The Dispatcher by John Scalzi
A weird thing has happened in our world. Suddenly, people who are murdered can come back to life. Nobody knows why. It doesn’t happen when people die naturally — only when they’re murdered. To take advantage of this new death loophole, the job of Dispatcher has been created and Tony Valdez is one of them. His job is to murder people so they can end up in their own beds a few hours before they died. For example, in one scene we see Tony murder a man who is about to die on the operating table and in another we see him shoot a woman who just got hit by a bus. Dispatchers occasionally do less savory jobs, too, such as shooting injured stuntmen on movie sets so the studio won’t get sued for damages.
When one of Tony’s fellow Dispatchers disappears, a policewoman asks him to help with the investigation. Tony is reluctant, but she is persuasive and he gets roped in. As he tries to uncover the crime that has been committed, we get to explore the consequences of our world’s new rule.
I’m not the type of reader who needs everything explained to me, but I found it difficult to suspend disbelief while reading The Dispatcher because there’s no explanation for the sudden new murder loophole. I’m having a hard time imagining the physics of this, especially how whatever/whoever is controlling the new reality is distinguishing between types of murder (first degree, second degree, manslaughter). The only explanation I can come up with is that it’s God, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what Scalzi wants me to believe.
John Scalzi is sometimes clumsy with his infodumps, and that’s the case again here. It’s awkward that Tony’s explaining his job and the rules of this world to the police investigator he’s working with. She would know all this. I also never quite understood why an official Dispatcher needs to be hired to murder someone. Why can’t anyone do it? And why does everyone consider dispatching to be such a distasteful and shady job? I would think that people would be happy to have found a way to defy death.
So, I couldn’t believe in this story, but I admit that the strange situation leads to some interesting thought experiments about what life would be like if it was impossible to murder someone, so it did make me think, which is a quality I appreciate in a story.
The Dispatcher was written for audio and, for that reason, reads a lot more smoothly than some of Scalzi’s other fiction in which the overuse of dialogue tags (“he said,” “she said”) makes the text feel choppy. It helps that the novella is narrated by Zachary Quinto (Spock) who is a great performer.
Like Kat, I was curious and intrigued by the what-if postulated in “The Dispatcher” (what if anyone murdered came back to life a few moments later, usually safe in their homes, with their bodies in pre-murder condition?); and somewhat dissatisfied with the exe — oh, I nearly wrote “execution” there. Okay, let’s say “the delivery.” I read Subterranean Press’s beautiful hardcover edition, with a stunning, forbidding cover and nice illustrations. The final illustration in the book, of an elderly man with a gun, is a knockout, mainly because the eye is drawn to a specific picture on the wall behind him. That picture is important.
Tony Valdez is a licensed Dispatcher, called in to murder someone who is about to die as the result of an accident or misadventure. This isn’t in the text, but I assume the point of having licensed people commit these sanctioned “murders” is that somehow they are trained so they won’t mess up and accidentally leave the person to die of natural causes. Just as likely, this is a knee-jerk — and completely plausible — assumption that the government will always want to horn in and regulate any new thing. Many Dispatchers moonlight, and those jobs are less savory. Tony’s friend Jimmy was one of those, and now he’d gone missing.
“The Dispatcher” is part detective story and part fantasy. Valdez is paired with a Chicago detective and they begin looking for Jimmy. From there, the mystery unfolds pretty quickly with Valdez being nearly literally handed a clue at one point. There is danger, and one very bad moment for Valdez, but as a mystery this is a little thin. On the plus side, the dialogue between Detective Langdon and Valdez is good, and the absence of speech-tags makes it flow very well. There are two set-pieces in the story, one on a college campus and one in a deserted building, that were wonderful, Scalzi at his best. The campus scene shone a light onto ways this “miraculous” new world would encourage changes, good and bad.
The bigger mystery, of course, is why and how this happened, and that question is never answered. As described, it can’t really be physics (since intent somehow seems to matter); the other two choices are God and magic. Valdez apparently doesn’t think it’s God, another character thinks it can only be God, and the reader is left to decide. It could be magic, but again, it’s never explained.
While it’s an interesting story, it wasn’t my favorite Scalzi. Like Kat, however, I found myself wondering about different scenarios (self-defense? War?) for hours after I finished reading, and I enjoyed the banter between the two main characters.