The Hunger Games

The plot of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is driven by coal. The main characters in the series, Katniss, Peeta, and Gale, all live in District 12, which was formerly known as Appalachia: “Even hundreds of years ago, they mined coal here. Which is why our miners have to dig so deep” (42).  In this post-apocalyptic world, District 12 provides all of the coal for a country called, Panem, which is ruled by “the Capitol.” District 12 is one of the poorest districts in Panem, and is divided into two social classes, the coal miners of the Seam and the merchant class that sells to them, a clear example of exaggerated inequalities and convenient racism. The worlds of both classes revolve so entirely around coal, that the curriculum in District 12 schools is entirely based on it:

Somehow it all comes back to coal at school. Besides basic reading and math most of our instruction is coal-related. Except for the weekly lecture on the history of Panem. It’s mostly a lot of blather about what we owe the Capitol. I know there must be more than they’re telling us, an actual account of what happened during the rebellion. But I don’t spend much time thinking about it. Whatever the truth is, I don’t see how it will help me get food on the table. (41-42)

The descriptions of the coal miners in District 12 are quite similar to the ones in King Coal: “Men and women with hunched shoulders, swollen knuckles, many who have long since stopped trying to scrub the coal dust out of their broken nails, the lines of their sunken faces” (4). Not only is it uncomfortable work, coal mining appears to have returned to being just as dangerous as it was during Sinclair’s time:

Then there are the mine accidents…A family once brought in an unconscious young man pleading with my mother to help him. The district doctor who’s responsible for treating the miners had written him off, told the family to take him home to die. But they wouldn’t accept this. He lay on our kitchen table, senseless to the world. I got a glimpse of the wound on his thigh, gaping, charred flesh, burned clear down to the bone, before I ran from the house. I went to the woods and hunted the entire day, haunted by the gruesome leg, memories of my father’s death. (178-179).

As she references in this passage, Katniss’s father died in a mine explosion, leaving her to be the provider for her family. Without Katniss’s help her family would starve:

Starvation’s not an uncommon fate in District 12. Who hasn’t seen the victims? Older people who can’t work. Children from a family with too many to feed. Those injured in the mines. Straggling through the streets. And one day, you come upon them sitting motionless against a wall or lying in the Meadow, you hear the wails from a house, and the Peacekeepers are called in to retrieve the body. Starvation is never the cause of death officially. It’s always the flu, or exposure, or pneumonia. But that fools no one. (28).

Katniss had to sign up for the “tesserae” at an early age. Beneficiaries of the tesserae receive a year’s supply of grain and oil in exchange for their submitting their name into the Hunger Games lottery additional times. The Hunger Games is a battle royale between young adult representatives of each district. The Capital hosts it every year as punishment for the rebellion of the districts many years earlier. Naturally, Katniss and Peeta win the famous lottery and are sent to kill each other and kids from other districts in the Hunger Games arena. With some clever survival techniques and a political romance, both Katniss and Peeta make it out alive, but it seems that they might have accidentally inspired a revolution in the process.

In Catching Fire this revolution plays out. The Capital cracks down on each of the districts, especially District 12. They close the mines, introduce more capital punishment, try to starve the citizens and eventually send Katniss and Peeta back into the Hunger Games arena. However, these tactics only cause the rebellion to spread:

As the days pass, things go from bad to worse. The mines stay shut for two weeks, and by that time half of District 12 is starving. The number of kids signing up for tesserae soars, but they often don’t receive their grain. Food shortages begin, and even those with money come away from stores empty-handed. When the mines reopen, wages are cut, hours extended, miners sent into blatantly dangerous work sites. The eagerly awaited food promised for Parcel Day arrives spoiled and defiled by rodents. The installations in the square see plenty of action as people are dragged in and punished for offenses so long overlooked we’ve forgotten they are illegal. Gale goes home with no more talk of rebellion between us. But I can’t help thinking that everything he sees will only strengthen his resolve to fight back. The hardships in the mines, the tortured bodies in the square, the hunger on the faces of his family (Catching Fire 131-132).

