The Dispatcher by John Scalzi

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date read: May 15 to 20, 2017

This is an interesting police procedural with an interesting hook that you don’t find out until somewhat later in the story. Or at least I didn’t find out until it happened. That caught me of guard and, at the same time, pulled me further into the plot. Best way to get into this story, or any short form fiction, is to not know anything about it.

Since it’s so short there’s not much to say without giving the hook away, but I’ll try anyway.

Set in present time Chicago and it actually feels like Chicago and not, say, New York or some other generic urban sprawl. The writing is short, to the point, and what we come to expect from John Scalzi. He doesn’t mince words or beat a morally gray topic to death. He has a minimalist style that I like.

We’re introduced to Tony Valdez just as he’s about to enter the OR, not as a patient or doctor, but a dispatcher. He’s there as insurance, so to speak, to make sure everything goes “smoothly.” What he is and what his job entails is the hook.

Shortly after the operation, Tony finds out that a friend and colleague has gone missing, and he’s pressured by a detective to help her solve the case. She thinks the job has something to do with the his disappearance. The investigation reveals all the gray areas of what dispatchers do off the books and all the ways in which life and death could be just a game.

And I admit I’m hooked. I hope this is just the beginning and that Scalzi has long term plans because there’s still so much left to explore. Crime statistics, law enforcement, religion, politics, the tenuous definition of homicide in this new age of mortality–an endless trove of gray topics to take on. 

I’m not a fan of short form fiction, so this novella feels somewhat incomplete even though loose ends are tied up and most questions are answered. But if this becomes a procedural series and each book an episode, I could totally get behind that.

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Review: Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date Read: March 20 to 27, 2015
Read Count: 1
Recommended by:
Recommended for: animal lovers

A quick, fun, humorous story about ecology, sustainable living, ethics, and a snarky unfortunate contractor, Jack Holloway, who’s down on his luck. By mere chance, he accidentally struck gold which set in motion a series of events that pits him against Zaracorp, a powerful corporate entity that more or less owns the planet and is looking to exploit Holloway’s discovery. In short, they want him out of the way, permanently, but he wouldn’t give in so easily. What follow are hilarious exchanges of corporate speak and lawyerly threats, coming from both sides. As this is happening, a family of small cat-like creatures befriend Holloway and decide to move into his cabin in the trees. They seem awfully intelligent and intuitive for mere animals, and that’s because they’re sapient. Since universal laws protected sapient life forms at all costs, the creatures’ existence poses a major threat to Holloway’s and Zaracorps’ claims on the planet’s resources, just as these claims are a major threat to all life on this planet. Holloway, who up until then only cared about his rightful share of the profits, has to decide whether or not to go public about the fuzzies.

John Scalzi captures everything just perfectly, from the corporate talking heads to the actual corporate head, right down to the snotty heir whose face demands that you rearrange his nose with your fist. Everything about it just inspires fury and righteous indignation from people outside the closed circle of power and privilege. Jack Holloway had once been a part of that world; now he’s fallen from grace and has become an outsider looking in. But since his fall from grace, he’s learned a thing or two about humility. I wouldn’t say he’s a likable character, rather he’s in a situation that makes it easy to sympathize.

Another thing John Scalzi does right is present environmental ethics in a way that enhances the narrative. He takes complicated ideas and weave them into the story arc to make them easier to digest, which makes them more memorable and easier to deconstruct. What Scalzi’s writing accomplishes isn’t too on the nose, but it’s just enough so that you’d consider the fuzzies’ plight, their planet, and the future of their species–as well as our own. Scalzi makes writing about difficult subject matter look easy.

Last but not least, the animals in this story are fascinating and full of personality. The fuzzies of course, but Carl especially.

“Congratulations, you are now officially as smart as a dog,” Holloway said [to a fuzzy]. Carl looked up at the word dog. Holloway knew it was only his imagination that the dog appeared somewhat offended at the comparison.

