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Runtime by S.B. Divya3.5 stars
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The problem with what gets marketed as dystopian SF these days is that a lot of it simply isn’t dystopian SF. Many times all we get are clichéd dystopian settings, those dime-a-dozen bleak Orwellian fascistic futures, used as the backdrop for what turns out to be, in the end, a superhero story. The horrors of life under an impersonal and heartless monolithic government simply exist so that some beautiful teenager can tear it all down with her trusty bow. Or whatever.

Runtime, the debut Tor.com novella from S. B. Divya, doesn’t offer that kind of pat reassurance. Instead, it emerges as a hopeful and uplifting tale in its own way. Mashing up the sensibilities of current dystopian trends with an old-school cyberpunk aesthetic, it’s the story of Mary Margaret (Marmeg) Guinto, a young woman scraping by as a nightclub bouncer in a rough near-future Southern California in which America has established what is effectively a caste system, requiring citizens to become “licensed” — at a cost naturally out of the range of the poor — in order to enjoy health care and education. Marmeg is determined to bootstrap herself out of this dead-end life by winning the Minerva Sierra Challenge, an upcoming cross-country footrace whose contestants wear cybernetic exoskeletons controlled by neural implants. Naturally, Marmeg can’t afford the high-end gear most of the popular, corporate-sponsored contestants use. She’s had to McGyver her own rig together out of discarded spare parts. But she’s got it working, and is determined to at least place, which would mean huge opportunities for both herself and her can’t-stay-out-of-trouble brother.

I would have liked to have spent more time roaming this richly textured world before the race. Divya has imagined a complex society with a lot going on regarding politics, notions of gender and economic stratification. It all really could have held my attention at novel length, and there are certainly enough ideas for one. This system that pretends it offers a path to advancement for the marginalized and underprivileged, which is actually designed to keep them in their place, is painfully relevant and warranted more detail. Plus, Marmeg is a believable underdog protagonist and not some idealized heroine, in constant conflict with a mother whose blithe acceptance of the way society has assigned her a meager lot in life fills Marmeg with a mix of sympathy and contempt.

But once the race is underway, covering miles and miles of rugged desert and mountain terrain (Divya brings her own experience as a runner into making these passages feel really tactile), the story moves swiftly and offers up unexpected dramatic complications. Marmeg, cynical about many areas of life but naive about others, will have encounters on her journey that challenge her morally and force her into some tough decisions about what she’s willing to win, and what’s she’s willing to sacrifice. The ending is especially satisfying, because it follows on convincingly from what has happened before, but doesn’t play out in the expected way.

Yes, I really liked Runtime but wish it had been a full novel, because the world is so richly imagined and Marmeg is someone I liked getting to know, someone I really wanted to succeed, because she was always prepared to run that extra mile.