Friday, March 6, 2009

The Running Man -- Stephen King writing as Richard Bachman

When I finally got around to reading The Hunger Games a few weeks back, I mentioned that it made me want to re-watch The Running Man and Death Race 2000, re-read Stephen King's The Long Walk, read Battle Royale and get my hands on any other dystopian story that dealt with reality television and our role as audience. A commenter suggested that rather than watch The Running Man, I should read it, as the book was far, far superior to the movie. So I did.

And he was right.

The year is 2025. Ben Richards hasn't been able to find regular work for years. His young daughter comes down with the flu, and it's so bad that she clearly needs a real doctor -- not, as Ben puts it, "a block midwife with dirty hands and whiskey breath".

So he heads across town to the Network Games Building. Contestants on Free-Vee shows like Treadmill to Bucks, Swim the Crocodiles and How Hot Can You Take It rarely survive, but their families get the winnings. And there's always a chance that he'll make it -- he's a powerful man, smart and determined.

But he gets assigned to The Running Man. Which is basically a death warrant. In the six years it's aired, not a single man has survived. He'll get a twelve-hour head start. After that, he'll be fair game. Not just to the Hunters that The Network will send out -- regular citizens will get reward money for providing tips on his whereabouts, and they'll get even more if they kill him. If he survives for 30 days, he'll win one billion dollars. If he doesn't, his family will receive one hundred dollars for every hour he's free -- and one hundred dollars for every pursuer he kills.

This was a one sitting book for me -- I actually tried to go to bed with twenty chapters unread, but after tossing and turning and tossing some more I finally resigned myself to a serious lack of sleep, got up and finished it. I ended up exhausted but content. It's a very fast-paced book -- none of the chapters are more than three pages long, and rather than chapter titles, there's a countdown. By the time I hit ...Minus 020 and COUNTING..., I was so amped up and tense that it's ridiculous that I even attempted to go to bed.

As per usual with Stephen King, I felt this story in my chest and in my gut -- reading him is almost always a very visceral experience for me. And there were a couple of passages that made my stomach flip around in an extremely unpleasant manner. One of them involved intestines. But The Running Man was more than action and gross-outs -- this extremely ugly vision of the future isn't exactly enjoyable, but Ben Richards is. He's angry and smart and unpredictable, all traits I enjoy in a hero. And the world, while bleak, is an interesting one -- obviously there's the futuristic aspect, but there's also a huge class divide, and within the classes, there seems to also be a huge racial and cultural divide as well -- and rather than do any explaining at the beginning, Stephen King just drops you into the thick of it.

In the introduction (when it comes to Stephen King books, the introductions are always worth reading), he discusses all of the books he published under this pseudonym. About The Running Man, he says, "...which may be the best of them because it's nothing but story--it moves with the goofy speed of a silent movie, and anything which is not story is cheerfully thrown over the side." I don't think he's giving himself enough credit.

Lesson learned? Reality television is evil.

(cross-posted at Bookshelves of Doom)

1 comment :

Becker said...

Not sure how I missed this when it first came out & but I'm getting it now!