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Book Review: Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

I’ve been a long time getting to the third book in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, for no particular reason. The happy conjunction of stumbling across my daughter’s hardback copy and the premiere of the movie later this week spurred me to action. If you have the time, skim through my reviews of The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, as they’ll provide additional context for my comments here.

***

MockingjayWhen we left Katniss Everdeen at the end of Catching Fire, she’d just been plucked from the Quarter Quell Arena by a rebel hoverplane and spirited away to the supposedly obliterated District 13, which isn’t obliterated at all, though its population has gone underground and barely manages to keep the Capitol at bay via a stolen air force and the threat of nuclear retaliation. It helped to be the District devoted to atomic research and in possession of an extensive network of impregnable bunkers. What Katniss had perceived as a ragtag, spontaneous resistance movement among the Districts turns out to be a highly-regimented organization that has spread its tendrils deep into the heart of the Capitol itself. They want Katniss to be their Mockingjay, the voice and symbol of their revolution. Katniss has a unique ability to reach into the hearts of the Districts’ citizenry, and the rebels need all their support and resources to win.

Katniss, however, is a mental, emotional, and physical wreck. District 12 was firebombed in retaliation for her escape, and almost nothing of it or the people who lived there remain. Besides her arena injuries, she’s in the throes of post-traumatic stress and in agony over leaving her comrade Peeta behind to die. She begins the painful process of fighting through a haze of medication and frustrating therapy to put her life back together, taking some comfort that her childhood friend Gale survived and led a small band of District 12 refugees to safety in District 13.

But then Peeta appears in a Capitol propaganda broadcast with the sinister President Snow, very much alive, and apparently in good health—and he seems to be willingly cooperating with Snow. If Katniss continues to support the rebels, she knows Snow will have Peeta tortured and killed. If the rebels win, they’ll execute him as a collaborator.

The Capitol must fall, and Snow must die. Those are the only two certainties left in Katniss’ universe, but she doesn’t want Peeta’s life to be the price of victory. Forces she can’t control and can barely understand are pushing her down a path that could destroy everything and everyone she loves. Can she find another way, or will the Girl on Fire be consumed by the inferno of revolution she set ablaze?

***

I’ve seen several reviews that criticize Mockingjay as not quite measuring up to the other two books in the trilogy. They say It’s less gripping, less satisfying, less…something. I think this reaction stems from the fact that, even more so than in the first two books, we spend much of the story locked with Katniss inside her head. We’re plunged into the bloody grind of a full-blown civil war, and Katniss’ role (and our perspective, since the story is told through her eyes) has changed from gritty survivor and hunter to fragile propaganda-poster girl watching from the sidelines. She has always been most riveting and in-control when she’s fighting for her life, and that’s what we’ve come to expect from her. In Mockingjay, Katniss lands in a sheltered, structured environment, and she falls apart. It’s painful to see her this way when she’s been so composed in horrifying situations where most of us would be tucked into a little ball crying for our mommies. Her grace under fire has come at a terrible cost, and that bill is now due.

We spend a lot of time watching her led about by her handlers, struggling to reassemble her broken pieces and looking on helplessly as her friends and allies suffer in the same way, but we need to experience this. Up to this point, the author has flirted with the danger of turning Katniss into a borderline superhero, who, while still human, always manages to hit the 3-point shot, nothing but net, when it matters most. She misses often in this story, and badly. There’s a moment when she crosses a self-imposed line in a combat situation, and it’s chilling how it seems almost an offhand thing, an aside. So, this happened. Oh well, moving right along… There are more crossings of that line, and worse, yet to come.

She ponders, when her head is clear enough, whether the rebels are a better alternative to the Capitol. District 13 traded tyranny and excess for military regimentation and austerity, and their tactics and morality uncomfortably mirror their adversary’s. They have a vague concept of a democratic republic gleaned from fragmented history books, but they haven’t a clue how to establish it or sustain it once they’ve overthrown the Capitol. Until then, they do whatever works, no matter how brutal. Katniss watches in horror as her hunting partner Gale ruthlessly employs the same tactics against humans that he once used to trap animals.

