Thoughts on Runtime by S.B. Divya

The other day Fred Clark wrote a post discussing in some detail what he theorizes is the one big idea behind Donald Trump’s campaign for President of the United States.  In typical Slacktivist fashion Clark went to some lengths to build all the logical connections necessary to reach his conclusion: that Donald Trump is running a campaign built on the premise that some Americans are more legitimate citizens than others (always and forever, if you have the time you should give him a read).

The underlying assumption of this idea is that the criteria for determining American legitimacy follows a simple two-axis rubric: is a person’s skin white enough, and is their religion closely enough related to some form of American Protestant Christianity?  People who fail this test, either along one or both axes, are discounted as illegitimate by Trump and many of his supporters regardless of their actual status as citizens.  It’s an ugly system upholding an ugly idea.

The temptation at this point is to make some kind of facile transition where I suggest that this line of political thought is relevant because I recently read S.B. Divya’s novella Runtime which was remarkably prescient in predicting and elaborating on the discourse of 2016.  Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s prescient for a writer of color to recognize a pattern in political discourse that has threatened to affect them personally while white readers like myself have had the luxury of ignoring the growing tide of racism, bigotry, and xenophobia until Trump came along and mainstreamed it.  So I’m trying to resist that sentiment, even though I suspect the very act of bringing it up highlights how my own privilege has allowed me to be ignorant before the events of the last year.

Anyway, Runtime.

First, there is the necessary disclosure that I met Divya once last year when Rachael and I were in California visiting friends of ours, and we all spent a pleasant evening enjoying each other’s company.  I picked up her story because it’s in my and Rachael’s shared Kindle library, and I’m not receiving any sort of compensation for discussing the story now.

The core plot of Runtime is a sports adventure following a young Filipino-American woman named Mary Margaret Guinto (Marmeg for short) who has dreams of becoming a professional embed runner (embed running is a combination of ultramarathon and parkour performed with the help of a combination of exoskeleton and computer implant technology that enhances a person’s natural athletic abilities).  Marmeg is a talented computer programmer who’s managed to scrape together a decent kit of embed gear that she hopes will give her a chance to place in the Minerva Sierra Challenge.  Marmeg’s motivation for all this is the prize money, which she can use to pay her tuition to go to developer school and earn a reputation as a legitimate citizen so she can receive sponsorships for her racing dreams.

That’s the connection between Runtime and Trump, by the way.  In the future that Divya has imagined, American citizenship has been stratified into different tiers of licensure.  Unlicensed citizens, like Marmeg and her family, aren’t entitled to common social benefits like public education, healthcare, or retirement benefits, and the only way to become licensed is to pay a flat fee that still only confers second-class citizenship (Marmeg paid her fee as a teen, but she’s unable to pay for the college program she wants to attend because she can’t qualify for financial aid as a postnatal licensed citizen).  The system Divya’s imagined here is based primarily in economic differences, but it’s hard to ignore the historical disadvantage that children of nonwhite immigrants would have under this system.  The marginalization Marmeg experiences in the story as a postnatal licensee very easily tracks with racial animus towards immigrants and American citizens of non-European heritage.

Perhaps most frustrating about Marmeg’s experience in this story is the way she insists on doing things as legitimately as possible.  She genuinely dislikes that her gear is “filched” and that one of her methods for acquiring technology is by selling her code on the black market.  In running the Minerva Challenge, Marmeg emphasizes to herself repeatedly that she wants to do it legitimately, and when she finds herself in a situation where she needs to accept illicit help if she’s going to have a chance of success she feels highly conflicted about accepting the help.  At the story’s end, when she gets disqualified for a different breach of the race rules (which she feels justified in doing to save the life of another runner), she struggles with whether or not she should fight the disqualification because of her guilt over the cheating for which she didn’t get caught.

Marmeg, though she’s realistic about how unfair the system is to her and her family, wants to work within it as much as she possibly can.  Part of this ambition is motivated by the reality that extralegal means of getting ahead still have limitations that she can’t accept, but I think Marmeg also wants to believe that the system is legitimate.  This tension’s echoed in her strained relationship with her family’s Catholicism, as she constantly questions God about her circumstances throughout the race while also taking responsibility for her decisions to break the rules.

The great unfairness of Marmeg’s situation comes in the resolution where we see that she’s doomed to a dissatisfying life as a second-rate citizen.  Despite all her best efforts and her genuine talent, she’s unable to succeed as a runner.  She’s prepared to acquiesce to her mother’s pragmatic demands and take leave of her dreams.  It’s only in the last couple pages that we see that things will get better for Marmeg–not because of her ingenuity, but because she has the good fortune to have helped out a privileged runner whose family has the resources to elevate her.  Even the happy ending of the story is predicated on chance, further condemning the system Divya’s set as the backdrop for her tale.

If you’d like to read Runtime, it’s available at Amazon on Kindle and in paperback.

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