As a fan of the “Hunger Games”, a dystopian trilogy where teenagers are thrown into gladiatorial games to fight till the last survivor in a world that is a blend of ancient Rome and modern America, I eagerly awaited its prequel “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes”. Its another intricately constructed book by Suzanne Collins, displaying her impressive tool-kit of story-telling tricks, taking elements of different fantasy writers over the last 100 years.
Let me first discuss some of the tricks she uses and then what I think of the messages she uses them for.
One trick in “the Ballad” is that the names of the characters are full of meaning and cultural references. The main character is a young Coriolanus Snow, who was to become the ruthless ruler of the Rome-like ‘Capitol’ in the “Hunger Games”, combining the name of a brutal Roman emperor (Coriolanus) with the name for purity (Snow). The main group of ‘good people’, a gypsy-like entertainment group called the Coveys, are all given names that combine a song and a colour, such as Barb Azure or Lucy Grey. The songs they are named after have a story that fits them, and their colour has a function too (Lucy Grey is somewhat in between good and evil, ie grey). As with the Hunger Games, there are Heavensbees and Plutarchs, somewhat performing the roles of heaven’s bees and very rich people. There are also Highbottoms and Sickles, being precisely that for comic effect.
Another standard trick of the trade is that we get to read the internal voice of the main character as he internally comments on what others say and do, drawing us into his confidence. There are also catchy emotional songs, stunning visual scenes (like a seductress buried in snakes), clever spur-of-the moment decisions, and gorgeous costumes. It already reads like the script of another movie.
A Suzanne Collins special is that we get drip-fed backstories that depict lives as being determined by a few high-emotion moments (a view I associate with the American media. It makes for easy comprehension and television, though lousy psychology as real life is not a collection of original sins and ultimate triumphs). Those backstories connect people in hitherto unsuspecting ways, making the reader experience “aha” moments. For instance, an enemy of Snow in the Hunger Games, Tigris, returns in the Ballad as a loving cousin of his.
Another trick this author excels at is sudden dramatic shifts in the story as something blows up or some character one thought was on one side suddenly reveals (s)he was playing for the other side in a sudden traitorous move. The pace is fast, the storyline intricate and dense as many elements are tightly-interwoven, and yet the story also touches on topical issues like authority and the role of the media.
What I enjoyed most about the Ballad were the very recogniseable depictions of different character traits and personalities. They are sometimes too realistic for fiction.
For most of the book, the description of the Snow family for instance superbly catches the mentality of upper-class people in English society. The ruthlessness, the total devotion to power, the mannerisms, the use of language, the smooth habit of false flattery, the quick judgments of others, the upkeep of appearances at all costs, the relations to any person or group not in as least as powerful a position as themselves, the envy and spitefulness towards those in their own group, etc. It is such a fantastically good and unflattering description of the English aristocratic mindset that I was surprised an American author wrote it, though less surprised when reading that Suzanne Collins’ mother was English.
Whilst it is another easy page turner, the Ballad is less gripping, mainly because Coriolanus Snow is much harder to like than the main trio of the Hunger Games: Katniss, Peeta, and Hamish. Snow doesn’t love passionately, nor does he hate passionately. He is just totally obsessed with power and image, using everyone around him, including his own family, to further his ambitions. The obsession with power is a common trait in many politicians, so that is not unrealistic, but it does not make a very inviting person to share thoughts with. He is also a bit of a wet fish with little zest for life. For instance, Snow is depicted as an 18-year old healthy boy with access to a beautiful girl who loves him, and yet he does nothing more, even in his fantasies, than kiss her a few times. One might say: wtf?
Then the message of the book. The author clearly wants to say deep things, using quotes from Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseaux at the start of the book. Yet, the general problem is that the book lacks reflective thinking, both in its details, in the whole structure, and in the message. The author is just not a deep thinker. Neither are her current editors.
A small but very clear example of the lack of reflective thinking in this piece is how the book ends: having survived his ordeals and with more power and money than he had at the start of the book, Snow puts poison in a bottle of drugs which he then personally brings up to the office of the dean of his university, one of his enemies. He hopes the dean will consume the contents of the bottle in one of the coming days and die a horrible death. Snow thinks himself clever for having wiped the bottle for fingerprints. How sneaky, one initially thinks as a reader.
