When I was fully engrossed in the Hunger Games trilogy, one of the things that kept flashing in my mind was that the basic plot of playing a “game” where you were just trying to stay alive felt very reminiscent of the movie The Running Man. You remember this film, right? Arnold Schwarzenegger starring as a wrongly-convicted man who has to run for his life in a televised game show where his hunters are not trying to capture him, but kill him. I knew somewhere that this had been a book, but at the time, and even years later, there was no desire on my part to go read the actual book. Fast forward to my recent obsession with dystopian novels, the similarities to the HG, and this got added to my never ending “to read” list.
The Running Man, written by Stephen King writing as Richard Bachman, is a gritty, fast-paced, action filled, intelligent novel of a dystopian time where the world is controlled by the Network who provides Free-Vee to the masses and airs various game shows as a way for the poor to plead for money. The twist with the shows is that they are sadistic in nature – for example, one show has a man with a heart condition see how long he can stay on a treadmill until he has a heart attack, making $10 per minute.
Ben Richards, the main character, is one of the many down-on-his-luck people who is out of work with no hopes of another job (having basically been blackballed for not wanting to keep a job that was making him sterile) who has a very sick child in desperate need of medicine and a wife who pimps herself to pay for groceries. In a world of extreme haves and have-nots, Ben Richards falls way into the latter category. When he finally decides he can’t take watching his daughter suffer anymore, he heads to the games headquarters to wait in line for hours to attempt to get cast on some show, knowing he will probably never see his family again.
Richards turns out to be the exact specimen that the show likes to use for their most popular game, The Running Man. On this specific show, 3 men are sent out into the public to see how long they can stay away from the hunters, earning $100 for every hour they manage to stay alive. This show is also a game with audience participation. For a sighting, the public can earn $100. For a sighting that leads to a kill, it is $1000. The contestants are shown to the audience as horrible, brutal men, whether or not that is true. The Network aims specifically to get the audience worked up into a frenzy of hate and rage aimed at these contestants rather than actually realizing that it is the powers that be who they should be mad at.
Along the way, Richards winds up getting assistance from unlikely sources. One source gives Richards a lesson in just how messed up the system is and how the masses are being duped. From the mindlessness of Free-Vee to the rampant air pollution that is quietly killing off those without access to expensive filtration systems. Richards tries to use his required air-time to bring this information to the public and is quickly drowned out by the Network.
I found myself reading this book as quickly as I could, grabbing any chance that I could to sneak in another chapter (or two since they were very short). It keeps you on the edge of your seat, with little chance that it is going to “end well” for anyone. In a post-9/11 world, the ending was somewhat jaw-dropping, but absolutely spot on.
The only warning I will add is that many people have said that if you are reading a new version of the book, do not read the introduction until you have finished it as it gives away the ending. I read part of it before I saw that.
Not the world’s best book, but a great read and interesting to see the correlations to reality and current dystopian issues given that it was written in 1981.