Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Dispatcher - John Scalzi

The Dispatcher is a new novella by John Scalzi. Seemingly unrelated to his other works, it sets out a mystery in a world where anyone deliberately killed will return to life.

The world that Scalzi’s built is, in some ways, familiar. There are hospitals, doctors, nurses. There are police struggling to enforce the law, and criminals working just as hard to evade it. The central conceit though, is this – that people removed from life by violence don’t, typically, die. They find themselves back in their homes, without their clothes – but definitely still alive. Nobody seems to know why this is now happening – but it’s a fact. A fact which has led to social change, and the creation of the Dispatcher – people whose job it is to eliminate people before they die naturally, in order to allow them to return to life. Dispatchers are a people approached with caution, somewhere between social pariah’s, a priesthood, and average government employees, struggling with paperwork.  It’s this change, the sense that death isn’t always forever, that defines the narrative – and it’s also an inventive core to spin that narrative around.

Our protagonist is Tony Valdez, who works as a Dispatcher. Valdez is cynical, ground down by life, and perhaps ever so slightly crooked. Having said that, he’s perceptive and clearly intelligent, and a rather keen eyed investigator. There’s a Sam Spade feel about Tony, as he reluctantly allows himself to be dragged into looking for a missing person; it’s less that his armour is no longer shiny, and more that he never had any to start with. That said, he seems to be a straightforward individual, neither hero nor monster – but projecting himself as a working man, simply trying to make enough to put food on the table. Of course he also kills people for a living.  It’s interesting to see a man work to remain reformed, to keep out of the sort of unfortunate deals which he would absolutely deny having taken part in before. It helps that he’s also a man with fairly firm ideas of friendship – where that doesn’t conflict with his understandable desire not to be killed himself.  Tony isn’t charming, but he is resourceful, smart and edgily witty – and rather interesting to follow around.

He’s backed up by a supporting cast with similarly noir undertones. There’s the Detective who strongarms him into helping with her investigation – unwilling to accept obvious explanations, always pushing and digging into vague answers. She’s a good foil for the laconic Valdez, and adds a sharp wit of her own to the story. The banter between the Dispatcher and the Detective ranges from philosophical, to dark, to laugh-out-loud funny, often over the course of a few sentences.

There’s other figures here as well – from organised criminals to decrepit millionaires. A couple are pitch perfect, their shrouded motivations wrapped in a familiar-seeming humanity. There’s a sense of ambiguity that pervades the cast, and it’s one that pays off over the course of the text.

The plot – well, no spoilers. But in a world where no-one dies of violence, Valdez is looking into the disappearance of a fellow Dispatcher, an old friend. The central mystery is rather clever – I was unwilling to stop turning pages, being dragged long on Tony’s investigation. There’s false leads, and red herrings, and some shockingly tense and emotional moments, with an ingenious central mystery under a stylistic layer of sci-fi noir. It’s rather fun, and if that sounds like your sort of thing, I’d recommend it. I’m certainly hoping to see more of Valdez and his world in the future.

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