Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman) crafted The Running Man early in his career, though after such mega-hits as Carrie and The Shining. A bit of a departure from the supernatural horror that is most frequently associated with his work, the novel describes a science fiction dystopia where market capitalism and television game shows have spiraled out of control, and the separation between the haves and the have-nots has been formalized with separate currencies. King establishes characters quickly, creating sympathy in the first few pages for Ben Richards--whose 18-month-old baby girl is suffering from a horrible cough, perhaps pneumonia. Not able to afford medicine, Richards enters himself in the last-chance money-making scheme of the Free-Vee games. The games include Treadmill to Bucks, in which heart-attack prone contestants struggle to outlast a progressively demanding treadmill, or the accurately named Swim the Crocodiles. After a rigorous battery of physical and mental examinations, Richards is assigned "Elevator Six"--the path of a chosen few--that leads to The Running Man game. In this game, the stakes and the prizes are raised. Success means a life of luxury. Failure means death. Unfortunately, few ever win the game; in fact, as the producer tells Richards, in six years no one has survived.
The Running Man is a short book, tightly written to be read and enjoyed quickly. The future world it depicts is vividly captured with a few essential details. The action is also fast paced and, though the novel differs from much of King's other work, the sardonic social commentary reveals a pleasing glimmer of King's characteristically twisted sense of humor. --Patrick O'Kelley