Imagine a world where anybody who is murdered comes back to life. You can’t? Well, John Scalzi wrote ‘the Dispatcher’ about such a world so you don’t have to.
What is a Dispatcher?
In the world of the Dispatcher, all murdered people wake up back at their home, in their bed, the clock rewound a few hours. You fall off a cliff? You die. You’re pushed? You return healthy.
This inexplicable magic leads to a very disturbing profession: Dispatching. You see, if only murdered people come back from the dead, then there are situations where murdering people actually becomes a good idea. This applies to people dying after a traffic accident. But also to people where surgery goes wrong.
Enter Dispatchers. A Dispatcher is a person licensed to kill people in a situation where they will soon die. Insurances require licensed dispatchers be present during risky medical procedures. You can imagine the possibilities.
The premise immediately made me think of Torchwood: Miracle Day, but here it’s slightly different. In Miracle Day, nobody could die, even if they wanted to. In ‘the Dispatcher’ people can die, they just can’t be murdered – Well, not murdered without using loopholes. This is actually a big difference, but I’ll let you reason that out for yourselves, or you can read this book and watch Miracle Day, of course.
Tony Valdez is a Dispatcher. One day, after a routine dispatch, a police detective approaches him. A fellow Dispatcher has vanished. The detective wants Tony’s help to find him. Tony reluctantly agrees, after she strongarms him into it.
The search quickly becomes a tour through the world of Dispatching. A world that has some very dark twists and turns.
The story manages to combine a speculative exploration of the idea of Dispatching with a mystery, which is a clever trick.
The book is about Tony Valdez. Through the lens of a murder mystery, the story takes you through Valdez’s past, and what his profession really means. And that’s a pretty clever way to do this. Without info dumps, John Scalzi manages to write a book about Dispatching. It’s a clever way to speculate on the idea, but keep it grounded.
That said, Tony is an interesting man in his own right. Being a Dispatcher has done things to him. There is the lure of illegal side jobs, and the isolation of killing people for a living – even if the killing is for a good cause. All in all, it makes for an interesting man, and by extension an interesting story.
Detective Langdon is the plot pusher of the story. We don’t learn an awful lot about her, but she does push the story forward and forces Tony to continue the investigation. On the other hand, she also acts as a proxy for the reader to ask questions about dispatching, because she doesn’t know a lot about it. We learn something about her, but since Tony should take center stage in this story, this isn’t a big problem.
The Dispatcher is a cool book, about an interesting — if disturbing — idea. John Scalzi’s style is very minimalist in places, approaching white room syndrome and talking heads syndrome, but usually stays shy of both. One of the reasons Scalzi is a good writer, in my book anyway, is that he manages to toe that line remarkably well, and manages to combine interesting characters with interesting ideas.
In short, if you like speculative fiction and murder mysteries, go read the Dispatcher.