Finally at the end of Catching Fire, full-blown rebellion brakes out. The Capital firebombs District 12 in retaliation and most of the population dies. A few people are able to escape including Katniss, Peeta, Gale and Katniss’s family and eventually in the final book, the districts are able to overturn the Capital and establish a new government for themselves.

The Hunger Games series is one of the clearest examples of the life and energy equivalency that I have studied. The Capital does not care about District 12 as long as they meet their coal quotas. They do not have any safety laws in place. They do not care if there are accidents or deaths in the mines, as long as their coal quotas are met. To ensure that their energy is paid for, as all energy must be paid for with life, the Capital creates the Hunger Games, which requires two human sacrifices from District 12. Their deaths make sure that the coal is paid for. In the year that there are no deaths from District 12 in the arena, the Capital loses their energy, and in order to get it back they must go to war. However, the rebels realize that they can pay for it with their own lives and so the Capital is destroyed in this pretty bleak energy narrative.

 

Energy narrative characteristics found in these novels: life=energy, environmental degradation, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities, impedes labor unions/civil rights campaigners, segregation, convenient racism, nomadic existence, insurrection.

King Coal: Undercover Boss

“Mary,” he said, “did you ever read about ants in Africa?”

“No,” said she.

“They travel in long columns, millions and millions of them. And when they come to a ditch, the front ones fall in, and more and more of them on top, till they fill up the ditch, and the rest cross over. We are ants, Mary” (58).

In King Coal by Upton Sinclair, Hal Warner, the son of a rich coal tycoon, decides to go undercover to learn about the mining business from the workingman. Hal dons the name “Joe Smith” and gets a job with the General Fuel Company (GFC), the company of one of Hal’s college friends, Percy Harrigan’s father, so that his own employees will not recognize him. In order to get the job Hal has to swear that he does not belong to a union. Over time, Hal befriends the miners and begins to realize the corrupt business practices taking place. For example, the bosses show favoritism to certain workers because of their ethnicity, which causes racism to be rampant in the coal camp. Hal also laments about the difficulty of the work itself, after he changes positions from taking care of the mules to working directly in the mines:

If any one had told him the horror of attempting to work in a room five feet high, he would not have believed it. It was like some of the dreadful devices of torture which one saw in European castles, the “iron maiden” and the “spiked collar.” Hal’s back burned as if hot irons were being run up and down it; every separate joint and muscle cried aloud. It seemed as if he could never learn the lesson of the jagged ceiling above his head—he bumped it and continued to bump it, until his scalp was a mass of cuts and bruises, and his head ached till he was nearly blind, and he would have to throw himself flat on the ground…It was amazing how many ways there were to bruise and tear one’s fingers, loading lumps of coal into a car. He put on a pair of gloves, but these wore through in a day. And then the gas, and the smoke of powder, stifling one; and the terrible burning of the eyes, from the dust and the feeble light. There was no way to rub these burning eyes, because everything about one was equally dusty. Could anybody have imagined the torment of that—any of those ladies who rode in softly upholstered parlour-cars, or reclined upon the decks of steam-ships in gleaming tropic seas? (38)

Hal also realizes that the coal bosses are cheating the workers out of their commission. The bosses weigh each worker’s cart of coal and determine how much that worker will be paid. The bosses always underrepresent the amount of coal in each cart. Hal notes that the government has passed a law that allows for the workers to appoint a check weigh man to check the bosses’ estimate of the coal weight. Hal argues with one of the miners about whether unions are needed to enforce such laws:

“How do you feel about unions?”

Hal answered, “They’re one of the things I want to find out about. You hear this and that—there’s so much prejudice on each side. I want to help the under dog, but I want to be sure of the right way.”

“What other way is there?” And Olson paused. “To appeal to the tender hearts of the owners?”

“Not exactly; but mightn’t one appeal to the world in general—to public opinion? I was brought up an American, and learned to believe in my country. I can’t think but
there’s some way to get justice. Maybe if the men were to go into politics—”

“Politics?” cried Olson. “My God! How long have you been in this place?”

“Only a couple of months.”

“Well, stay till November, and see what they do with the ballot-boxes in these camps!”

“I can imagine, of course—”

“No, you can’t. Any more than you could imagine the graft and the misery!”

