by John Scalzi
Cover Artist: Vincent Chong
Review by Sam Lubell
Subterranean Press Delux Hardcover/Trade ISBN/ITEM#: 9781596067868
Date: 31 May 2017
The Dispatcher is a novella (about 128) pages that logically pursues the implications of a strange change in the laws of nature. In the world of this story, whenever a person is murdered there is a .999 chance the body will instantly disappear and be restored to life to a place wherever they feel safe. But if they die of natural causes, suicide, or medical operation, they die permanently. This leads to a specially licensed profession, the Dispatchers whose job it is to kill people if it looks like they will die in one of these other ways.
The reader is introduced to this central concept--and to the narrator Tony Valdez--when Valdez monitors an open heart surgical operation with a hostile surgeon. The debate between the surgeon and a hospital administrator fills the reader in on the basic premise and how insurance companies insist on the presence of a Dispatcher so the operation does not become permanently fatal. Then after the operation, Tony is questioned by Police Detective Nona Langdon about the whereabouts of James Albert, the dispatcher originally scheduled for that operation.
This leads Tony to be the reluctant assistant to Nona who is trying to solve the mystery of what happened to Albert. In the process, Tony reveals the hidden world of private engagements, a legally grey area in which dispatchers are hired by movie companies to shoot seriously injured stuntmen so they will be able to get back on the job or deal with injuries from an illegal fight club or duel the same way. One of the best things in this novella is how many ways this one idea has changed society--even organized crime has to adapt to a world in which people won't stay dead if you kill them.
This novella does suffer a bit from having characters explain things that others in this world should know, but the reader would not. Scalzi can get away with it when it is an angry doctor ranting about not wanting a Dispatcher to interfere with her patients. But it stretches disbelief that a police detective would need to be told the basics about Dispatching. Characterization is weaker than usual for a Scalzi novel, only Tony and, to a lesser extent, Nona seem to be more than conveniences for the plot.
Overall, this is a fun, clever mystery. Readers will enjoy reading this. Scalzi clearly is milking his one change to the real world and seeing how far he can go with it. The book also is full of his trademark humor. Still, I suspect only true collectors would be willing to pay $28 for a 128-page novella that isn't even connected to Scalzi's novels. Fortunately, a $6 ebook exists.