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Saturday, August 19, 2017

John Scalzi: "The Dispatcher"

Author:  John Scalzi
Title:  "The Dispatcher"
Plot Type:  Science Fiction 
Ratings:  Violence3; Sensuality0; Humor—2   
Publisher:  Subterranean Press (4/2017, e-book, audio CD, audiobook, & [expensive limited edition] hardcover)

     In this alternate Chicago, when a person is murdered, he or she almost always returns to life. There's only a one-in-a-thousand chance that the dead person will remain dead forever. At first glance, this mythology may seem simple, but in actuality it is astonishingly complexjam-packed with ethical and moral conundrums.

     In order to maintain control over reincarnations, the government trains and licenses Dispatchers, whose job it is to kill (i.e., dispatch) people on the brink of death—under tightly controlled conditions and strict regulations—so that they will revive in the same condition in which they were several hours prior to their death. Most Dispatchers work in hospitals, where they dispatch patients who have been declared by a physician to be teetering irretrievably on the edge of death after car accidents, heart attacks, surgeries gone wrong, etc. Don't forget...only murder victims come back from the dead, so the only way that patients dying from non-murderous causes will revive is for someone to kill (dispatch) them. As soon as the doctor officially "calls" a patient's imminent death, the Dispatcher steps up and administers a shot of liquid nitrogen to the victim's brain, after which (if everything goes as it should), the person dies, disappears in a whoosh of air, and reappears stark naked in a place he or she deems to be safe and secure—usually at home in bed. ask, why are Dispatchers needed? If almost all murdered people come back to life, why can't anyone kill a dying person in order to bring him or her back? There is a key phrase in that question: the words "almost all." For example, if a father kills his beloved son just before he dies from injuries suffered in a chain-saw accident, what happens if his son does not revive? Answer: That father would have to live with the fact that he murdered his own child, and he would spend the rest of his life in prison for murder. Also, Dispatchers are trained to dispatch people only under specific conditions, and their means of killing is as quick and clean as possible because the people they kill remember everything about their deaths, including all of the pain and suffering.

     Anytime death and reincarnation are possible on a large scale, there are going to be legal gray areas. Here, Tony (the story's protagonist) gives an example: "[A] film crew [is] filming a complicated all goes wrong and the stunt person breaks their neck...That...person isn't ever going to walk again—but they're not going to die from it...It's not my job to dispatch people who are critically, horribly injured but aren't going to one in this situation...wants this guy to go on living like this...So [someone]...hands you an envelope with forty thousand dollars of cash in it and asks you to take care of it. And you go over...and pop one into their skull. The stunt person shows up at home, neck unbroken, gets on a plane to Chicago...and everyone's back to work the next day." 

     This novella deals with a Dispatcher who finds himself in desperate trouble after he takes a private job that goes horribly wrong.


     One day, not long from now, it becomes almost impossible to murder anyone999 times out of a thousand, anyone who is intentionally killed comes back. How? We don't know. But it changes everything: war, crime, daily life. 

     Tony Valdez is a Dispatchera licensed, bonded professional whose job is to humanely dispatch those whose circumstances put them in death's crosshairs, so they can have a second chance to avoid the reaper. But when a fellow Dispatcher and former friend is apparently kidnapped, Tony learns that there are some things that are worse than death, and that some people are ready to do almost anything to avenge what they see as a wrong. 

    It's a race against time for Valdez to find his friend before it's too late...before not even a Dispatcher can save him. 

     Tony Valdez has been a Dispatcher for eight years, and he has a perfect record so far—hasn't lost a single patient. Earlier in his career, Tony stepped into the legal gray area, taking some dodgy private jobs for the money and doing some things that he's not proud of. That all stopped several years ago; now he's clean and plans to stay that way.

     One day, Tony gets a call from Jimmy, another Dispatcher, who asks him to take over a job because he has an unavoidable schedule conflict. Since Tony is on call that day, nothing about Jimmy's request seems out of the ordinary. Tony heads for a Chicago hospital's surgery rooms and dispatches an elderly man who nearly dies on the operating table. The hostile reaction of the surgeon to Tony's presence in her operating theater is fascinating. Dr. Chao views Tony as a looming presence that hints that she may fail at her job. 
She verbally attacks Sheila, the hospital administrator who accompanies Tony: "You're taking away my right to give the best care I can to my patients, and all you have to say to me about it is 'the insurance insists on it.'...It's crap and I shouldn't have to work this way. No surgeon should have to." Shiela reminds her, "We have to allow him into the room. If we don't and something goes wrong, the hospital is open to being sued for negligence. And so are you." Tony believes that doctors hate him and his fellow Dispatchers "because I remind them that they're not God,...And that if there is one, I'm closer to Him than they are."

     While Tony fills out his paperwork for that job, Nona Langdon, a Chicago PD detective, interrupts him to announce that Jimmy has gone missing and to request his assistance in locating him. The camaraderie that slowly builds between Tony and Detective Langdon is beautiful to watch. They begin as prickly adversaries, but gradually (and with much snark) become allies as they work together to track Jimmy's movements during the days preceding his disappearance. Back in the day, Tony was instrumental in getting Jimmy some lucrative private, off-the-books jobs that weren't entirely legal. After Tony turned his life around, Jimmy's wife nagged him enough that he also cleaned up his act. Unfortunately, it appears that Jimmy has returned to his old ways, and that's what has gotten him into a world of trouble.

     The cause and effect of Jimmy's situation is impossible to predict because Scalzi plays it all out so perfectly with a scary stand-off, an unexpected dispatch, an ambiguous parceling out of clues, a steady rise in suspense, and a rush of action at the end as the conflict is resolved.

    Scalzi has done an amazing job of creating this fresh and inventive mythology in just 130 pages. Every time I began to form a mental question about an aspect of the world-building, a scene in the story would answer it in a dramatic but natural manner. I truly wish that this novella had grown to novel length and breadth because I was so taken with the concept and the characters.

     I enjoyed this story immensely and would love to see Scalzi develop it into a series. Tony and Nona could get into all sorts of weird and wonderful situations on the mean streets of Chicago.

     Click HERE to go to this novella's page to read or listen to an excerpt by clicking either on the cover art for print or the "Listen" icon for audio.

     John Scalzi is one of the most popular and acclaimed science fiction authors to emerge in the last decade. His massively successful debut, Old Man’s War, won him science fiction’s John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. His New York Times bestsellers include The Last Colony, Fuzzy Nation, and Redshirts, which won 2013’s Hugo Award for Best Novel. Material from his widely read blog The Whatever ( has also earned him two other Hugo Awards. He lives in Ohio with his wife and daughter. Click HERE for a full list of his published works.

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