“But if the men should take to voting together—”

“How can they take to voting together—when any one who mentions the idea goes down the canyon? Why, you can’t even get naturalisation papers, unless you’re a company man; they won’t register you, unless the boss gives you an O. K. How are
you going to make a start, unless you have a union?”

It sounded reasonable, Hal had to admit; but he thought of the stories he had heard about “walking delegates,” all the dreadful consequences of “union domination.” He had not meant to go in for unionism!

Olson was continuing. “We’ve had laws passed, a whole raft of laws about coal-mining—the eight-hour law, the anti-scrip law, the company-store law, the mine-sprinkling law, the check-weighman law. What difference has it made in North Valley that there are such laws on the statute-books? Would you ever even know about them?”

“Ah, now!” said Hal. “If you put it that way—if your movement is to have the law enforced—I’m with you!”

“But how will you get the law enforced, except by a union? No individual man can do it—it’s ‘down the canyon’ with him if he mentions the law. In Western City our union people go to the state officials, but they never do anything—and why? They know we haven’t got the men behind us! It’s the same with the politicians as it is with the bosses—the union is the thing that counts!”

Hal found this an entirely new argument.

“People don’t realise that idea—that men have to be organised to get their legal rights” (41-42).

Hal will change his opinion about unions later in the novel, but first he tries to convince the bosses to the change their ways with the law. The miners choose Hal to be their check weigh man, however when Hal tries to work with the bosses, they try to bribe him into keeping his mouth shut. When it becomes clear that the Hal cannot be bought the marshal attempts to frame Hal for accepting a bribe so that the workers will no longer trust him. Though Hal outwits them, he is eventually put into the jail by the marshal. The marshal threatens Hal and tells him that he has two choices: he can admit to stealing money and be fired or he can go to jail for ten years. Hal lets the marshal in on the fact that he is not really a worker but the son of a wealthy businessman. The marshal immediately changes his tune and lets Hal go.

Shortly thereafter, there is an explosion in the mine. The explosion was caused by the dryness of the air, which is saturated with coal dust and allows for sparks with any sort of friction. These explosions can be prevented by the sprinkling of a special chemical around the mine, something that the bosses frequently neglect to do. After the explosion, the GFC seals the mine because it will suffocate the fire and leave much of the coal unburned, however, this seals up many of the workers as well. The bosses are only interested in saving the property, one of them even shouts: “Damn the man! save the Mules!” Hal tells this story to a reporter, who prints the story but claims that since his is from a poor-man’s newspaper that it will not prompt a rescue operation. Hal seeks out Percy Harrigan and tells him and his guests about the horrors of the mine:

“You’ll hardly be able to believe it; but nothing has been done to rescue these men. The criminal has nailed a cover of boards over the pit-mouth, and put tarpaulin over it—sealing up men and boys to die!”

There was a murmur of horror from the diners.

“I know, you can’t conceive such a thing. The reason is, there’s a fire in the mine; if the fan is set to working, the coal will burn. But at the same time, some of the passages could be got clear of smoke, and some of the men could be rescued. So it’s a question of property against lives; and the criminal has decided for the property. He proposes to wait a week, two weeks, until the fire has been smothered; then of course the men and boys will be dead” (137).

Percy agrees to tell his father’s employees to open the mine but they convince him that everything is already being done to do so and that Hal Warner is wrong. The workers organize a strike and a union to demand their rights from the bosses.

Hal pleads with the United Mine Workers to support the strike. They tell him that though they would love to be able to support the workers they do not have the ability to help them, since it would take resources away from strikes they are more invested in:

Don’t misunderstand us!” [the union boss] cried. “It’s heartbreaking—but it’s not in our power to help. We are charged with building up the union, and we know that if we supported everything that looked like a strike, we’d be bankrupt the first year. You can’t imagine how often this same thing happens—hardly a month we’re not called on to handle such a situation. (192)

King Coal is the quintessential novel about the early American coal industry. It exposes the seedy underbelly of big business at the turn of the twentieth century. It is similar to Oil! in that the book is extremely dense and full of important passages about corporate corruption, lack of political oversight, racism and the need for Sinclair’s socialism and unions. Coal was what moved the world before oil and still provides a significant amount of energy to power grids across the United States. While the ruthless and supposedly now, archaic practices of the GFC in the novel can no longer exist to the same degree today in the United States, they still exist around the world, and we support them through our consumerism.