But hang on, is it really clever? Whilst it is perfectly believable that Snow would try to kill an enemy via poison and subterfuge, the manner in which he does so is beyond stupid: the sudden death of a dean would be investigated, meaning the poison will be found inside the bottle he consumed, with no suicide note or poison anywhere else in the vicinity of the dean, making it instantly clear the dean was deliberately murdered. And who would have been known to have personally visited him recently in his own office carrying luggage? Why, it’s Snow, the boy the dean earlier in the book punished and tried to destroy. Snow, whose tribute in the Hunger Games used the same type of poison earlier in the book. Means, motive, and opportunity would thus be immediately established. Snow would be in jail within hours of the autopsy findings.
A supposed genius like Snow would not murder so carelessly, yet Suzanne and a whole team of her editors failed to pick up on this hole in the plot.
More worrying for me was that this book copies some of the basic human implausibilities of the original Panem world, and then makes them even more implausible and hence the whole of Panem less interesting. More reflective thought would have helped.
The Panem of this book, which is set 65 years before the events in the Hunger Games, is a world just recovering from an extremely violent civil war, with an authority that is yet to get a full grip on the situation. However, like the Hunger Games, it has no religion in it at all. No gods, no major superstitutions, no real ideologies, no escape from suffering at all. That was already a bit strange in the Hunger Games wherein one might argue an all-powerful authority had stamped out superstitions and religions, as many real-world authorities do. But in the more chaotic world of the Ballad, it is more conspicuously strange to have such a huge unmet human need for meaning and solace.
Also, like in the Hunger Games, Panem in the Ballad has hordes of powerful young men stationed around populations with defenseless young women, yet those young men are remarkably self-constrained and do not have children with the women, nor do they kill off the male competitors in the populations they rule. It’s a very strange idealistic-puritan quirk to build into a society that is supposedly ruthless, particularly one where a victorious occupying army would have had the excuse of the brutality towards their own population from the recent civil war as an excuse to do what they want. If you want to talk about adult themes, you have to have adult characters, yet Suzanne Collins populates her Rome with nothing but stuck-up eunuchs. That’s not how Rome was, or any conquering empire: victors have always claimed the spoils of war, including American armies in the 20th century, who invariably left behind extensive brothels and a more mixed population.
Another such jarring element is that all the main characters have media instincts that would befit a long-time reality tv-star, placed in a world with very few televisions and very few tv-programs. The Ballad depicts a media world from around the 1920s where almost no-one watches television and everyone has more important things to worry about than how they look on the sparse tv-screens. This makes it totally unrealistic that either the population or the main protagonists would behave as if they lived in a Big Brother House. Hence all the awareness and effort made to hide things from cameras by the main protagonists don’t make much sense.
This problem with the Ballad was the key strength of the Hunger Games which depicted a media-obsessed society, making it suitable to tell us about how power and the media work in the 21st century. Indeed, it was a large part of the appeal of the Hunger Games that media was used and abused by both the good and the bad personalities, drawing the readers into the necessity by all to lie constantly to the media.
Yet, this key strength and message of the Hunger Games is like a fish out of water in the Ballad.
Many of the structural implausibilities of the world of Panem seem to be there because of the wish of the author to connect her story with references to Western history and current sensitivities. For instance, Panem has order maintained in the subdued “districts” via armies of “peacekeepers” who do 20-year shifts of duty, something that comes straight out of Roman army history. Not only has the author brushed out the true brutality of the Roman armies whose soldiers most definitely took the local women and who eventually became part of the population that lived somewhere, but the very idea that the population-poor world of Panem would tie down so many of their prime-aged men into such an unproductive role is simply ludicrous. It makes no sense whatsoever, except from the point of view of wanting to make fairly uneducated readers think the Capitol of Panem is just like Rome, with elements of 21st century American puritanism thrown in to avoid particular visuals that would make the books banned from children’s book stores and the movies R-rated.
