Audiobooks represent a somewhat tricky medium for me: first, unlike books, they don’t offer the possibility of rereading a phrase or paragraph – at least not as easily as it happens with a book; and second, I don’t seem to be able to concentrate on them as I do with books. So, until now, I’ve never looked at them as an alternative way to “consume” books, preferring to use my eyes instead of my ears to enjoy stories.
And yet, when author John Scalzi announced on his blog that this novella was available on audio, and that it was narrated by Zachary Quinto, whose voice and precise enunciation I was already familiar with through the Star Trek reboot movies, I had no doubts I would have to listen to it: Scalzi is one of my favorite authors, and every time he publishes something new, I have this compulsion to acquire it. The fact that Audible was offering a free download for a month also represented an added incentive to overcome my misgivings about the medium.
It ended up being a very pleasant experience, and one I might replicate – at least with shorter works rather than full-length books – and I’m happy to have discovered that I’m after all able to sit down and listen for a prolonged period of time. As a matter of fact, I find it quite relaxing…
The story is an intriguing one: Tony Valdez is a licensed dispatcher – in other words, he helps people die. In this world imagined by Scalzi, it’s become practically impossible to kill people, because every person who dies at the hands of another comes back. They return, naked as the day they were born, in the place where they feel most secure – mostly that means their home, in their bed. People still die of natural causes, of old age or illness, and they can choose suicide: this way, they stay dead. But when someone else performs the act of killing, they disappear from the place where the act was performed and go back – alive. We meet Tony in a hospital, where he’s been called – as the insurance companies now require – to assist a surgeon during a complex cardiac operation: once it’s clear that the patient will not survive the procedure, Tony intervenes and terminates – dispatches, indeed – the patient, who goes back to his home in the same state he was before being admitted to the hospital, and probably ready to start the procedure all over again.
This introduction started me on a series of questions that the story does not answer: for example I wondered what happens with a murderer – since the victim comes back, unscathed, does the law still consider the perpetrator guilty? The cause of this incredible anomaly is not explained, either, apart from the information that one day, out of the blue, people who had been killed did not stay dead. The reason is indeed less important than the changes it forces on society and on the way people see death: the bare fact is set there, before our eyes, and it’s left to us readers to ask the questions and – if possible – to find the answers. Or not. I guess it works either way.
Valdez is contacted by the police because one of his fellow dispatchers has disappeared: in his home were found only some traces of blood that point to a struggle and a possible kidnapping, and since Tony is one of the last people to have had contact with the missing man, he’s asked to lend his assistance as a consultant. As he helps the investigator retrace his colleague’s steps, we learn a great deal about dispatchers and their work, part of which is often carried out outside of the legally accepted roads: dispatchers sometimes take on this side jobs for money, and this can expose them to danger from the shadier facets of society.
This side jobs can be as “innocent” as helping out film crews whose stuntmen are seriously injured: instead of paying huge amounts of money in insurance and medical care, the stuntman can be dispatched and sent back to the state he was in before the accident. But there are cases like the illegal “fight clubs” where a less-than-honest dispatcher can help avoid the necessary medical expenses for people who have been beaten within an inch of their life.
It’s while following this line of inquiry that Valdez and detective Langdon find the trail of the missing man and the reason for his disappearance, while we learn more about the price of coming back from death… All in all, a very interesting story, and one that made me think – which is not at all unusual with Mr. Scalzi.
As for the audiobook experience, it was indeed positive: Zachary Quinto is a very skilled narrator, able to give different shades of voice to the various characters and make them sound real and believable. I had no difficulty in distinguishing between the different players in the scenes where more than two people where interacting, and some of his portrayals – notably an embittered old man and a bodyguard-type guy – were very well executed. The “voice” for the main character, Tony Valdez, drew the image of a man who is quite comfortable with himself and his peculiar profession, but has been touched by a subtle vein of disenchantment, which made him very engaging.
While I’m still not certain I could enjoy a whole book in audio form, I know that I will surely take other opportunities to listen to shorter works: the two and a half hours of this particular one seems to be an acceptable compromise for my tastes.
I guess the proverbial ice has been broken, indeed.