck itself. I'm sympathetic to this view - when you're in a bad situation you can only care about so much, and this is obviously not a place with a great sense of community (the mayor's daughter has a fancy pin while people starve, the baker keeps a pig while people starve, the orphans are abused, no one notices that her mother isn't working or her emaciated frame, and the stuff I mentioned early on about trading tesserae signups to get the maximum food for minimum risk isn't happening). But the more Katniss has, the worse this looks. She's clearly aware of it because she's angry about it, and also, there's no way to look at what we actually see of her situation and think she's among the worst off. Even the book has to admit this, because it gives examples of those worse situations as threats toward Katniss.

Even if we accept that she can't afford to spare food, she can spare knowledge. She gets plenty of game easily and the dogs and cougars are competing with her for it, as well as a threat to her personally. Even if she won't give them bows - maybe she doesn't even know how to make them herself, it's a pretty skilled art - snares are not hard. She could easily teach people to set snares of their own, and snares don't have to just catch rabbit. Bigger animals, like those dogs she's so scared off, could be caught. In fact, a couple years of this and you'd make a serious dent in their population (just look at what happened to wolves and cougars the first time around people started seriously trying to kill them off) making the place safer for you and increasing the number of small game animals around to hunt. And then there's the other stuff you can do with numbers. If snares don't work, pitfall traps could catch big animals easily. And even if Katniss is a good enough hunter she doesn't need to actually farm anything, other more desperate people could. And the more food is in circulation total, the cheaper food becomes overall, so Katniss' odds of starving actually go down.

Also in the comments, someone brought up that you don't just throw knives, you use throwing knives, which are specifically made for it. I said that I was just assuming Katniss' knives were throwing ones, but checking back the one she threw originally was a table knife because she didn't bring any of her weapons with her. So no research has been done here.

A throwing knife is generally made as a single piece of metal. It has an extremely sharp tip and dull edges so it won't cut the thrower. Because throwing a knife is a pretty tricky skill and throwing knives aren't perfectly standardized, even if you know how to, when you're handed a set of throwing knives, you'll probably need a couple practice throws to get used to the weight and balance of it.

The only way she'd know how to use one at all is if her dad knew and taught her. But her dad had to make his bows and arrows, and while a hunting knife and butcher knife share enough similarities they could have gotten the latter to use, throwing knives are not going to be readily available because they're only used as weapons. Unless her dad was also a blacksmith, shouldn't have access to throwing knives. More, she can't use throwing knives to butcher game, which she obviously does regularly, and she hasn't made any reference I've noticed to carrying two kinds of knives. Plus, if she knew jack shit about throwing knives she wouldn't have thought a table knife was something to try throwing.

Then there's the slingshot. At the time I was just incredulous that the author didn't seem to know that yeah it's actually a dangerous weapon, but then I realized that there's even more of an issue here.

A slingshot is small, easily made, easily concealed, easily learned, and doesn't require specialized ammunition. You can kill a squirrel with an acorn. It is not a high powered weapon - to take out big game you need a very well designed one, but even the kind they give kids that's specifically hobbled to make it as safe as possible can literally put your eye out. Even if it didn't kill rabbits outright it would stun them long enough for someone to kill it barehanded or with a knife.

The book's been talking about how impressive it is Katniss is able to kill dear with her bow, which is not impressive unless her bow is incredibly shitty. (There's a good chance her bow would be incredibly shitty, but a shitty bow is not going to be accurate either.) What would actually be impressive is if she's occasionally able to take out a deer with a slingshot.

But the fact is, there's an even better weapon, a regular sling. Slingshots require rubber to make and have to be optimized to be able to take out big game at a distance. And bows - decent bows are extremely tough to make. A sling can be made with a wide range of material, it's even more easily hidden than the slingshot, and it's deadly. They are, however, less impressive than bows, and they've always been a low-class weapon. So instead of Katniss showing off her awesome shooting and getting ignored because the guys in charge are lazy meanypants who are so unfair and not paying attention to her, she could have been showing off her awesome abilities with a sling, getting ignored because it doesn't look impressive (there's no big arrow shaft marking the hit, and it doesn't even sink in deeply on a target dummy - the force is distributed more widely, which shatters bones and internal organs but would just make a thump on a sandbag), and then getting mad and smashing the apple from the pig's mouth to show both her accuracy and the force involved.

