Novella Review: The Dispatcher: Travel by Bullet 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.
The Dispatcher: Travel by Bullet by John Scalzi
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Book 3 of The Dispatcher
Publisher: Subterranean Press (March 31, 2023)
Length: 224 pages
Author Information: Website | Twitter
I just want to start off by saying I love the idea behind The Dispatcher series: Imagine a world where it is virtually impossible to kill anyone. There are certain stipulations to this, of course, but essentially, you couldn’t be murdered. If someone were to intentionally take your life, 999 times out of a 1000, your body would simply disappear on the spot and reappear again in the place you feel most safe. Keep in mind this wouldn’t happen if you committed suicide, died in an accident, or passed away due to illness—in all these cases, you’d stay dead.
Naturally, people found a way to game this system. If you were having risky surgery, for example, you might want someone to end your life in case the operation goes horribly wrong, giving you a second chance. The government knew they had to step in or everything would be chaos, so they created an official role known as a Dispatcher. That’s where our protagonist Tony Valdez comes in. He is a fully authorized and licensed killer, ensuring that citizens using his services are doing so safely, lawfully, and mercifully.
We catch up with Tony in The Dispatcher: Travel by Bullet, which is the third novella in the series, during the midst of the pandemic. Our protagonist is in the middle of an assignment in a Chicago hospital when he is suddenly called to the emergency department on behest of an old friend and fellow Dispatcher. Without warning, Tony soon finds himself entangled in a web of shady dealings involving unscrupulous parties and a vast fortune in cryptocurrency hanging in the balance. In order to help his friend, Tony will have no choice but to get his hands dirty.
I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did, since I enjoyed the previous installments quite a bit (the first one more than the second one). But something about this one felt off. Something about it felt a little too real. After all, you have a series that is built upon a premise that is completely bizarre and outlandish, because no one can explain why in this world people can’t be murdered, or why one in a thousand people who are dispatched won’t come back to life, or how you can be “reborn” naked and whole thousands of miles from where you are killed as long as it’s your safe place. Clearly, the natural laws of life and death don’t apply in this series, so then why set it in our world restricted by the realities of the pandemic and the fickleness of the cryptocurrency market?
I would have preferred a story that was more relevant to the societal, cultural, and institutional changes that would have no doubt occurred in this world where people can’t be murdered, and I think this is where John Scalzi falters because he just isn’t the best at worldbuilding. Despite establishing a fascinating concept with the potential to spawn countless unique plots, he fell back on a rather uninspired mystery involving scheming billionaires and crypto. As I recall, I also had a similar reaction to the plot of the second book, so I will reiterate here what I wrote in my review for The Dispatcher: Murder by Other Means: I don’t mind a good mystery or noir story, but at the risk of losing a lot of the novelty after the first book, Scalzi needed to build upon the foundation of the concept for this series in order to keep things fresh. And well, I don’t think he achieved that with Travel by Bullet.
At the end of the day, all the cool concepts just seemed a bit wasted on a more contemporary and traditional style mystery. That said though, if you’re a fan of the author’s laidback writing style and humor, you’ll still probably have a great time with this novella, and I won’t deny it was quick and fun read, but I personally would have liked to see the plot push harder on the envelope to explore the limits of what is possible in The Dispatcher world while moving farther away from our own.
More on The BiblioSanctum:
Review of The Dispatcher (Book 1)
Review of The Dispatcher: Murder by Other Means (Book 2)
I have not managed (or rather, remembered) to move forward from the first novella yet, but I understand your misgivings: having crafted a sort of parallel world where weird things happen, why bring it back to our more mundane one?
Exactly, it also just completely wrecks the near-future vibe it’s got going for it.
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This is disappointing. I’m behind and haven’t read this yet, but I noticed you used the word “pandemic” which is putting me off a bit.
Oh, it was putting me off big time!
I can¨t say I was that thrilled about the one I read so maybe not for me
The sequels aren’t as good as the original either, I find.
I am sorry this disappointed you somehow Mogsy!
It happens! I do wonder if he’s finished this this series now.
I know I really enjoyed the first novella though I don’t recall if I’ve read the second. Not sure if I’ve mentioned this before and not sure if it even occurred to me until now, but this idea reminds me vaguely of the manga and anime called Gantz where certain people, after dying in various ways, wake up in a strange room with a group of strangers and an even stranger large black orb, and things just get stranger from there. Guess I’m stuck on strange today. 🙂
That does sound strange! I can see how this would remind you of that imagery. I am growing less enamored of the idea for this series though, if I’m to be honest. This novella and the previous one have been pretty pedestrian, though I do love the macabre concept of “travel by bullet”, i.e. someone shooting you dead so that you could disappear where you were killed and instantly reappear reborn in your safe place (usually home).
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I’m a fan of the series continuing, but I think he might’ve run out of ideas. But yeah, whenever you set a series in the near-future, you shouldn’t include an installment set in the past.
It’s true, I was turned off by the inclusion of the pandemic which was un unwelcome shot of reality into an otherwise very unique what-if sci-fi setting, but you are absolutely correct, this was supposed to be the near-future, having this take place during the pandemic makes no sense.
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