I attended a lecture recently by Prismatic Ecologies author, Jeffrey Cohen on “Geophilia, or the Love of Stone.” His lecture inspired me to think about humanity’s fascination with not only coal but also oil and other energy minerals in a new way. Cohen one of the reasons for humanity’s fascination with stone especially in Medieval thought because it represents immortality. I wonder if it is this obsession with taking an immortal substance from the earth and using it as a life force is just a way for humans to try to rob the mineral of its immortality. This theory would both explain the life and energy equivalency that is so common in energy narratives and the hesitation of humans into looking into alternative energy sources.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this novel: life=energy, environmental degradation, corporate ruthlessness, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities, impedes labor unions/civil rights campaigners, segregation, convenient racism, nomadic existence, insurrection.

Futurama: Bender’s Game. Makeup for Dogs, That’s Where the Money is.

This extra long special comments on how the market encourages corrupt practices for harvesting energy resources and the lack of research put into alternative energy.

The episode begins with the Planet Express crew running out of fuel while they are out on a mission. Fortunately, they are able to use Nibbler’s dark matter poop as fuel to get them to a dark matter fuel station.

Can you believe the price of dark matter? It would be cheaper to fill the tank with Nobel Prize winners’ sperm. –Leela

Later in the episode we find out that the reason that dark matter prices are so high is because of a dark matter shortage. However, it becomes obvious that Mom, who controls the world’s only dark matter mine, is controlling the supply of dark matter so that she can increase the price. (Consumers often complain that today’s oil companies might be controlling the oil supply to drive up gasoline prices.)

Professor Farnsworth tells the crew that it was he who discovered a way to turn dark matter into starship fuel when he worked for Mom many years ago:

Back in those days [dark matter] was just a worthless inert curiosity and I was smashing it in a particle accelerator in an ill-conceived attempt to create a more durable harpsichord wax. But as Deepaz Chopra taught us, quantum physics means anything can happen at any time for no reason…and thus against all probabilities it happened. I’m sure I don’t need to explain that all dark matter in the universe is linked in the form of a single, non-local metaparticle…so in one instant I transformed all dark matter everywhere into a new crystalline form, making it into the most potent fuel since primitive man first ignited mastodon flatulence to heat his cave. –Professor Farnsworth

Mom stole the Professor’s work and fired him, but he made sure to keep a failsafe in case Mom ever went out of control:

Professor Farnsworth: “You see in the instant the energy crystal was created, there also came into being an opposite crystal made of pure anti-backwards energy…if ever the two crystals should meet their wave functions would collapse like Raymond Burr’s trampoline once again rendering all dark matter inert and useless as fuel.”

Hermes: “But then we’ll have no fuel.”

Farnsworth: “Ah, but once we free society from dependence on Mom’s dark matter, scientists will finally care enough to develop cleaner alternative fuels.”

Fry: “Scientists like you.”

Farnsworth: “No not me. I’m too busy developing makeup for dogs. That’s where the money is.”

Unfortunately, Farnsworth has forgotten where he hid the anti-backwards crystal, but he eventually discovers that his son is using it as a 12-sided die in a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Farnsworth and the crew travel to dark matter mine to use the newly found crystal in to neutralize the dark matter. The crew discovers that Mom’s mine is farm—Mom has captured all of the Nibblonians (Nibbler’s species) and has placed them in cages so that she can harvest their poop. This farm gives Mom an unlimited source of dark matter. Mom’s enslavement of the Nibblonians is similar to the treatment of other labor forces in energy narratives. The Nibblonians possess an energy resource and are held against their will and forced to labor to give that energy resource to Mom, who is the stronger force in this narrative. Strangely, there is no theme of life for energy exchange here. It does appear that the labor is in anyway fatal to the Nibblonians. However, the Nibblonians do rebel when they have the chance to, which is characteristic of an energy narrative.

