This is John Scalzi’s latest novella, and it’s somewhat unique in that he wrote it to be published as an audiobook before print. This means he had the audio in mind while writing, and I think it actually did him some good.
In his previous writing, he’s had the tendency to get repetitive with using the word ‘said’. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good word. It works well. Stephen King, if you consider him an authority, says it’s the only dialogue attribution that should be used. The problem is that he often writes snappy back-and-forth dialogue, conversations that can last pages, and he uses it on every line. I don’t really notice it when reading his novels, as I think I just subconsciously skip over it, but in audio it can be a struggle. I almost didn’t make it through the first chapter of Redshirts because of it, but thankfully this novel was free from any such problem.
The main character is a man called Tony Valdez. He is a Dispatcher, which means he’s hired by insurance companies to murder their clients before they die, which at first obviously sounds counterproductive, but a strange phenomenon has occurred recently in the world. People who die at the hands of another wake up in immediately in their homes, naked and uninjured. If they die naturally, they stay dead. If they’re purposefully killed, they find themselves slightly traumatized but alive.
Tony Valdez is approached by a cop for information on a friend of his who has gone missing. He finds himself pulled in, against his will, to the investigation, and along the way we get to learn more about this new temporary murder and how it’s affected certain aspects of society. I found this to be a fascinating thought experiment, which he explores from quite a few different angles, and the story was fun as well. Not one of Scalzi’s best, but I think that’s partly due to this being a novella trying to handle a premise that deserved a longer novel.
My only major gripe was how the cop was used to explain everything. She would ask questions that would make sense for us, the readers, to ask, having no experience with this world, but they sounded ridiculous coming from a police officer. Dispatchers work legally out of hospitals, and laws have already changed to accommodate this new situation, so how does she know so little? I understand Scalzi needed a natural way to continue explaining what was happening to the reader, but a cop felt like a very odd choice to me and anything but natural. At one point Valdez has to explain that it’s legal for him to borrow her gun for his job, and she just takes him on his word. I know it’s a short novella with a lot to explain, but I found it very distracting.
Zachary Quinto (Star Trek, Heroes) did a great job with the narration. His voice was tempered throughout, almost flat, but it worked with the dark and eerie atmosphere of the novel. The print version will be released in May 2007. It sounds like he might write sequels to this in the future, and I hope he does. It’s an interesting premise that deserves more time.