How Misery Flows (A Review)

Review by Curtis Cole

                Before I downloaded The Dispatcher during Audible’s free giveaway period, I had never before read anything by John Scalzi. This would be because his name was just not a name I was interested in reading. Since I am not one to pass up free goodies, though, and especially when they sound as high-powered as the concept in Scalzi’s present novella, I eagerly downloaded it and started on my journey as a Dispatcher.

The idea is simple: the world has shifted by a miracle; it becomes impossible to murder someone 999 times out of 1000. Why? They always come back—it is only those who die of natural causes and who commit suicide who fail to return home—but naked—upon their death. Surreal though it may be, protagonist Tony Valdez finds it but humdrum. For you see, Tony is a Dispatcher, someone who is legally bound to humanely kill, giving them a second chance. But when one of Tony’s old contacts goes missing—abducted—it is up to him and his hard-boiled detective-ness to save the day! Can he navigate the shadowy gray world and corporate interests to find his friend, is his friend still alive?

Obviously, Scalzi is building on traditional concepts in a non-traditional way. When murder becomes nigh impossible except for those with ‘time and patience’, the world dramatically changes and life becomes oddly devalued even as the paranoia of life intensifies. It is a sort of misery, in short, where murder becomes normalized and existential concerns are swept under the rug in exchange for daring exploits and an end to war.

Philosophically, Scalzi’s thesis is interesting but lacking. For example: why is it that people who commit suicide do not come back? Well, plot convenience for one, but obviously because they choose to die—they were not unjustly robbed of their life by a killer. And yet… we encounter issues, because suicidal people were, in fact, robbed of their life; just not in the traditional manner. Why is it that Scalzi can write in this trite moral proposition? Because it is social conservatism.

Scalzi wants to present a deep, intellectually engaging debate with death and what it means to be alive and happy, but he is just shy of doing so. With a concept as high powered as coming back from the dead, you have to have rules and codes of conduct, otherwise, your idea is wasted. But to throw suicidal people under the bus, and say that they wanted to die and so they don’t get to come back, is absurd; it is here that we find in microcosm what is wrong with the whole.

As I said, it is conservatism. More to the point, however, it is weird conservatism.

What, pray tell, is Scalzi’s definition of murder? Spoiler alert… it is an uninteresting and an intellectual undemanding one. It is conventional. To Scalzi, murder is when anyone purposely kills another person. Though there is a bit of radicalism in that war counts as murder under this definition (I believe that Scalzi makes a point in clarifying that war has been eliminated), it is only to legitimate capitalism (specifically, capitalist social relations). Meanwhile, all those working class persons who starve to death due to economics, global warming, and anti-poor laws… do they come back? They were certainly murdered as much as anyone who was dropped from an elevator shaft or stabbed in the gut—their deaths, after all, came from the hands of persons within systems who deprived them of health care, food, and proper living conditions. The text does not explore whether these people come back, though it does explore how manipulative people become when desensitized to death and how college students hack each other to bits for entertainment; in short, and at risk of turning this review into a rant, The Dispatcher shows itself to be an anti-people text, something which delights in rendering hate upon the proletarians and disenfranchised of the world.

I would now say something about the text itself, but there is not much to say. Since this is a novella, it is no longer than a few dozen pages; as such, the premise is the attraction and how well such a premise is explored is how we are to judge the text. So it is a thought experiment. I, obviously, did not relish much the thought-think side of things.

Textually, the novella is well written. Or, at least the voice actor—Zachary Quinto—performs well and brings some vibrancy to his role as narrator. In visualizing the words-as-text, I feel that the novella was created with care. Obviously, Scalzi cared about presenting the idea, though I simply wished he put some more thought into the idea itself. I cannot say whether this is a decent entry point into Scalzi’s works as a whole, but as an introduction to him as a writer, I will go out on a limb and say that you could probably do worse. In the least, “The Dispatcher” is an original idea executed decently. Whether that is enough for you to enjoy it, I will leave to you to decide.

The Dispatcher

John Scalzi

2h 18m 24s. Published by Audible Studios. $3.99 (Audible audiobook)[1]. 2016.

[1] Prices taken from and were accurate at the time of writing.


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