The Dispatcher is a hard-boiled detective novel with a classic layout: a mystery, an ever expanding circle of suspects (or at least paths of inquery), interesting, independently-motivated characters, a final confrontation and even a (debatably) surprise death. And in the Philip K. Dick tradition (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Minority Report) something specific is very different about the world.
In the world of The Dispatcher, anyone who is murdered vanishes into air, and reappears minutes later, naked, in their own bedroom, very much alive. Anyone killed with intent: Poof! Back at home. It’s been this way, world-wide, for about ten years at the time the story begins. And no-one knows why it happens. It just does.
The phenomenon seems to function by consistent rules: A death has to be homicide for the resurrection to occur. Deaths by accident don’t reset. Neither do suicides. Whoever dies appears in a previous intact condition, as they were six to thirty hours earlier, typically in their own bedroom. Rarely, it doesn’t work. About one in every thousand murders, the victim fails to return. Circumstances that increase or reduce this risk aren’t elaborated upon in the story.
The eponymous dispatchers are professionals tasked with the agency of killing those whose deaths are already imminent, thereby assuring (more or less) that the subject will respawn again, intact. Not that everyone is comfortable with their role: State licensed dispatchers habitually keep three ten-sided dice with them as a teaching tool to help explain what they do, and how they can live with themselves murdering other people. (And by doing so, extending their clients’ respective lives). It is implied that failed dispatches, when the victim fails to return, are not easy on professional dispatchers.
Scalzi’s exploration of the world of The Dispatcher focuses on society’s practical responses to this new state of affairs, starting with the dispatcher, himself. Tony Valdez, a veteran state dispatcher, stands by while a surgery takes place. When the procedure takes a turn for the worse, he comes in and executes (dispatches) the patient, who rematerializes intact. In a later incident, he dispatches a fatally injured pedestrian victim of a road accident.
Other dispatcher duties, most of which are only discussed in the hypothetical, fall into moral and legal gray areas. A Hollywood stunt performer permanently injured during a take? Dispatching him doesn’t save his life, but it saves his career and immense costs to his insurers. Academic fraternities now engage in (drunken) duels with medieval longswords. A dispatcher stands by to assure that no injuries remain permanent.
Not revealed: the detailed mechanics of the recall effect. For instance: Does the killer have to be human? If a ravenous tiger kills someone (with clear predatory agency), is the victim recalled? What if another human being locks a victim in with the ravenous tiger first? Is the tiger’s agency transparent to what triggers the dispatch? (As an aside, if a tiger eats a victim who is then recalled, does it still get the meal, or does the corpse turn to air in the stomach of a very confused tiger?)
Our academic sectors would be all over these hypotheticals with microscopes and lab experiments. If nothing else, we’d study for the benign purpose of reducing chances of failed dispatch. In so doing, of course, we’d better understanding how to intentionally fail one. The effect seems to delineate agency and intention from happenstance fairly accurately, but then like the rest of the world’s mechanics, operates consistently according to set rules.
Rules that could be exploited, for better or worse.
As with new technologies like the internet, genetics and cloning, human society is eager to exploit new phenomena with complete disregard to ethical concerns (until they become consequential concerns). A world in which murder is impossible would bring out our worst devils and best angels for all to see.
The Dispatcher doesn’t so much beg a sequel as it begs an anthology.