I find that speculative fiction is usually best when married with another genre. Personally, I’m partial to a good mystery. Set that mysterious tale in a science fiction/fantasy setting, and I’m probably going to be on board. In my eyes it’s a longstanding recipe for success: Jack McDevitt’s Alex Benedict novels, The Gone World, Altered Carbon, Leviathan Wakes, Zero World, Gnomon. The list is great mystery/spec fic novels is unknowably long.
The basic idea: Would you murder someone if it also meant saving their life? The Dispatcher is a tightly constructed urban fantasy mystery, set in a world mostly like ours but with one key difference: When someone is murdered, they disappear and materialize at home, alive and well in their bed. This happens nine hundred ninety-nine times out of a thousand. This small change sets the stage for a truly unique murder mystery, with a main character and setting I desperately hope Scalzi returns to. If there were more stories set in this world, I would read them all. Come to think of it, there’s room on my shelf for a nice paperback collection of Dispatcher novellas. Got a nice little spot for it, all ready to go. Write, Scalzi, write.
I’m not usually into urban fantasy, but this one is quite different. Most people hear urban fantasy and think werewolves and vampires and magical objects which, while technically true, isn’t all urban fantasy is capable of. The way I see it, urban fantasy has two rules: 1. The story is told in a somewhat contemporary setting, e.g., not middle earth and 2. The impossible happens. Everything else is just how the writer wants to use those building blocks to tell their story. Something Scalzi has done a terrific job of here. The fact that he usually writes science fiction serves to make his branching out into fantasy all the more interesting and rewarding.
The Dispatcher is a prime example of how quality fantasy world building can have far reaching ethical, societal, and industry specific ramifications. It also explores that impact pretty thoroughly for a novella. Like proverbial butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane, one little modification to the world we’re accustomed to changes so many aspects of human society and social norms. It impacts everything from the kinds of intimidation organized crime families utilize, to the methods detectives use to investigate them. Insurance policies, experimental surgical procedures, and even frat boy posturing are all changed.
“I know what side of the street I like better. But you don’t always get to choose the side of the street you walk on.”
I listened to the Audible audiobook version of this last year. Zachary Quinto provided the narration, and turned in a graceful performance—bringing each character to life with subtlety. It was nice to listen to a Scalzi book not narrated by Wil Wheaton for once. Not that I have anything against Wil Wheaton, I’ve just grown a little tired of his narrative style.
This year I read the hardcover edition published by Subterranean press. In addition to the text, Vincent Chong has provided several illustrations of key scenes. He draws in an almost airbrushed hyper-realistic style that’s difficult to describe, but it truly brings the story to life. Having experienced this story in both formats, it’s hard to recommend one over the other, so I’ll wholeheartedly recommend them both. Whatever form you enjoy your books in, the Dispatcher isn’t something to be missed.