The Slummer: Quarters Till Death by Geoffrey Simpson © 2021, BarkingBox Press, 364 Pages.
In my youth, during the 80’s, working a summer job as a hospital orderly, in our moments of respite, we’d sit and flick through a pile of well-read magazines waiting for the next call to assist.
One magazine had a short story about future humanoids created for couriering. I seem to recall it was written by Isaac Asimov, (although I may be wrong on that – it was a long time ago and I’ve never rediscovered the story since).
Until The Slummer, that sci-fi short story was the only futuristic running story I’d read. On reflection, while I didn’t appreciate it, the premise of genetically enhanced running machines was genius.
Where The Slummer: Quarters Till Death carves out its niche and unique point of difference is with the premise that designer runners have supplanted the need for drug-taking ones, which in Simpson’s 2083 is still considered an act of cheating. It’s an interesting theme as to whether designing the ultimate child doesn’t amount to doing the same thing, even if ethically deemed to be acceptable. All you’ve done is standardise running to what we see in Formula-1 motor sport today with everything supercharged.
The canvas for Slummer is Cleveland – todays top-ranked U.S. city for every unfavourable measure – 62-years from now. Society is acutely divided into an elite class – those who have embraced technological advances, including designing their future generations. Meanwhile at the other end of the scale – millions live in abject poverty in slums with their situation determined by who they work for and the city who controls who lives where.
Benjamin Brandt is a slummer and a natural-born, living with his father and brother. The family are barely hanging onto their room with their fragile existence dependent on working at a foundry, pressing metal moulds to supply a war in Europe.
The Brandt’s co-exist and work together for their mutual survival, living precariously close to being condemned to living in Tent city, the lowest rung of a social ladder, if they lose their jobs at the foundry.
The one thing different from other slummers is that Benjamin is an unnaturally gifted, non-genetically engineered runner.
In the future, running – training and racing – remains a simple pursuit on one level but it is a sport now flourishing on another due to designer athletes who push boundaries beyond what a naturally born athlete can aspire to. Due to this and a pervasive deep hatred of inferior natural-borns, it’s pointless for anyone other than genetically modified elite athletes to compete at the highest level of running. Todays cynics might say it’s the same deal for non-drug-aided athletes, or for athletes without Nike Vaporflys.
With access to competition barred, Benjamin and his girlfriend Maya can only admire the best runners by watching television. Any dreams Benjamin has are destined to remain unfulfilled in a society where slummers accept their standing in a world that doesn’t want them – until a chance opportunity to compete in a local road race sets him on a journey to compete at the national championships over 5000m.
It’s a solid template, just with a different backdrop. Where The Slummer differs is from Simpson drawing some interesting parallels, and providing even sharper contrasts with our own time. In a relatively short time span we’ve moved from a world embracing globalisation and inclusion to one where the cancel culture has fuelled higher intolerance and exclusion. Playing that forward, in Simpson’s highly-segregated world of haves and have-nots, he has curated the perfect environment for a downtrodden runner to overcome barriers – and there are plenty of them.
The Slummer follows a similar path as other running novels have such as No Wind, The Olympian et al. where an underdog seeks to triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds but in Slummers case there’s also an added dimension of how a sport looks in the future. How do genetically enhanced athletes show up? How could you hope to compete against them? And if you somehow managed to prevail, is the real price of attaining success too high in such a deeply prejudiced world?
You’ll need to read Slummer to find out. It wasn’t a book that made me want to go for a run as others have said, then again nor did Golden Girl, but it’s recommended all the same – and not only because it’s a good running novel, rather because this story will leave you thinking about where are we going to end up if we keep going down the path we’re currently on.