What would a more realistic form of control over the districts have looked like in the world of the Ballad and the Hunger Games? Well, the conquerors could have taken a leaf out of the rule book used by colonial powers or, indeed, Rome: they would have divided and ruled by means of giving a higher position of power to local rulers and some smallish group within the conquered population. They would have made local overlords out of those minorities, encouraging them to misbehave so as to remain despised by the local population and thus ultimately dependent on the Capitol. That’s how France, Rome, and Britain did it: co-opt local rulers and minorities to keep the majority in line. Much cheaper, much more effective, and much more sustainable than having huge stationed armies everywhere, essentially twiddling their thumbs during their most productive years.
To be fair, the Hunger Games had lots of deep design flaws in its depiction of society too. I am not talking here about the implausibility of the science used in Panem, but the implausibility of human behaviour in that world. Oppressed populations staying put in their depressing villages, not populating the forests and mountains? The outbreak of democracy, rather than a Chinese-style collectivist empire, in a situation where the entire known population is run by a single government? A unified single government for the whole of Panem that did not descend after 75 years into a nightmare of form-filling and rituals? These bits never made sense, so the human society of Panem in the Hunger Games was not a socially plausible construct.
Yet, the Hunger Games had its powerful human-interest stories around love, sacrifice, loss, and war, and could claim some gravitas from the highly sophisticated way it talked about power and media, and from the realism of the ruthlessness that leaders displayed in order to hold on or acquire power. It also was full of great characters one could easily like, and had little intellectual puzzles a reader could get stuck into, such as how one would behave in an arena with 23 others where only one could come out alive. There was more than enough for greatly entertaining and thought-provoking books. But it was not a vehicle for discussing human nature or the future of humanity.
Panem as an imaginary construct differs from the imaginary societies of authors like Jonathan Swift and Aldous Huxley. Those authors depicted imaginary societies to either lay out how they thought about their own society and where it was heading (Gullivers’ Travels), or else how a particular utopia might actually work (Brave New World). In contrast, Panem is much less a product of real imagination or understanding of humanity, and much more a collection of highly stylised impressions and elements relevant to contemporary USA served up in a hyped-up entertaining manner. This makes Panem far less timeless and also much more superficial than the creations of Swift and Huxley. Suzanne Collins is no less gifted a writer than those authors, but unfortunately a much less gifted thinker.
Even in her description of the Snow family, Suzanne Collins cannot help but put in a bit of inappropriate puritanism. In the book Snow is motivated by a Hobbes-like idealism to save people from themselves by suppressing them (a trait he also displayed in the Hunger Games when he visits Katniss in Book 2 to convince her to play a certain role). That idealism is out of place in an aristocracy. Born rulers like the Snow family feel entitled to power, only adopting justifications because intellectuals and bureaucrats need a story to more easily go along with their lower station in life. True aristocrats are not afflicted by the middle-class idealism Coriolanus Snow shows at the end of the book where he resigns himself to being thought of as a dictator in order to save people from themselves. To an aristocrat, slaves are there to serve and obey, not to be saved. So a Hobbesian ideology is totally out of place in that type of character. It also had no place in Rome. Romans and aristocrats did not need excuses to seek power.
The Ballad is thus decidedly a notch down relative to the Hunger Games in terms of the quality of the mirror it holds up of our own world and our own tendencies. It gets parts of individuals right but it gets humanity wrong, because in every crucial part of the structure, American puritanism has been inserted at the expense of realism. Its philosophizing and depiction of human nature are, simply put, amateurish. Suzanne is just not good at it, which is a pity because her storytelling skills combined with clear hard thinking could give us another Gullivers’ Travels or Brave New World. Maybe Suzanne should combine with people who are better at thinking hard about humanity and society. Maybe some Russian or African thinker would suit her: someone outside of the Anglo-Saxon traditions who can get her to see how the pretenses of her own society are holding her back.
Though her publishers and bank managers will want her to suck the world of Panem dry of its commercial potential, it would be a great pity if Suzanne Collins wastes her talents on further elaborations of the Panem world and its hunger games. She used Panem already to great effect to give us a mirror on how we now relate to power and the media, but its useless as a general vehicle to talk about war and humanity because the Panem world has too many design flaws in it and is too hampered by American puritanism. She will need to construct a different world if she wants to say more than she did in the Hunger Games.
 I suspect in a sequel the “Greasy Sae” of the Hunger Games will be revealed to be Lucy Grey if only because there is no other notable old district 12 lady available!