I would also be marginally less bothered by her not trying to kill the gamemakers in such a case, because the sling is inferior to a bow at killing and it'd be too likely she might only stun or cripple, both of which don't amount to much when they'd probably just get rushed off to the hospital. It wouldn't be quite the slaughterfest it could be with a bow.

You can find this kind of thing out with Google. There's no excuse for a published author.

---

Speaking of publishing.

I mentioned protagonist centered morality. It crops up early and it hasn't stopped. Things are bad only in how they affect Katniss. I've brought up the orphan kids a few times - that's more times than the book has. They appeared only as a threat to Katniss. The fact that they're still there, hungry and abused, does not seem like something we're supposed to care about. What matters is Katniss avoided that fate.

This doesn't seem like it's supposed to represent the callousness that a daily struggle to survive would produce. The book is not particularly subtle, and anyway, it's not at all how Katniss is portrayed - she isn't really that desperate.

The book originally does a decent job about who's to blame - Katniss hates the Hunger Games, hates the government for running them. The girl with the pin sets off Gale, but she says he knows that the slightly richer townspeople aren't the real enemy. After she's picked, Gale tries to tell her she has a chance.

“Katniss, it’s just hunting. You’re the best hunter I know,” says Gale.
“It’s not just hunting. They’re armed. They think,” I say.
“So do you. And you’ve had more practice. Real practice,” he says. “You know how to kill.”
“Not people,” I say.
“How different can it be, really?” says Gale grimly.
The awful thing is that if I can forget they’re people, it will be no different at all.


And yet, after she gets on the train, that flies out the window. She says Peeta is her enemy, she demonizes her fellow tributes. Her central thought is she has to win despite the odds stacked against her. She doesn't wonder if she should try. She doesn't agonize about murder. She seems to have had no problem forgetting that the targets she'll be aiming her arrows at are people. She doesn't even rage about the people involved until it's interview time, and then she rages that they're trying to kill her. Even her moment of sympathy about the mutilated girl she failed to save has this weird subjectless feel - a girl was mutilated. By who? She gets scared by the idea of it happening to her, she doesn't think about the people who did it.

What rage she does have is to faceless people. She says the people are going to cheer on her murderer, but she has yet to look at anyone involved and blame them. Despite what Cinna said about how the people of the capital must seem despicable to her, she doesn't seem to think that at all. She plays to the crowd and when they react she basks in it. They love her and she loves that they love her. The only anger she's felt to toward the gamemakers running the games is that they might unfairly underrate her talents, and all is forgiven when they give her a nice score.

At no point does she look around and think things should be differently. Even the damn pin - she isn't mad they spent money when she's starving, she's mad they could buy a pin and she couldn't. She isn't upset children are starved and abused, she's upset she could be one of them. She blames the nebulous government for what's wrong, but refuses to see anything wrong with individuals. Bad things were done. It's all in passive voice, with nothing specific. The challenges she's facing are just challenges that have somehow appeared, without any actual condemnation that things shouldn't be this way.

This is a terrible way to tell people to look at the world. The refusal to admit human beings are to blame, that things could easily be different, and the focus is on one person's suffering, like if this one person wasn't hurt, everyone else's suffering wouldn't matter.

I read Bokurano a little while ago. It's horribly depressing and I found one of the messages pretty fucked up (the behavior of the adults, at least, seems to imply a kid killing her rapists is as bad or worse as them raping her) but it did far better than this book so far. One of the characters talks about happy endings. He says that in a lot of movies, lots of people die, but in the end the main characters are okay. But to him, if even one person dies in the movie it's not really a happy ending.

This is why I don't like reading "inspirational" tales of how someone overcame whatever. It's not inspiring that a family managed to scrape together enough donations to treat their kid's cancer. It's horrible that they had to do this and it's even more horrible, by the very fact this is noteworthy enough to talk about, lots of other people weren't so lucky. The self-centered narrative way of looking at things is toxic. It makes you think that if one person makes it, the situation itself is fine, and it erases the actual situation that caused it. There's no point in fixing things - it won't help Katniss right now, and she's the only one who matters.

It says something bad that this is the style of writing that's most commonly published. This is very much YA, and I wish this wasn't how kids were told to think.
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April 2011

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