What is true? What is right? How can anyone be certain in a society ruled by fear and maintained by lies as long as anyone can remember? Even a revolution springing from noble motives may install a new order far worse than the one it replaces.

The last third of the book revs into high gear as Katniss finally takes an active role in the offensive against the Capitol. There’s one last battle to fight, one last gauntlet to run, one last score to settle. We discover, along with Katniss, that life in the Capitol may not have been the carefree Dionysian playground we imagined, and the story’s climax is as shattering as anything we’ve yet seen in this series. I have mixed emotions about the conclusion, but I suppose that’s how it should be for this sort of story. War is a foul, messy business, and no one comes through it with their hands clean or their spirit intact. Even the best of outcomes will be leavened with pain, and regret, and nightmares.

Ms. Collins is taking the long view here. Yes, the Hunger Games trilogy is the saga of Katniss Everdeen, but it’s also an exploration of the meaning of freedom, our response to tyranny and slavery, and the path to revolution and beyond. To give that story justice, you have to tally its price in full—for individuals, and for society. The Hunger Games offered a unique vision of what it means to lose your freedom. Catching Fire portrayed the consequences, intended and otherwise, of taking a stand against tyranny. Mockingjay paints a vivid picture of how very expensive the journey back to freedom can be.

Like the other volumes in the Hunger Games trilogy, I recommend Mockingjay for older teens and up, mostly due to the violent nature of the combat scenes and depiction of wartime atrocities. Though depictions of violence are restrained, they may be disturbing. Several characters make morally questionable choices, but these also provide excellent opportunities for conversation between parents and children. No profanity or explicit sexuality. Some abuse of medical narcotics and attempted suicide by distraught characters, but never presented in a favorable light.

Link to purchase Mockingjay

Suzanne Collins’ author webpage

>>This review is based upon a copy of the book my daughter bought with her very own cash money. I borrowed it from her because I have enjoyed other stories by Ms. Collins and thought this one would be worth reading. I was right. FTC busybodies looking for conflict of interest should inquire elsewhere.<<

 
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Posted by on November 18, 2014 in Book Reviews, Writing

 

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Drive By Sci Fi #5: Silent Running

Silent RunningThe European Space Agency successfully deployed a robot lander onto a comet this week, a feat something like spitting a tomato seed into the window of a passing automobile while riding a merry-go-round.

You may wonder what possible connection I’ve found between that epochal event and a classic but now somewhat-obscure science fiction flick about an unhinged forest ranger in space.

Hang on. I’ll get there.

Sometime in the nearish future, Earth is essentially one giant layer of asphalt, and the few remaining forests, along with their furry denizens, have been scooped up into geodesic domes, attached to giant spaceships contracted from American Airlines, and parked in a vacant patch of interplanetary space near Saturn. The automated ships are crewed by a handful of guys who play a lot of poker and otherwise try to avoid going stir-crazy before their tour of duty is over. On the USS Valley Forge, botanist Freeman Lowell, played by skilled portrayer-of-unhinged-characters Bruce Dern, tends the ship’s flora and fauna and takes his responsibilities way more seriously than his peers. He is, it seems, the Last True Environmentalist.

silent_running_shipsWhen budget priorities shift and the powers-that-be terminate the space forest project, Lowell doesn’t take it well. At all. Instead of helping to jettison the domes and blast them into atoms, he murders his crewmates and commandeers the ship, steering it and its single intact dome toward the outer reaches of the solar system. He enlists the help of three maintenance robots he dubs Huey, Louie, and Dewey to keep the ship running and the forest alive, but the authorities are in pursuit. A series of mishaps penetrate Lowell’s exhaustion, alienation, and general cray-cray, and he realizes he can’t keep up his desperate flight forever. Even worse, despite his best efforts, the forest is withering as the ship travels further and further away from the sun.

