The biggest young-adult science fiction novel of the fall is probably The Hunger Games - and it's one of the best new science fiction books out there, period. Former Nickelodeon writer Suzanne Collins has written a sharp book about televised death-sports in a post-apocalyptic future. Her story pits a resourceful young hero against a media machine that doesn't just want to watch her die - it also wants to devour every bit of her emotional life. I'm sick of "reality TV" parodies, but the Hunger Games goes one better by making the audience the villains.
It's a bleak future, and the United States has been destroyed. In its place has arisen the oppressive nation of Panem, which is governed by a venal Capitol. (One of the things I didn't like about the book was the occasional touches of Roman-ishness and nods to "bread and circuses.") The Capitol is surrounded by 13 districts, which service it in a sort of feudal arrangement that leave most of the people nearly starving while the people in the Capitol live in luxury. At some point in the past, the districts rose up, and one of them was destroyed totally. The others must show their obedience to the Capitol by taking part in televised "Hunger Games" every year.
The "Hunger Games" are what they sound like - a battle to the death, with one male competitor and one female competitor from each district. The "reality TV" element comes in because each contestant has to appear likable and relatable, in the hopes of winning sponsorship. If you get sponsors, you can get hold of tools, medicines, and even body armor to help you survive in the games.
The thing that makes Hunger Games more than just another book about a post-apocalyptic battle to the death for the amusement of the elites is the book's hero, Katniss Everdeen. She's one of the least whiny or self-regarding YA protagonists I've ever come across. Growing up in the hardscrabble mining region that used to be Appalachia, she has to step up and learn to hunt in the woods (which is technically illegal) to feed her family after her father dies and her mother checks out. When Katniss' little sister, Prim, gets chosen to compete in the Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to take her place.
Once the young survivor gets to the Capitol, she has to learn media savvy from the only previous winner of the Games from her district, the drunken Haymitch. And then it turns out that the other contestant from her district, Peeta, has been in love with Katniss for years. (We get a hint of this early on, when the young Peeta risks getting whipped to sneak some burnt bread to Katniss' starving family.) But then Haymitch decides that the best way to boost Katniss and Peeta's popularity - and thus keep them alive - is to play out the "doomed love story" angle as much as possible. Katniss isn't even sure if she has any real feelings for Peeta, but she winds up having to manufacture some for the cameras.
As I said, the reality TV/Lord Of The Flies mash-up about a group of teenagers killing each other on television could be incredibly cheesy, but Katniss' stark narration keeps it grounded. To her, this is just another version of the daily struggle to survive, and yet another way the Capitol works to destroy people in the provinces. The only thing that makes it different is that Katniss is constantly aware she's on camera, having watched the Games in previous years. (Viewing is mandatory.)
Really, the Hunger Games is about learning to become inauthentic, which is a nice spin on the usual coming-of-age story. In your typical coming-of-age tale, the main character starts out with illusions and gradually sheds them, facing up to the harsh realities of life. But Katniss starts out the book already well aware of the worst life has to offer, and she already knows what she has to do to survive. (She does feel bad the first time she kills someone.) Instead, she spends the book learning to become more fake, learning to wear the fancy costumes and say and do the right thing to make the viewers like her... even when she's fighting for her life. Especially then, because she knows she'll be on screen at those times.
I was genuinely bummed when The Hunger Games ended with the phrase, "End Of Book One." It doesn't end on a cliffhanger, exactly - most of the loose ends are neatly tied up - but I actually wanted to see if Katniss would decide that her manufactured feelings for Peeta were real after all.
The Hunger Games isn't exactly a deep work of literature, but it is a fun, exciting adventure story with a cool, believable female hero. And a entertainingly bleak, dystopian world with just enough of a reflection of our own reality to be thought-provoking. And most of all, a media-savvy story of on-camera slaughter by a former television professional. Good stuff, check it out.