Review: The Dispatcher, by John Scalzi (audiobook)

John Scalzi is a busy guy. In between writing novels, winning Hugo awards for said novels, and extolling the virtues of churros on Twitter, he’s managed to write a short story called “The Dispatcher,” which, as read by Star Trek’s Zachary Quinto, was released earlier this month as an  Audible exclusive, for free. The audio story will remain free until November 2, so we thought we’d give it a listen and let you know if it’s worth your time.

How would you murder someone if murder victims just came back to life? That’s the premise of “The Dispatcher,” which takes place in a world not unlike our own, but with one key difference: when someone is murdered by another human, 999 times out of 1,000, the victim will vanish and reappear back at home, completely unscathed. The first-person narrator of “The Dispatcher,” Tony Valdez, is the eponymous Dispatcher — a new profession that’s sprung up in this post-murder society. When someone engages in high-risk behavior, a Dispatcher is kept close at hand, so that if something goes wrong, the Dispatcher can kill the dying person before death occurs, thus saving them from actually dying. But when a Dispatcher acquaintance of Tony’s goes missing and the police turn to him for help, we learn more not only about the mechanics of this “miraculous” new world, but also the shady underbelly that has developed as a result.

51agv-bkm8l-_sl300_Scalzi’s been an imaginative writer since day 1. His first novel, Old Man’s War, is proof enough of that, with a killer hook (old people get de-aged in exchange for military service) that is sustained by Scalzi’s clear and engaging prose, and his charming and relatable characters. Since then he’s continued the Old Man’s War series, dabbled in near-future dystopia (Lock In) and meta-textual romps (Redshirts) which manage to somehow not be insufferably naval-gazey. “The Dispatcher” is no exception. Scalzi has started with a bizarre and imaginative premise, and extrapolated how society would adapt in a logical and clear-headed way. That may be Scalzi’s greatest strength as a writer: starting with lunatic, pie-in-the-sky ideas, and then making them seem grounded and realistic, by making believable guesses as to how society would react in the wake of this new technology and/or calamity.

“The Dispatcher” is — for now, at least — an audio-only exclusive. It’s possible it may come to print someday, but even if you’re not a huge fan of audiobooks, I would highly recommend not waiting, and grabbing the audio version now. For one thing, you can’t beat the price. For another, it’s relatively short — just about two hours — and is therefore an excellent way to dip your toes in the audiobook world (which is no doubt what Audible is hoping folks do, by offering it for free). Mainly though, you’d be denying yourself the pleasure of hearing Zachary Quinto’s narration. So far as I can determine, this is only Quinto’s second audiobook (the first being the novelization of 2009’s Star Trek), but he sounds as if he’s been doing it for years. Diction is clear and crisp, emotions are palpable without being histrionic, and he juggles the various character voices with ease. Quinto’s narration is nearly flawless — which is not always the case with big-name actor “stunt” audiobook narrators — and I very much hope he decides to do more audiobooks in the future.

When you combine an imaginative premise, a fantastic execution of said premise, a brilliant narration, and a price tag of FREE, you really can’t go wrong. Even if you’re reading this after the price has been raised, however, I would still wholeheartedly recommend “The Dispatcher.” It’s an extremely enjoyable way to spend a couple hours, and I hope Scalzi follows up on this world and this character with some longer works. I’d even be okay with them staying exclusive to audio — provided Quinto sticks around to narrate them, as well.