I’ve been on a big 80’s kick since reading Ready Player One. I even went to the library and picked up a copy of The Running Man movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger. But I also knew that there was a book version – which I’d never read. So, I pick up the audio-book version from the library too; and off we go.
The book itself is quite short – only 6 audio CD’s. Apparently King wrote the story in 48 hours or so. It’s definitely got the feel of a longer short story to it.
It’s the year 2025. The dystopian society is split between haves and have-nots. Ben Richards’ is in the latter group. He’s been blacklisted from most jobs after protesting conditions at a plant with leaky radiation shields that makes everyone sterile. His wife has had to resort to hooking to pay the bills and his baby daughter lies seriously ill. Desperate and at the end of his rope, Richards goes to the all-powerful media station ICS and tries out for one of their sadistic reality shows in hopes of earning enough money to save his daughter and free his wife from her state.
Richards shows up in a mass of people also desperate for a chance at cash. After passing through hoop after hoop of evaluations, he is selected for the biggest of all the games, “The Running Man.” He is given a few thousand dollars to start, is dumped on the street outside the building with a 24 hour grace period, and then becomes the quarry in a 30 day hunt. For each day he evades his pursuers, his family earns a large sum of money. If he doesn’t evade them – it won’t matter because he’ll be dead.
It seems like suicide, since nobody has ever survived more than 8 days. The network requires Ben to mail in 2 videos a day – which allows them to track him. His face is plastered on the TV every night with dastardly satire and stories conjured up about him to get the whole country screaming for his death. Unlike the movie, the chase happens in the open – anywhere in the country and the public are offered rewards for reporting him and for confirmed sightings.
Without giving away too much, Ben manages to stay a little ahead of his captors with tons of action and plenty of violence. The stalkers in the book aren’t the comic-book style stalkers found in the movie. They’re regular police and anonymous hunters that are never really described. He hides in regular hotels, runs through streets, hides in the woods. Yet, he manages to find a few sympathetic people who help him in evading capture. There’s lots of good social commentary during these moments since those that help him are some of the very poor of the poor. The most downtrodden.
Eventually, however, Richards is inevitably cornered and the final showdown takes place. The playout of those confrontations (more than one!) are very good. King gives you get a peek into the minds of these all-in poker players raising and re-raising each other again and again. Each side makes shocking and unexpected moves. When the cards are finally laid on the table, what is revealed is shocking and Richard’s response is no less so. It’s an excellent bit of psychology and imaginative writing that keeps you quite at the edge of your seat. While the final resolution feels just a little forced, it is still quite good.
Overall, I really liked the book. In some ways, I liked the movie better (a set playing field, comic-book style stalkers, etc). But the dsytopia that is painted in this book is raw and very believable. There’s a lot of excellent social commentary on where we’re going as a people when societies are split so badly between the haves and have-nots; and where we go when we stop valuing people as human beings of equal dignity and just see the downtrodden as annoying grime left in the cracks. I give the book a solid A- and recommended read.