Novella Review: The Dispatcher by John Scalzi
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Subterranean Press (May 31, 2017)
Length: 136 pages
Imagine a world where it is nearly impossible to kill anyone. In The Dispatcher, John Scalzi’s sci-fi novella which takes place in the not-so-far future, this is exactly the state of affairs. One day, people simply woke up to this new game changer. If you committed suicide, you stayed dead. If you died in an accident, you stayed dead. If you passed away due to illness, you stayed dead. But for some bizarre reason, if you were murdered, your body would mysteriously awaken back to life, naked and whole in your home. In 999 times out of a 1000, those whose lives were intentionally ended by someone else would return to the living like this. No one knows why, no one knows how, no one has any clue what it all means. But what they do know, is that the world is forever changed by this phenomenon.
A good case in point, our protagonist Tony Valdez is a man whose job was created by the government as a result of this new reality. He is a Dispatcher—a trained and licensed professional killer. True, the terms of his position may dictate that he dispatch his clients as quickly and humanely as possible, and there are many rules surrounding his work contracts. But at the end of the day, Tony is aware that his presence is only ever requested when here’s a potential need for him to take a life. For instance, a good number of his assignments involve him being on hand at operating rooms in hospitals, just in case the surgery goes horribly wrong and a patient needs a second chance. In such a situation, Tony would deliver a special “payload” to the dying patient’s brain which would result in their death, essentially murdering them—then BOOM, patient reappears in their home, alive to attempt going under the knife another day.
Of course, not all Dispatchers follow the rules. As someone who used to pick up unofficial and lucrative “private” jobs under the table, Tony knows there are still plenty of his fellow Dispatchers who are doing these illegal gigs on the side. So when one of them goes missing, Tony teams up with a police detective to find out if his colleague’s illicit activities might have led to his disappearance.
With Lock In and now The Dispatcher, I truly think John Scalzi has entered a new phase of his career. While his style has always been quite readable to me, in this book I started to see a new level of polish and elegance in his writing. He seems to have moved past his issue with dialogue tags and the excessive “he saids, she saids”, for one thing. For another, gone is much of the “popcorn humor” his previous books are known for. Though it wouldn’t be fair to say The Dispatcher is completely devoid of levity, for the most part this novella is a very serious endeavor, featuring some thought-provoking yet morbid themes. It may be a short book, but it sure packs a lot of substance.
It’s also clear that much consideration has been put into the concept. While it’s true that the book never ends up giving an explanation for why people who are murdered just start coming back to life, I never really saw that as the point—rather, I looked at The Dispatcher as an interesting thought experiment, and the premise was simply there to provide a framework. What would happen if people couldn’t kill each other anymore? Would it hold people back from their impulses, or would it actually embolden them and make them more reckless, so that we would have secret fight clubs fought with hammers or college kids LARPing in the park with real swords and axes? How might people exploit this new phenomenon, or use Dispatchers to their advantage? What would it do to the world’s views on war, crime, healthcare, religion and pretty much everything in our daily lives? This book explores all these questions and more, touching upon the social effects on a population level, as well as the physical, moral, and psychological implications on a more personal level.
Best of all, woven though all of this is a great story. The Dispatcher gives off vibes of sci-fi crime noire mixed with a little bit of urban fantasy, making it a little tough to categorize, but what comes through strongly is the solid mystery plot. For a novella, I also thought it was very well-paced, with no filler scenes or lulls. All told, the story was riveting from start to finish, making this one a super quick read.
In sum, this is a book I would highly recommend. Even though I love Scalzi’s science fiction and humor, I definitely wouldn’t mind seeing him write more like this, or even expand The Dispatcher universe with future stories since there’s so much potential and possibilities to explore. He has truly created something special here, reminding me once again why he is one of my favorite authors.