I won’t completely ruin the ending for you, but nobody alive in 1972 will be too surprised that the movie closes with the Last Forest drifting away into an endless ocean of night as Joan Baez croons a Gaian paean to all things sunny and childlike. It’s a sad story. Take special care if you’re susceptible to depression or fuzzy bunnies.

forestDern’s haunting portrayal of an idealist in total meltdown is the film’s greatest strength, and it features some truly stunning (for its time) special-effects imagery of the space in and around Saturn, courtesy of 2001: A Space Odyssey special effects guru Douglas Trumbull and a youngster named John Dykstra—who would go on to play a key role in the founding of George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic. He created the “Dykstraflex” motion-controlled camera that made some of the most memorable scenes in the original Star Wars possible. The dome-ship exteriors are also very cool, as are the deceptively simple robot drones.

Silent Running came to mind this week as I followed the progress of ESA’s Rosetta mission to Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Someone in the Twitter feed grumbled about the way we’ve anthropomorphized these little space-traveling robots and given them their own Twitter accounts manned by dutiful interns who chronicle their missions from the probe’s point-of-view. Rosetta and Philae cheerfully spar with one another, their ground crew, other orbiters and rovers, and generally take on the personae of a couple of junior-high kids on walkabout. ESA even produced a short animated story about the mission, and it’s darling.

silent-running4So, why do we do it? Why cultivate a fondness for these lifeless boxes of wires and circuitry? Neither of them possess a smidgen of anything approaching artificial intelligence. Similarly, in Silent Running, Lowell develops a relationship with his three maintenance drones, which, as cute as they are, don’t possess any reason or emotion and act only in accordance with programmed instructions. Lowell names them and interacts with them as if they were living beings. He’s isolated from all human contact, and he’s teetering on the brink of insanity, which may explain his reaction, but not ours.

Here’s what I think. Since we’ve abandoned human space exploration in the near term (the International Space Station isn’t exploratory in nature, and manned Mars missions are still conjectural), Rosetta, Philae, Curiosity, Opportunity, and their fellows have become in a very real sense our proxies on the final frontier. We want to explore the universe directly, in-person, but it’s impossible right now.

Instead, we send something of our own creation and treat it like a piece of ourselves we’ve sent on ahead. We cheer the probe’s discovery and are proud of it, even if we weren’t directly involved in its creation or mission management. When a photograph arrives from Mars, our imaginations kick into gear and we place ourselves onto that alien landscape. We imagine what it might feel like to be that rover, inching our way across Mars, all alone. That’s not a very comfortable sensation in many ways. Just ask the Sarcastic Rover. So, we provide the rover a make-believe voice of its own, let it chat with us and with other robotic explorers—and hey, all of a sudden it’s not so lonely for us…er…the little bot anymore.

It’s silly, and it’s fun, but it’s also a way of expressing our appreciation and support for the people who build the robots and guide their missions. We don’t simply acknowledge their hard work and genius, we tell them we like what they’re doing. They’re renewing our collective sense of joy and wonder at the magnificent universe we inhabit, and we want to connect with them.

Or maybe we are nuts, a society figuratively stranded on a desert island, painting a face on a volleyball for company. Maybe we’re Freeman Lowell, flinging a bottled forest into the void because we’re dying alone in the dark and have no other hope.

dome

Maybe we’re not.

 

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Deer in the Headlights

A gentle reminder to those who, like me, live in woodsy or rural areas—deer are on the move this time of year, especially during the twilight hours. Here’s what the family sedan looks like after close contact with one of Bambi’s cousins at about 40 mph:

CAM01027

My Lovely Wife and I were on our way home from a nice dinner in town last night at about 7 pm, and dusk was quickly fading into night. I was driving, had just merged onto four-lane Kansas Highway 7, and was accelerating as two deer bolted in front of the car. I presume they’d been browsing in the median, but all I saw was a windshield full of gray-brown fur. There was no time for either them or me to take evasive action, and we struck Deer #2 pretty much square-on, catapulting him/her over the car and somewhere into the darkness behind us.

