Novella * “Richard Bachman” * T.V. Dystopia * 1982
This is a weird little book. It’s something of a rarity, in that it’s a Stephen King novel that’s not 800 pages long, although to be fair those were far less common in his early career when he had to worry about such trifling things as editing and whatnot. Far more important than the length is the tone and subject matter, both of which are different from a typical King book. This makes sense, because aside from the fact that King wrote it, The Running Man isn’t a Stephen King novel. I’m not going to rehash the whole Richard Bachman thing here, but I would recommend reading King’s essay on the matter, “The Importance of Being Bachman.” It’s generally found as an intro to any of the Bachman books and is an interesting insight into a writer’s process. For the purposes of this story, the shift of tone from King’s usual stories of flawed but ultimately good people dealing with the forces of evil is sharply apparent. The world of The Running Man is nasty, grimy, and pretty much irredeemable. Ben Richards, the man doing the running, along with some of the people he meets, have some virtue, but this is contrasted with the lives they are forced to live because of the world in which they find themselves.
In this particular dystopian nightmare, the United States is under control of The Network. The most powerful arm of The Network is The Games Commission. This is the principal means of suppressing the population. The Network has installed mandatory televisions, or “Free-Vees,” throughout society, which it uses to broadcast propaganda and the games. These games, which are all seemingly based on 80s game shows, are essentially modernized gladiator matches. If you win, you get money. If you lose, you’re injured or maimed. In the big money games, your life is at stake. The biggest money game, “The Running Man,” selects the most resourceful contestants and sets them free in the world. Contestants get a brief head-start, and then they are hunted. They’re paid for every hour they stay alive, and get bonus cash for any police officer or Hunter that they manage to dispatch. The only catch is, contestants must send two video tapes a day to the home office so that footage may be used on the actual show. If the contestant can last entire month, they walk home with a billion dollars. Obviously, that never happens.
The Running Man is a book about class warfare in this society, and it’s not subtle. Richards is a smart guy who has been kept down by the system his entire life. He’s actually too smart to play in the games, but alas his daughter is ill and the only way to afford medicine is to go downtown and give himself over to the mercy of The Network. Richards, however, is a rebel at heart and basically talks a mess of shit the entire time. He spends a lot of time pointing out inequity and unfairness and how everyone sucks all the time. This, of course, only serves to get him killed since he’s selected to be in The Running Man, which as noted before is a death sentence. Once he starts running, he is forced to seek aid from his own people, which in this case are the poors. There’s a lot of ideology amongst those who help Richards out, and it’s not long before they’re pointing out all kinds of sinister conspiracies and methods of suppression. It isn’t long before the plot has more to do with fighting the power than trying to win the game to save his family. It should be noted that while The Running Man isn’t subtle with its ideology (most dystopias aren’t), it moves so quickly and is entertaining enough that it doesn’t grate.
While television is the medium of oppression in The Running Man, this is more a dystopia founded upon the basic principal of wage disparity. The world here is presented, like many dystopias, as a logical extension of a current political or economic situation (I say logical if you happen to agree with the premise, of course). In this case, which is the late 1970s and early 80s, the country was dealing with a host of unpleasant, seemingly intractable problems. “Stagflation,” the height of American air pollution, and the onset of trickle-down economics were among some of the things that colored this time period, and all of them are reflected in this book. The idea behind this dystopian future is based on a society divided into three groups. The largest, of course, are the poor people. In this case poverty becomes extreme to the point of turning the United States into a third world country. This is seen in the various descriptions of slums and an in offhand descriptions such as referring to New York as “the largest city in the world.” Bachman’s vision of 2025 America looks more like modern China than anything else, and many of the issues that The Running Man portrays wouldn’t look out of place in Beijing (most glaringly the problem with horrific air-pollution and a powerful State that does nothing about it). I don’t think they hunt people for sport on live television, though.
The second group, the middle class, are presented as small-minded, easily-led, cheerfully-drugged, vicious idiots. These are the people that have been bought off by the fabled 1%, who of course run The Network and therefore everyone. Marijuana is legal in this world, and is easily available to the middle class. They, of course, are blazed all the time so that they don’t have to think too much about the state of the world. Free-Vee is the capper to keep both the poor and middle class focused on each other rather than the showrunners. The Running Man is successful because of the rhetoric. Aimed at the middle class, Richards is depicted as the scariest kind of unhinged, violent poor person. For their part, those in the middle obviously sense something is wrong with their society, but since they have enough money to be comfortable (and stoned) they are open to suggestion that the issue is with the horrible, lazy poor people who only want to destroy what the hard-working middle class earned with their own bare hands rather than with the people who stacked the deck in the first place. Sound familiar?
Of course our hero isn’t mean-spirited, violent, lazy, or any other stereotype attributed to the working class. Richards is basically the opposite of all that, as are most of the people who help him along the way. Bradley, a young black man living with his family, is a gang member. They hustle to survive. They also have a “gang suit” and a library card, and spend a lot of time researching air pollution and the rise of the Network dystopian nightmare. Meanwhile, the middle-class lady that Richards takes hostage later in the book is a vapid, poisonous dummy who never really fully comes to her senses, even when she’s thrust into the truth of the 1% oppression as directly as possible. Like I said, none of this is subtle, but it is consistent with a worst-case scenario based on income inequality. The ending, which features a 9/11 style takedown of The Network, is supposed to feel good considering the evil that emanated from that building. That explosion, in the context of guys like Bradley who are convinced of a popular uprising if only the truth can be exposed, are supposed to give hope that such dystopian regimes can be disposed of by a determined effort from the aggrieved populace. Maybe that’s true. But the core issue here, runaway late-stage capitalism, is more insidious than that. I’m not sure anything happens over the course of this story that would suggest that Network officials wouldn’t be able to spin Richard’s attack to their benefit. The Running Man is good for a visceral “fight the power!” thrill, but is honestly not nuanced enough to really facilitate a deeper discussion. And you know what? Sometimes that’s okay.