Trust No One: A Review of Runtime by S. B. Divya

Runtime (2016)
Written by: S.B. Divya
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 120 (Kindle edition)

Why I Chose It: Literally, we’re reviewing the Nebulas and no one had claimed it yet. That’s it, that’s the reason.

The premise:

The Minerva Sierra Challenge is a grueling spectacle, the cyborg’s Tour de France. Rich thrill-seekers with corporate sponsorships, extensive support teams, and top-of-the-line exoskeletal and internal augmentations pit themselves against the elements in a day-long race across the Sierra Nevada.

Marmeg Guinto doesn’t have funding, and she doesn’t have support. She cobbled her gear together from parts she found in rich people’s garbage and spent the money her mother wanted her to use for nursing school to enter the race. But the Minerva Challenge is the only chance she has at a better life for herself and her younger brothers, and she’s ready to risk it all.

Runtime is S. B. Divya’s exciting science fiction debut.

This review is spoiler free.

Discussion: So let me start this review by saying this is a hard one for me because I liked this book, but it reminds me of the way I love Lord of the Rings but can recognize that it has numerous pacing issues. The worldbuilding and social commentary in this novella are so interesting that I felt let down by the fact that it’s so short. Also by the fact that not much is resolved in the pages we do get. Kind of like if J.R.R. Tolkien had tried to fit the story of Frodo destroying the Ring at Mount Doom into 400 pages instead of over 1000.

My feelings about these two works are the only parallels you should be drawing between them, probably.

But let’s talk about Runtime being a work of social commentary, because it excels on that point. Divya imagines a near-future world with mutated, genderless humans (moots) who use their bodies like race cars (except over rougher terrain) and have corporate sponsorships to spend their lives racing. Marmeg is a “nat,” or a natural human, without any of the surgeries necessary to rid her body of the less aerodynamic parts, like her breasts and butt. She does have black market implants and an exoskeleton hardsuit to enhance her performance, all scrounged from things people richer than her have thrown away.

That storyline alone would fill the novella’s length pretty nicely, but added into the moots vs nats storyline are a group of people in the Sierra Nevadas who are this society’s version of the luddite living off the grid and prepping for doomsday. They keep wilderness skills alive in the firm belief that they will be useful sooner rather than later.

And in a yet another plot thread weaving its way into the mix, Marmeg’s purpose in racing is to earn enough money to get the surgeries for herself that will mean a future in racing. A future in racing would conceivably mean sponsorships, continued success, and a gateway into the lucrative world of producing the tech used in racing. All of this would mean citizenship papers for her younger brothers. Marmeg and her brothers are undocumented children of Filipino descent in a future-United States that requires citizenship to access a lot of basic necessities. So yes, citizenship and discrimination are also a theme.

The worldbuilding here is awesome in scope, and the moral dilemmas Marmeg faces in the 120 pages given to her are gut-wrenching. While I did enjoy this novella and found it a quick and easy read, I definitely would have liked more of it. Maybe not Lord of the Rings levels of “more of it,” but it could easily have filled an entire novel and given more resolution. So much was introduced that it felt like nothing was truly explored to its depths. The pacing felt off and story lines were picked up only to end up having almost no impact at all. In an installment as short as a novella, it left the plot feeling slightly jumbled.

In conclusion: This story has enough going for it that I’m not surprised it was nominated for a Nebula. As a work of social commentary it’s stunning in its scope, it’s just as a story that it starts to fall apart a bit.

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