Thanks to the grace of God, our relatively slow speed, and the medium-small size of the deer, we escaped uninjured and without a lap full of venison or an airbag deployment. This might have been a very different story at 60 mph versus a full-grown buck. I managed to pull the car to the side of the road clear of traffic, and my wife dialed 911 to report the accident. A pair of very professional young officers from the Shawnee Police Department arrived in a few minutes to help us sort things out. The engine was undamaged, and the car was drivable enough to get us the last few miles home.

 
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Posted by on October 31, 2014 in Family

 

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Random Randomness, 10/30/2014

People believe the only alternative to randomness is intelligent design. — Richard Dawkins

Why, yes, Mr. Dawkins. Yes, they do.

Here are a few items of note from the past week or two, with my random or intelligent commentary. You decide.

Ialbino-deert Only Grants Wishes If You Catch It Alive: A young Michigan hunter set off a minor explosion of internet rage last week when he dispatched a 12-point albino buck with a crossbow. A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources stated there is no biological reason to protect deer randomly carrying the gene for albinism, which causes their unusual white coloration (or, more accurately, lack of coloration).

Faun Tumnus from the Narnian Department of Natural Resources agreed, but expressed sadness for what he characterized as “an opportunity lost.”

Cranequin: A cranked rack-and-pinion device used to draw and cock a medieval heavy crossbow, a feat beyond the strength of your random archer. Not needed by the sturdy little outdoorsman who downed the White Stag with a state-of-the-art string gun.

Make Cat Videos, Not Cat Calls: Forget Ebola—an even more horrifying virus, Vox Felis, seems to be sweeping across America. Leah Libresco offers a thoughtful discussion on the topic of street harassment, and how it overflows into other venues, even the church environment, but I found the implications more than a little unsettling. Here’s an excerpt:

…when I’ve responded cheerily to men’s “Good mornings” on my walk, the follow-up statement is usually unpleasant.  If I think about it honestly, I like saying “Hi” to people, but, at this point, I’ve got a defensive flinch when a male passerby says “Hi” to me.  Not every greeting escalates into a catcall, but enough do that I need to think about how I’ll respond, whether I’m alone with my interlocutor, and whether that’s a problem.

The Friendly Reminder.

Do we really live in a society where any random hello feels threatening? I’ve not witnessed the sort of crude boorishness shown in the video Ms. Libresco references, but I’ve never lived or worked in the big city, either. Perhaps I’ve been blind to it. It’s sad to think the line between amiable courtesy and offense is so thin as to preclude any acknowledgement of passers-by at all.

Anyhow, my Darling Daughter was disturbed enough by this issue to participate in a protest rally at college and post a friendly little reminder at her workplace.

UPDATE (Nov 12, 2014): Another perspective, because Star Wars is relevant to any and all cultural issues.

Link to Random Cat Video: Didga, the World’s Best Skateboarding Cat.

The Paradox of the Smoking Doctor: Okay, let’s not forget Ebola. A nurse who recently returned from West Africa, where she was part of the contingent from Doctors Without Borders fighting the epidemic, is refusing to submit to a precautionary 21-day quarantine at her home imposed by her state government. Other health care workers, despite assurances that they were “self-monitoring” for symptoms, have developed Ebola subsequent to their return despite showing no symptoms upon their arrival. They displayed a similarly cavalier attitude about moving about in public while their status was uncertain, an attitude at odds with the courage and concern for others they displayed in Africa.

Doctors-smokingNothing may come of this, but I’ve never understood it when health care professionals flout the advice they dispense and the precautions they impose on others. For example, it’s jarring to see doctors and nurses smoking outside the entrances of hospitals and clinics. It’s not just the random disregard for their own health—-we look to these people for sound guidance on medical issues, and actions always speak louder than words. Today’s message: It’s okay to risk spreading disease for the sake of my personal convenience.

Vector: In biology, any agent (person, animal or microorganism) that carries and transmits an infectious pathogen into another living organism, randomly or intentionally. In mathematics, a geometric entity having both magnitude and direction.

For example, these gentlemen are often "headless vectors."

For example, these gentlemen are often “headless vectors.”