After a long and complicated series of events the Professor is finally able to bring the two crystals together and so render all of the world’s dark matter inert. Farnsworth and the crew use the Nibblonians to pull the Planet Express ship home, calling it “Nibbler Power”. Hopefully, following this narrative earth’s scientists develop forms of alternative energy as Farnsworth suggests they will, that is, if it is more lucrative than makeup for dogs.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this episode: corporate ruthlessness, exaggerated inequalities, segregation, convenient racism, nomadic existence, insurrection.

Doctor Who: The Impossible Planet. We could revolutionize modern science. We could use it to fuel the Empire. Or start a war…

The Doctor and Rose travel into humanity’s future and discover a space station that is sitting on top of an “impossible planet”. The planet is orbiting a black hole without falling in. The team of scientists in the space station discovered that a power source deep inside the planet is causing the planet to counteract the black hole’s gravity, in addition to creating a gravity funnel, which allows for a spaceship to safely travel to and land on the planet’s surface without being pulled into the black hole. The scientists are drilling down into the planet to learn about the energy source so that they could potentially harvest the source and use it to power the Human Empire.

Chief Science Officer: “We could revolutionize modern science.”

Chief Security Officer: “We could use it to fuel the Empire.”

Doctor: “Or start a war…”

 

The humans in this narrative intentionally put themselves in a dangerous situation in order to research and potentially harvest a power source, because this power source is potentially worth their lives. Here again, is an example of the life and energy equivalency in energy narratives. In addition to putting themselves in danger, the scientists are using a race called the Ood to do the drilling. According to the scientists, the Ood presented themselves to the humans and asked to serve them saying that that is their desired purpose in life. While, we never see the crew members abuse the Ood, they tend to treat them like cattle as a result of their convenient racism.

Of course, the power source is something much more dangerous that it appears. The humans discover that it can never be harvested and only some of them make it off the planet with their lives, which is more than can be said for the Ood.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this episode: life= energy, religious element, political oppression, convenient racism.

I Can’t Fight What I Am: Star Trek X: Nemesis

Energy use is not the primary focus of Nemesis. Its plot consists mostly of a megalomaniac obsessed with destroying the United Federation of Planets. However, the primary motivation for said megalomaniac is his history of abuse at the hands of the Romulans as he worked in the Reman dilithium mines. The treatment of the Reman minors is meant to parallel real life labor abuses by major energy corporations.

The film opens with the assassination of the Romulan senate after hearing a report from the Romulan military urging them to accept an alliance with one of their colonies, Remus. After the Praetor (the Romulan prime minster) refuses to accept the proposal of the military, a radioactive devise is detonated, killing everyone in the room. Just before the devise activates, the Praetor announces that Remus is not meeting their mining quotas. The film later explains that one of the primary exports of Remus is mined dilithium, which Remus is forced to deliver only to the Romulan Empire.

Starfleet informs Captain Picard that the new Romulan government has asked to parley with Starfleet. Picard expresses surprise that the new Praetor is a Reman named Shinzon, because according to Cdr. Data, Remans are considered an undesirable caste in the Romulan Empire. It is this convenient racism that causes the mistreatment of the Reman miners. Picard meets with Shinzon and discovers that he is a clone of Picard. Shinzon explains that he was meant to replace Picard and infiltrate Starfleet but the plan was abandoned when a new Romulan government took power. Shinzon was then sent to the dilithium mines on Remus because it was thought that no human could survive working in the dilithium mines let alone a child:

In those terrible depths lived only the damned. Together with the Reman slaves I was condemned to an existence of unceasing labor and starvation under the brutal heel of the Romulan gaurds. Only the very strongest had any hope of survival. –Shinzon.

Shinzon said that a male Reman took care of him and thus he became brothers with the Remans. Shinzon claims that the motivation behind everything that he has done was to liberate the Remans.

Of course, Shinzon is not as he seems and secretly wants to destroy the Federation, and the real reason he wanted to parley with the Enterprise is because his survival depends on an injection of Picard’s DNA, as the result of a defect in his cloning process. However, the reasons for Shinzon’s madness can be directly linked to his abuse at the hands of Romulans.

