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The Running Man by Stephen King (1982) 317 p.

Like The Long Walk, this is another novel which Stephen King initially wrote under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman. It was one of his early books which I quite wanted to read because it’s very different to King’s traditional horror fare, being more of a science fiction thriller. It’s probably more famous for the Arnold Schwarzenegger film adaptation, which is only loosely based on the book, and which neatly slots into the so-bad-it’s-good category. (It’s probably also the most Eighties film ever made, even more than Back to the Future).

The Running Man takes place in then-distant 2025, when America has become a polluted dystopian wasteland where the rich rule over the poor and the masses are kept entertained by nightly gladiatorial game shows in which contestants compete for their lives. Ben Richards is a poverty-stricken 28-year-old father whose baby daughter is dying of pneumonia, who makes the difficult decision to enter the deadliest game show of all: The Running Man, in which the contestant must survive as long as possible while being hunted across America by a team of killers.

A down-and-out protagonist struggling to feed his family is a running theme in much of King’s early fiction, reflecting his own circumstances for much of his early life – married young, kids to feed, living in a trailer, working dead-end jobs. There’s an undercurrent of anger in The Running Man, as Richards rails against the injustice of the gap between rich and poor, and as the novel heats up towards the end there’s the sense of a brewing class war. The dystopian future America of The Running Man is obviously an exaggerated vision (whether one looks at it from 1982 or 2013) but there’s no doubt it was born from very real thoughts and observations King made about his own situation as a young man in the 1970s. (Although it’s very… American of King never to lay the blame on capitalism itself. For a foreign writer – or perhaps even a modern American writer – that would be considered an indisputable fact.)

My enjoyment of The Running Man was limited by the fact that I was spoilered on the ending, which probably would have been a really great one if I hadn’t known it was coming. I was spoilered not by my own curiosity, not by Wikipedia or another book review, but by Stephen King’s own introduction to The Long Walk. (The same introduction precedes this edition of The Running Man, which was part of a series printed by Signet in the late 1990s; I imagine it also precedes the other two Bachman books, Rage and Roadwork – if Rage was reprinted at all, which, come to think of it, I don’t believe it was, on King’s request). Spoilers are irritating at the best of times, but when the author himself spoils you it’s beyond stupid – particularly when he does so in a completely different book! The idea for reprint introductions in general, I suppose, stems from the days when it was a 19th century classic that was being reprinted, and it was assumed everyone had already read it and would appreciate 20 pages of some literary analysis at the beginning. Putting that questionable notion aside, it’s completely ridiculous to carry the custom on into the modern age, when many of us are picking up books that we’ve never read, for the first time, in a reprint edition. And even then, why not put it at the end, after the book is fresh in our minds, and we’re thinking about it, and might appreciate somebody else’s perspective?

Just, sorry, again: Stephen King wrote an introduction for his book in which he tells you the ending. And then put it at the beginning of other books as well.

Anyway. Aside from this fuckwittery, did I enjoy The Running Man? Yes, but not as much as I was expecting to, even knowing I’d been spoilered. The Long Walk is by far the superior Bachman book – though it’s also, in my opinion, one of the best things King ever wrote. The Running Man, in comparison to The Long Walk’s chilling simplicity, takes place in a much more complex world, and makes much more of its science fiction and dystopian aspects – not always skilfully. Richards’ rage and contempt are thinly veiled facades for King’s own, and the injustices of this future America are often awkwardly shoehorned into the plot. I’m thinking specifically of his pillow talk conversation about air pollution records, including specific years and legislative acts, with his black street hoodlum saviour – and let’s not even get into King’s phonetic dialogue for black characters.

Worth reading, but not the best of the Bachman books – and for the love of God, don’t read the introduction.

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Anderson (2012) 226 p.

The Yellow Birds is the debut novel from Kevin Powers, a former American soldier who served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. Like many first novels, it’s partly autobiographical, and writing it clearly served as a healing process for some of the things Powers did and saw while at war. It can sometimes be hard to tell where the autobiography ends and the novel begins, until it starts to go down some dark places towards the end.

The novel is narrated by John Bartle, a stand-in for Powers, and features a back-and-forth chronology that jumps between the Bartle’s time in Nineveh Province and his home back in Virginia (with a brief interlude on the way home, in Germany). Bartle’s best friend in Iraq – or maybe they were just forced together by circumstance – is Murph, a 19-year-old private. We learn early on that Murph will not survive, which is a problem for Bartle, since he promised Murph’s mother he’d bring him back safe. At first it appears that this is all that haunts Bartle back home, until it’s gradually implied that there’s more to it than that – specifically, about halfway through the book, when Bartle’s mother mentions that the military’s Criminal Investigation Division is looking for him.

The Yellow Birds has been critically acclaimed, and it deserves to be. Anderson is a gifted writer with a talent for beautiful prose, and the novel is littered with insights that could only come from somebody who has genuinely been through hell and lived to talk about it. That’s what The Yellow Birds is ultimately about – survival, not death. After all, more American soldiers in Iraq lived than died, but the people who came back certainly weren’t the same ones who went there. (In some years, more US troops have died from suicide than combat.) Throughout much of the book, Bartle expects to die, and seems bewildered when he doesn’t. He comes back to America a scarred and broken man with a terrible secret.

Some have called it the definitive Iraq War novel, which I disagree with. It’s too early for there to be one, for a start, but in any case The Yellow Birds isn’t really a novel about war – it’s a novel about coming home after being at war. In that category, at least, it’s a brilliant accomplishment, and I’ll be very interested to see what Kevin Powers writes next.

