Book review: The Dispatcher, by John Scalzi

30 06 2017

John Scalzi is an American SF author with several awards to his credit, including a couple of Hugos. He’s one of those authors I’ve meant to get around to reading, but until now (aside from the occasional perusal of his blog) I’ve only read the one short story by him, in one of Dozois & Strahan’s New Space Opera anthologies.

TheDispatcher

In Scalzi’s novella The Dispatcher, Tony Valdez is a hired killer with a twist. The twist is that, in the alternate reality envisaged by Scalzi, murder follows the rules familiar to many a MMORPG player: ‘death’ at another’s hands leads to respawning at one’s home base. Though the killed retain all memory of their previously-final moments, their physical state is reset to what it was between twelve and thirty-six hours before their demise. So Valdez’s function in society is to be on hand in intrinsically hazardous situations—for example, in operating theatres—and assist with dispatching the afflicted if something goes pear-shaped. Nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a thousand, it works, leaving the victim with nothing worse than a hangover, a headache, and a fresh impetus for therapy. (These rules apply only to murder: in Tony’s world, accidental death is still fatal, as is suicide. So, for those who might find themselves grievously injured but not yet dead, Tony’s involvement can be more ministering angel than murderer—at least, 99.9% of the time.) It’s a setup, in short, somewhere between Groundhog Day, Iain Banks’s Transition and Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon.

The story revolves around the police investigation into the disappearance of Tony’s colleague Jimmy Albert. Tony is approached by Detective Nola Langdon of the Chicago police, investigating the disappearance, for possible information on Jimmy’s whereabouts. Tony doesn’t have any, but he gets roped into the case anyway.

On the face of it, The Dispatcher‘s premise is an unpromising one for serious fiction: life does not operate according to the laws of video games. But Scalzi has form in silk-pursing such questionable material, as is perhaps best witnessed by his parlaying a Hugo-winning SF novel (Redshirts) from the high mortality rate of non-starring crew members in TV space operas such as Star Trek. In The Dispatcher, because his characters are true to enough of the fundamentals of human nature—and because people will accept even the bizarre and unprecedented, if the bizarre and unprecedented keeps happening—it rings truer than, otherwise, it might. The characterisation is workmanlike, the tone noirish and somewhat pulpy, but there’s enough humour and subtlety to the story that it hangs together. Tony’s an intriguing enough protagonist, Langdon’s a useful enough offsider (though from her perspective, of course, those positions are reversed), and the story’s compelling enough to give Scalzi the opportunity to explore, in sufficient detail, the ‘what-if’ potential of this particular conceit. My main quibble would be with the lack of speech attributions in some of the extended dialogues between Valdez and Landgon: across two or three pages, it’s sometimes a little difficult to keep clear exactly who’s saying what, and a few more ‘he-saids’ and ‘she-saids’ wouldn’t have hurt.

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