A related informal military colloquialism is “headless vector,” which refers to an individual possessed of seemingly-infinite velocity but no perceptible direction.

 
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Posted by on October 30, 2014 in General, Opinion

 

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The Big Show

royalpupKansas City is a great baseball town. It’s the sort of place where failing to wear Royals gear on game day earns you some pointed stares. A place where the cheap seats are still cheap, and a night at the ballpark feels like a family reunion. Where 5-year-old girls can recite the team’s roster by jersey number. Where a kid walks around the corner to his favorite player’s house to hand-deliver a pep-talk note after a tough game—and the note is read in the locker room the next day.

In Kansas City, the Designated Hitter’s nickname is “Country Breakfast,” and you can find his personal barbecue sauce in the local grocery store. No, those aren’t boos you’re hearing, the fans are calling for third baseman Mike “Moooose!” Moustakas. And if you can’t make it to the game, keep your head down, because your neighbors will be launching bottle rockets from their backyard every time a run crosses the plate.

At least, that’s what mine do.

The fans are both loyal and patient. It’s been over 25 years since the Royals last made it into the postseason, when they won their lone World Series in seven games, but in all that time, the hometown crowd never gave up, never lost hope. Now, standing on the brink of glory in a second Game Seven, playing at home, the atmosphere is electric and the hunger palpable. There’s a sense of destiny that emerges in the slogans on t-shirts and hand-lettered signs: Take Back the Crown, Kan Do, Party Like It’s 1985.

Or, simply, I Believe.

Let’s go, Royals…there’s a young lady somewhere in that sea of blue and white who needs a puppy.

royalbabyUPDATE: 30 Oct 14 - Ah, well, it wasn’t meant to be. Destiny perceived and destiny lived are often two very different things. Still, the Royals walk away with a fairytale season, an American League championship, and a seven-game World Series they lost by only one run, with a man on third at the bottom of the ninth. They played with skill, courage, and class. If you have to lose, there are worse ways.

Meanwhile, babies will continue to be born, and puppies will yet be adopted, and next year is another season. Well done, gentlemen.

 
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Posted by on October 29, 2014 in General

 

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A Note to My Daughter

On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days and other fields will bear the fruits of victory. — General Douglas MacArthur

My Darling Daughter,

I’m having fun following your battles on the debate circuit. General MacArthur’s quote applies just as well, I think, to this endeavor as to his original reference to sports like football and basketball. Your competition is on the gridiron of the mind, perhaps the “ultimate test of cerebral fitness,” in the immortal words of Murray Head.

In any competition, your adversaries will sometimes play dirty, and they’ll often get away with it. As you expected, someone finally resorted to a small-minded ad hominem attack that asserted you had no business talking about Topic X because you weren’t from Race Y and Class Z, as if ideas were somehow bounded by genetics and caste, or truth determined by the language employed to express it.

Of course, there's always *my* way...Any advice I might offer with regard to defending yourself in a debate would likely be as welcome as my thoughts on haute couture, and I don’t know anyone better equipped to handle themselves in an intellectual knife fight than you. Still, one of my jobs as your father is to remind you from time to time about things you already know that might be nice to remember when somebody is saying your arguments don’t count because you’re a white girl from Kansas.

1. If your opponent opts to call you names rather than engage the merits of your argument, you can be pretty sure they have no ideas of their own worth mentioning. It’s the rhetorical equivalent of wetting their pants. Call up that image the next time this happens.

2. Wisdom and sound reasoning aren’t a zero-sum game in which inspiration from one source necessarily comes at the expense of another. This broken planet needs all the good ideas it can get, from everyone, and we do ourselves no favors by telling one part of our global society to shut up because of the circumstances of their birth. Being born into a particular culture isn’t the only way to gain a deep understanding of it. Sometimes the perspective of an “outsider” can reveal truth invisible to someone on the inside.