I would leave it at that, but there’s one more thing I want to discuss. Since it involves the ending of the plot, I’m placing it below a spoiler warning, and I do strongly recommend you read this book, so don’t peek:

 

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS, AVERT YOUR EYES

 

What bothered me about the ending was that Bartle is far, far more wracked with guilt about what he and Sterling did with Murph’s body than he is about the fact that Sterling casually murdered the cartwright to cover it up. Robbing a mother of the closure of her son’s corpse is a dreadful thing, but killing somebody who didn’t have to die is far worse. What about his mother? What about his family?

This would be understandable if Bartle had been portrayed as a gung-ho fuck-em-up GI Joe figure who only cares about Americans and doesn’t give a flying fuck about “hajjis,” but he wasn’t. There are multiple points in the book where he expresses guilt and remorse about killing Iraqi insurgents in the heat of battle – yet he expresses no qualms about being accessory to the murder of an Iraqi civilian in cold blood. Even if he is understandably more upset about an action which affected those he personally knew, and which he had a slightly more direct hand in, and which he had to suffer through the ramifications of, I still found it odd and out of character for not a single sentence to be expressed in remorse about the killing of the cartwright. The fact that the scene easily could have been written without the cartwright only adds to my confusion. Powers deliberately included this casual shooting, but I can’t figure out why; it seems to be at odds with the rest of the novel.

My short story “The Cave,” a fantasy/horror/Western set in Outback Australia in the 19th century, has been published in the July edition of The Abstract Quill, and can be read for free online.

This is the first story I’ve had published since the beginning of the year, which was a bit of a downer after having two right on New Year’s Day. But I have a few more in the pipeline which have been accepted at various venues and will be coming out over the next few months.

Titan by John Varley (1979) 309 p.

This is possibly the oldest book I own – oldest in the sense that I bought it ages ago and still hadn’t read it, not actually physically old. It’s a cheap paperback reprint that I purchased from Borders on the Hay Street Mall sometime when I was in university, so 2008 at the latest. Borders has long since gone bankrupt and I now live on the other side of the country, but somehow this book followed me to Melbourne, patiently waiting to be read.

Not worth it! Well, it’s not terrible, but it was a very different man who wrote Titan (and The Ophiuchi Hotline, and The Barbie Murders) than wrote The Golden Globe, one of my favourite rollicking sci-fi adventures of all time. Titan is a clear-cut case of a Big Dumb Object story, in which NASA Captain Cirocco Jones and her crew have their exploratory mission to Saturn disrupted by the sudden discovery of an enormous ringlike object (which they later dub ‘Gaea’) in orbit around the planet. Titan was published in 1979, the same year the Pioneer probe entered Saturn’s orbit; I suppose publication predated this, but I found it odd that in the fictional 2025 the book takes place in, NASA has never thought to send an unmanned probe – or even discovered more powerful telescopes – which would have discovered Gaea long before a manned vessel arrived.

In any case, the usual stuff happens upon arrival, with the astronauts exploring the interior of the structure, encountering bizarre creatures and trying to uncover what it is and where it’s from. There is a slightly new twist to the sub-genre, which is only discovered towards the end but is completely given away by my edition’s blurb. This appears to be a recurring problem with Varley books. Don’t read blurbs, ever.

I’m not sure what happened to Varley in the 1980s, but he somehow became a much better writer. Titan’s dialogue and characterisation is clunky and awkward, in direct contrast to the much more polished prose of Steel Beach and The Golden Globe. And the story is flat-out ludicrous, the kind of science fiction you could really only get away with in the 1970s. There are occasional flashes of Varley’s coming brilliance – jokes, wisecracks, amusing similes – but for the most part this novel is indistinguishable from any of the other camp, forgotten paperbacks of the 1970s and 1980s that you’ll find yellowing away in the sci-fi/fantasy section of a second-hand bookstore.

It’s the first part of a trilogy, though, and since I already own the second volume, Wizard, I’ll probably continue reading it.

Distrust That Particular Flavour by William Gibson (2012) 259 p.

Distrust That Particular Flavour is a collection of non-fiction pieces by William Gibson, published between the late 1980s and the modern day. I read them bit by bit while reading other books, because while Gibson’s a good writer, his style and choice of topics can easily be repetitive.

There are a number of excellent articles in here. “Disneyland With The Death Penalty” is easily the most famous, a scathing critique of Singapore he wrote for Wired in the early 1990s, which then got Wired banned in Singapore. “My Obsession” chronicles Gibson’s discovery of eBay in the 1990s, which he used to acquire antique watches. “The Road To Oceania” is a reflection on George Orwell’s 1984, and the very different road society took towards endless surveillance. And I particularly enjoyed “Modern Boys and Mobile Girls,” in which Gibson discusses the association between Japan and science fiction. There’s an assumption that Neuromancer (and much of his other early work) was set in Japan because Japan was the big rising star of the 1980s, and that if he were to write those books again today, wouldn’t he set them in China – probably Shanghai? The answer is no, because “Japan is the global imagination’s default setting for the future,” an assertion Gibson convincingly backs up.

There are also, however, a lot of articles I found less interesting – reflections on some 1970s band, a review of a book of photographs, and a number of pieces in which Gibson extrapolates on his thoughts about futurism and the convergence of technology, which, if I’m being honest, I found difficult to follow. That’s my problem, not Gibson’s, but I do feel that a lot of the pieces in this collection don’t sit well alongside each other.

Can I recommend this book? I don’t think so. Gibson is an excellent writer, but all of the really good articles I mentioned above can be read freely online – I’ve linked to them above. Distrust That Particular Flavour is only a necessary purchase for the Gibson completist.

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