 

Clearly, in Nemesis the Romulans’ racism against the Remans was the cause of the abuse that created Shinzon. However, the linking racism to resource extraction is not the invention of science fiction. Racism is a theme in energy narratives from Star Trek to Munif’s Cities of Salt to The Hunger Games novels.  Therefore, I’d like to pose the question: “Are crimes against race inherit in today’s energy resource extraction? Does the desirability of the resource create a convenient racism or is racism an underlying condition that resource extractors take advantage of?” Are the Romulans racist against the Remans because the Remans have dilithium or are the Romulans using a racism that already exists to justify forcing the Remans to work to extract their dilithium?

Star Trek The Next Generation: Encounter at Farpoint Station. New Series; Same Energy Narratives.

Encounter at Farpoint Station provides a different perspective than a traditional energy narrative. Most of the energy narratives I have presented thus far show a stronger force subjugating a weaker force in order to take their energy resources from them. In this case, the stronger force has all of the energy resources and is subjugating a weaker force that requires them. This TNG episode is also another example of convenient racism. The stronger force feels more comfortable exhorting the weaker force because it is of a different race.

 

Cdr. Riker needs the Enterprise to come pick him up from Farpoint Station, a Federation outpost. While he is waiting he talks with Groppler Zorn, who is the leader of Farpoint Station. Riker says to Zorn that he is impressed with the station’s energy surplus. Zorn appears flattered and says that geothermal energy is one of the benefits of the planet. Zorn offers Riker some fruit and Riker asks if there is an apple. Zorn regrettably says there is not, but as he passes the fruit bowl to Riker there appears to be a bowl of apples behind it. Riker exclaims that the bowl of apples could not have been there a second ago but shrugs it off when he leaves Zorn’s apartment. After Riker leaves Zorn begins shouting at thin air that it has been told not to do things like that and that if it does it again that he will have to punish it.

After Riker boards the Enterprise he tries to convince Cpt. Picard that Farpoint Station is trading its surplus energy for the materials it takes to build the station, since the planet has no such materials.

Picard and Riker decide to play Zorn a visit. They bring Counselor Troi with them. Troi has empathic abilities and while she is on Farpoint she senses an overpowering feeling of loneliness and despair but notes that these feelings are not coming from Zorn or any of his people. Zorn refuses to discuss Troi’s reaction so Picard, Riker and Troi leave.

While the Enterprise is investigating Farpoint Station an unknown ship approaches the planet. The ship is considerably larger than the Enterprise, therefore they are unable to stop the ship from firing on the planet. Riker and Data continue to investigate the planet while the ship is firing at the surface. They go to talk to Zorn but just as he is about to help them, Zorn is transported away. Riker, Lt. Cdr. Data and Troi beam aboard the unknown starship. Troi notes that she senses strong feelings of anger and hate. As they continue to search the ship, the away team finds Zorn trapped behind a force field, screaming in pain. The away team frees Zorn from his prison and they are transported back to the Enterprise. Troi informs Picard that the vessel is alive. Zorn admits that his people found another such creature and that they “saved it”; “helped it”. Riker notes that it must be this creature that is converting the planet’s geothermal energy into matter. The vessel turns into a creature similar to a massive jellyfish. The Enterprise connects an energy beam to the station and the station itself transforms into another creature.

Zorn claims that he never meant to harm the creature and that he fed it the planet’s surplus of energy. Picard retorts that Zorn only fed it enough to keep it alive and thus forced it into whatever shaped he needed. The two creatures float off into space side-by-side. It is clear that Zorn did not feel guilty about exploiting the jellyfish creature because it was not humanoid. In science fiction, what defines race is different, but ultimately the principles of racism remain the same: as long as the person you are exploiting doesn’t look like you, it’s okay.

As I mentioned before, in this episode the stronger force has all of the energy resources and is subjugating a weaker force that requires them. The stronger force in Encounter at Farpoint is just as ruthless as the stronger forces I have mentioned in other posts. Zorn and his people force the creature, (which is playing the role of the weaker force,) to give them something they desire. This perspective is important to consider since it is evidence for the claim that it is not a lack of energy resource that causes cold-heartedness in a people but rather that cold-heartedness causes a people to act ruthlessly when an energy resource is involved.