The fuzzies and Carl together make for great comedy

The cat thing set its fruit down, pulled its legs up from the edge, grabbed its fruit and then walked over to the window. Carl stopped barking, confused by what the creature was doing. The cat thing sat down, millimeters away from the windowpane, stared at Carl, and then very deliberately started eating its fruit in front of the dog. Holloway could have sworn it was intentionally chewing with its mouth open.

Carl went nuts barking. The cat thing stayed there, eating and blinking. Carl dropped from the window; two seconds later, there was a thump as Carl’s head hit the dog door. The manual lock was still on. Carl showed back up in the window a few seconds after that, no longer barking but clearly annoyed at the cat thing.

I absolutely love this book and will be rereading it for years to come. I love this book so much I initially gave it 5 stars upon finishing, but it’s not exactly 5-star material, not compared to other books I’ve given 5 stars, which isn’t a dig at the story or Scalzi’s writing. Sometimes a book isn’t a literary knockout, but it just hits that sweet spot for you and it’s love at first read. And although it doesn’t quite stand up to the other greats you’ve read and loved in the past, it’s still special. That’s what Fuzzy Nation is for me, special, because it’s got that unique blend of heart, humor, and great comedic timing. I started it on audio, but didn’t like it. I liked the story just fine, just not Wil Wheaton’s rendition of it. So I spent the following weeks hunting down the hardcover because, even only 10 pages in, I knew I would reread it for years to come.

What’s a review of my favorite book with my favorite moments.

Later Holloway was trying to work out the kinks in his muscles with a hot shower in the cabin’s tiny lavatory when Baby Fuzzy pulled aside the curtain and got her first glimpse of naked, soap-covered man.

“Do you mind,” Holloway said, mildly. He was not an exhibitionist, but being watched by a fuzzy while he showered didn’t trigger any modesty concerns. It was like your cat watching you while you got dressed.

Baby turned her head and squeaked. Five seconds later, four other heads peeked into the shower, watching the funny hairless thing doing its incomprehensible water ritual. Now Holloway felt vaguely uncomfortable.

“Are you taking notes?” Holloway said, to his audience. “You could all use one of these, you know. You don’t smell as adorable as you look. Especially you,” he said, motioning to Grandpa. “I woke up smelling your furry ass. You need an intervention, my friend.”

Carl poked his head into the shower, as if to see what he was missing. Holloway turned the nozzle on the lot of them and smirked as they scattered.

[…]

The zararaptors began pounding on the skimmer windows with their hands, first in open palm smacks and then with fists. The windows rattled but held; they were composite windows built to survive bird impacts at nearly 200 kilometers per hour. They could handle an animal fist.

One of the zararaptors broke away from the skimmer. Holloway, despite himself, watched the thing go. Its gaze was fixed on the ground, as if looking for something. Suddenly it paused and bent down and came up with an impressively large rock. It looked back at the skimmer and then swung its arm back in a frighteningly accurate simulation of a cricket bowler.

Huh, tool user, some part of Holloway’s brain said. I’ll have to tell Isabel about that. Then Holloway ducked involuntarily as the very large rock sailed through the air at a viciously flat trajectory.

[…]

“Do you ever stop to think how lucky we are that, in this part of space at least, humans were the sentient creatures who got smart first?”

“It’s crossed my mind,” Holloway said.

Isabel nodded. “Now,” she said, “imagine what would have happened if half a million years ago, some alien creature landed on our planet, looked at our ancestors, decided that they weren’t actually people, and just took all the planet’s ores and oil. How far would we have ever gotten?”

Isabel motioned to the Fuzzys, who were now all asleep on the cabin floor. “Seriously now, Jack,” she said. “How far do you think they’re going to get once we’re through here?”

Carl makes me miss having a dog.

“Sit,” Holloway said to his dog. Carl actually glanced over to the cabin window and then back at Holloway, as if to say Dude, you’re embarrassing me in front of the new guy. But he sat, an almost inaudible whine escaping as he did so.

“Down,” Holloway said. Carl lay down, dejectedly. His humiliation was complete.