Book review: Runtime, by S B Divya

28 03 2018

S B Divya is an electrical engineer and SF author. She’s also co-editor of the Escape Pod weekly SF podcast. Her debut novella, Runtime, is a Nebula Award finalist.

Runtime

Mary Margaret Guinto, known as Marmeg to her friends, is a gifted and determined young woman from LA’s marginalised underclass who dreams of a better life for herself and her younger siblings: education, security, opportunity. Marmeg sees the Minerva Sierra Challenge—a tech-augmented footslog across a demanding and dangerous stretch of mountainous, wooded terrain—as her ticket to this better life, with the promise of considerable prize money and sponsorship deals offered to the race’s winners and place-getters. But there’s nothing of the ‘level playing field’ about the Challenge: it’s a race where the quality of your gear can lend an inordinate advantage, and Marmeg’s gear is, to put it politely, broke-ass. Her cobbled-together exoskeleton is rubed from dumpster discards, her biochips are hand-coded and prone to breakdown, her support team (a mandatory requirement for the Challenge) is nonexistent. And the parental permission she requires to participate in the race? No, she doesn’t have that either. What she does have is the adaptability and inventiveness that comes from having rebuilt the gear from the ground up rather than simply buying it off the peg for an exorbitant amount. But will this be enough? There are lots of hazards in them thar hills …

The setup is of a Cinderella-style story, where virtue triumphs over adversity, but it’s to Divya’s credit that this isn’t exactly what she delivers. Runtime pulses with moral ambiguity, as Marmeg comes to question how important the act of winning the race can be, and because of this there’s a substantial additional strand of tension and grit which would otherwise be absent. This also gives greater opportunity to set Marmeg within the future society in which she operates, where biophysical augmentation through exoskeletal attachments and implants is becoming the norm. Though Marmeg identifies as female, many of the people with whom she interacts have transformed themselves into ‘moots’, neutered and ostensibly agendered, and a sense is conveyed that only two things have stopped Marmeg from yet going down such a path herself: lack of funds, and maternal disapproval.

The issue of cyborg-style body modification is a thorny one, and Divya provides both proponents (Marmeg herself, her friend T’Shawn, her competitors in the Challenge) and opponents (her mother Amihan, and ‘Mike’) of the concept and the practice. There’s a general sense that cyborgification is the way of the future—understandably, given Runtime‘s storyline and protagonist—but dangers are acknowledged, as are the grit and tarnish (breakdowns, infection etc) of component failure.

Does it qualify as hard SF? Overall, I would say so. The treatment of the various possible augments (exoskeletal armour and rewritable implants for Marmeg, lightweight adaptable smartsuits and retractable appendages for her considerably wealthier competitors) isn’t overly detailed, but it is broadly immersive, and doesn’t flinch at showing the more gruesome aspects: there’s a bit of body horror in the scene where Marmeg has to perform improvised surgery on herself to swap out a malfed implant for a functional one. If the surrounding society remains somewhat sketchy, this can be excused because (a) it’s quite a short book and (b) for large parts of the book, its protagonist is effectively isolated from that society. There would be plenty of scope for further exploration here, if the author chose to revisit this world, whether with Marmeg again or one or other of her contacts. It’s a slender book, though not a slight one.

(This is the thirteenth in my occasional ‘XX Hard SF’ series of reviews, on women writers of hard SF. For the purpose behind the series of reviews, see my posts here and here; for a listing of the books reviewed in this project, refer here.)

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