By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 18, 2015
Runner, a 2005 novel by William C. Dietz, is set in a far-distant future where humanity has settled dozens of planets across the galaxy but has lost most of its understanding of science and technology.
A trio of characters are at the center of the book: The titular runner, Jak Rebo, a seasoned interstellar courier-cum-mercenary; Tra Lee, a roughly 10-year-old boy who is a contender to be named leader of his religion, a Buddhist-like denomination known as the Way; and Lanni Norr, a “sensitive” with psychic powers who finds herself gaining unwanted attentions from the ghost of a deceased technology enthusiast and the order founded by the dead man.
The plot is kicked into motion when Rebo is hired to escort Lee to Thara, which happens to be both the home world of the mainly irreligious runner and the headquarters of the Way. While trying to elude operatives of a rival sect while traveling aboard a starship, the duo encounter Norr, who senses that Lee’s life is in danger after he becomes separated from Rebo.
The trio join forces, and eventually meet up with a fourth compatriot named Bo Hoggles. (Yes, I know — these names, oy gevalt.) Both Norr and Hoggles are “variants” who have been genetically bred for specific purposes: Norr for psychic abilities, Hoggles for the dense bones and immense strength that humans need to survive and thrive on high-gravity planets.
Each character personifies particular qualities: Rebo, savvy and pragmatism; Norr, emotional and psychic sensitivity and a certain moral authority; Lee, wisdom; and Hoggles, of course, strength. The quartet find ample use for all these aspects — seemingly on every third page, they face an assault or kidnapping attempt mounted by the rival black-hat monks and their retainers, the technologist Jevon Kane and his associates, or assorted ne’er-do-wells whom the adventurers meet on their journey.
In this early scene, several parties cross paths at once:
The sensitive’s voice faltered, her eyes widened, and her hands came up as if to push someone away. “Oh, no! Not now! Go away!”
But it was too late, as Milos Lysander took control of Norr’s body, rose from the chair, and yelled at the top of her voice. “My name is Lysander! This body is my channel! If members of the Techno Society are present, then come to my aid!”
Kane had no choice but to respond. He stood, drew his handgun, and yelled, “Take her alive!”
The black hat assassin had no idea who Kane was, or what he was shouting about, but saw what she deemed to be the perfect opportunity. She stood, produced an ugly machine pistol, and yelled in Tilisi. “Kill him!”
The nun meant the boy, but one of the Dib Wa assumed that she meant Kane, and fired a shot at him. The technologist felt something burn the upper part of his left biceps, heard a meaty thud as the slug struck [his aide] Von’s chest, and fired in return. A Techno Society functionary shot one of the Dib Wa, and Rebo pulled the Crosser. Food sprayed the air, and the table rattled madly as the assassin’s bullets punched holes in its surface, and barely missed Lee. The runner’s first bullet took the black hat assassin in the throat, the second passed through her open mouth, and the third drilled a hole between her eyes.
Meanwhile, Lysander continued to shout all sorts of nonsense as Lee threw himself at the sensitive’s legs and took the woman down. That was when Rebo bent to grab the boy by the arm. “Come on! Let’s go!”
“No!” Lee objected. “Not without Lanni… She’s in trouble!”
The runner swore as a bullet pinged off a metal chair, reversed the Crosser, and made use of it to pistol-whip the sensitive. He transferred the semiautomatic over to his left hand as her body went limp. “Stay low! Grab a wrist! We’ll tow her into the kitchen!”
Dietz is a veteran science fiction writer. According to the jacket of Runner, he’s written more than 20 science fiction novels. According to his biography on his personal website, he’s written more than 50 novels; a cursory perusal of his bibliography, also from his personal website, suggests that most if not all of his works are science fictional.
At any rate, Dietz is prolific and he knows how to construct a plot and hustle things along. The vicious, ambitious and thoroughly immoral Kane makes for a suitably loathsome antagonist, and Dietz manages to weave in some interesting threads. (For instance, Norr and company recover a coveted “gate seed,” which has the potential to create a teleportation device.) It’s also satisfying to see Lee battle his doubts about his supposed destiny as a religious leader and start to come into his own.
Unfortunately, Rebo and Norr are fairly generic characters, and little about their deepening relationship, or their growing respect and admiration for Lee, caught my interest. I was also somewhat put off by the milieu of Runner, particularly the elements involving psychic energies and reincarnation. (Lysander and Norr turn out to have a relationship from their past lives.)
In the end, Runner works, but only as mindless entertainment. Science fiction fans, especially those who enjoy their SF with a hint of fantasy, may enjoy the book; others would do best to head in another direction.