Top positive review
Light, pulpy little story whose fun comes from its willingness to play with interesting ideas
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on May 15, 2019
John Scalzi's The Dispatcher is undeniably a light, pulpy little story, and its weight is appropriate enough, given the novella's origins as a 2-hour audiobook before being released in print. Essentially a quick little detective story with an unusual sci-fi conceit, The Dispatcher is a fast read, and one that's pretty plot-heavy (again, appropriately so, given the genre). Nonetheless, the conceit here is so interesting, and Scalzi's spitballing of ideas and moral questions so engaging, that it'll give you more to chew on than you might expect - it just won't stick with you that long.
That hook, though, is a great one. In Scalzi's near-future, people have almost entirely stopped being murdered. Oh, people still die - there are suicides, disasters, and natural causes - but for some reason, murdering someone causes them to vanish and reappear back in their home, just as if they never died. And thus arises the job of a "dispatcher" - a person whose job it is to work alongside medical professionals and kill patients who are about to die of a botched surgery, or a bad treatment, or of untreated wounds - and give everyone involved a second chance.
That's a neat idea, and Scalzi plays with it in wonderful ways, giving you a story that, at its best, can remind you of the way that Philip K. Dick would take simple ideas and run with them in interesting, strange ways. Scalzi follows the idea through crime empires and into rich college students, from insurance companies to police investigations, and takes even more time to let his characters bat around the complex questions that might arise from such an idea - the nature of god, the shifting nature of morality, and so forth. Even better, the story's short length means that Scalzi never feels the need to dive into why it's all happening, which makes the whole thing work all the more - does it even matter why it happens, or just that it does?
That all being said, at its core, The Dispatcher is intentionally light genre fare - it's a detective story, but one with a loose enough framework that Scalzi can play around in the margins of his world, all while still telling the tale of a missing dispatcher. And by the end of it all, you may definitely come away with the sense that this is just the author batting around ideas without much substance underneath - the equivalent of two a.m. college philosophy sessions while passing around a joint. And while that's not entirely unfair, it definitely sells short the pleasures of Scalzi's writing, or his ability to build this world in such a brief time. No, The Dispatcher doesn't do anything revolutionary; it just takes a single idea and looks at how it might change the world around it. But sometimes, that's what satisfying sci-fi is made of.