3. If we banned people from our conversations because their formative years were too privileged or insufficiently oppressed, we’d have to discard the contributions of people like Siddhartha Gautama, Francis of Assisi, Katherine Drexel, Mohandas Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Schweitzer, and more others than I care to list. Some employed their wealth to help the poor, some abandoned material prosperity to serve among people in need, but all of them made a profound impact that changed their world for the better through the force of their ideas and the power of their example.

I’m proud of you. Hang in there and fight on.

All My Love,

Dad

 
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Posted by on October 21, 2014 in Family, Opinion

 

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Drive By Sci Fi #4: The Andromeda Strain

AStrainposter

What do an alcoholic derelict and a fussy baby have in common?

This is the question posed by The Andromeda Strain, and the answer might just save the human race from extinction.

The Ebola outbreak currently ravaging West Africa and threatening to leapfrog across the planet brought Michael Crichton’s techno-thriller and its 1971 film incarnation to mind this week as another example of science fiction colliding with current events. In retrospect, it seems eerily prescient with regard to its depiction of bureaucratic dithering in crisis, the challenge of warding off an impending epidemic, and the unintended consequences that occur when precautions that seem bulletproof are put to the test in real life. When you’re trying to stop a contagious disease, the shadow of Murphy looms large and the laws of probability evaporate.

I’ve not read the novel, but the movie scared the living daylights out of me as a kid. Here’s how it all goes down, and I’ll try to avoid being spoilerific:

andromeda strain 3

Where’s Waldo? Right here.

A satellite crashes near a little community in a remote corner of New Mexico, and the government sends a recovery team, which almost immediately goes radio-silent. Another team goes in with full hazmat gear, discovering the first team and the entire population of the town is dead, their blood congealed into a nasty powder. Everybody is dead, that is, except for a crusty old wino and a squalling infant.

Team 2 collects the bum, the baby, and the satellite, and all are transported to Wildfire, a super-secret-secret-squirrel bio-agent confinement and analysis lab buried several hundred feet below the Mojave Desert. Wildfire’s scientific Dream Team sets to work, and they find a previously unknown, incredibly virulent, and very lethal microorganism contaminating the satellite. The plague is apparently of extraterrestrial origin, and it’s mutating faster than anything they’ve ever seen.

The survival of the bum and baby remains a mystery, but it’s clearly the key to stopping this terror.

Until it mutates the ability to eat plastic and breaks free from containment.

That's right, Doctor. Have the wino carry the baby.

That’s right, Doctor. Have the wino carry the baby.

Not to worry—our best minds designed this facility. It’s foolproof. Wildfire’s automatic failsafe starts the clock on a nuclear bomb meant to sterilize the site if security should somehow be breached. Our heroes, however, realize an atomic detonation will both accelerate this particular disease agent’s multiplication and launch it skyward, where the upper atmosphere’s gentle zephyrs will waft it across the globe.

Oops.

Nervous yet? This is as far as I’ll go with a recap. Many other things go badly wrong, and much perspiration is perspired. Watch the movie. It goes well with carefully sterilized popcorn and stars some fun acting talent like Arthur Hill, James Olson, Paula Kelly, and David Wayne. There’s even an uncredited cameo by Mr. Crichton himself.

I suppose this movie made such an impact on my younger self because it so clearly portrayed the idea that many of the people I relied upon to keep my world safe and orderly might not be so reliable as I imagined. Leaders confronted with the unknown in The Andromeda Strain didn’t make good decisions under pressure, and scientific knowledge, though important and helpful, was far from comprehensive or infallible. Smart people could and did screw things up royally.

Plus, Space Germs.

Ebola, meanwhile, isn’t our first plague and certainly won’t be our last. It’s a horrifying disease, but with regard to virulence, it pales in comparison to the Black Death or the Influenza Pandemic of 1918. It’s containable, although, given our current level of bioscience skill and technology, it’s a bit surprising we haven’t come up with an effective treatment yet. We’ve known about this savage little bug since 1976.

Perhaps if it had arrived in New Mexico on a satellite, we’d have shown more of a sense of urgency.

 
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Posted by on October 5, 2014 in Opinion, Technology, Writing

 

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