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The Kaiju Preservatiton Society by John Scalzi3.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsJohn Scalzi writes in his afterword to The Kaiju Preservation Society that this book is meant to be taken as the reading equivalent of a catchy three-minute pop song. Light entertainment, nothing too challenging, but it brightens your day and puts a smile on your face. Considering that every year of the 2020s has so far, somehow, managed to be worse than the previous one... well, we could all use a few smiles on our faces.

But honestly, which of John’s novels can’t be compared to a catchy pop song? Except for The God Engines (and that’s a novella), pretty much all of them, I’d say. Scalzi has established himself as one of SF’s most accessible and reliably enjoyable writers. Unlike fantasy, which has a whole host of bestselling books to entice new readers, science fiction hasn’t offered too many trailheads for curious readers to find an easy path into the genre. But Scalzi’s name usually pops up on the short list of writers any reader diving into science fiction for the first time can handle with ease.

Like any pop star, Scalzi has grounded his popularity through establishing a style and voice distinctive to himself. Anyone with a passing familiarity with his books could be handed a manuscript copy of The Kaiju Preservation Society, without title page or byline, and within 3-5 pages, be able to identify it as a Scalzi novel with no trouble. As in a catchy pop song, the pleasure in a John Scalzi novel comes from getting exactly what we expect, rather than a bunch of unwelcome surprises. Here, that works both to the book’s advantage and disadvantage. We get the standard Scalzi protagonist, a whip-smart young go-getter who’s thrown into an absurd, fish-out-of-water situation that they nonetheless navigate easily with the help of an endless reserve of snarky wit and a posse of equally snarky friends. But we also get a story, as entertaining as it all is, in which very little happens that isn’t easy to predict, sometimes chapters in advance. And honestly, in this day and age, making your villain a tech-bro billionaire asshole is just low-hanging fruit. It’s fun, and definitely in tune with the 2020s zeitgeist, but not exactly what you could call penetrating sociopolitical commentary.

Jamie Grey is a brash, young New Yorker who gets sacked from their job with a food delivery startup just as the onset of COVID-19 is hitting in early 2020. (In an easy-to-miss move, Scalzi never makes Jamie’s gender explicitly clear, meaning, with the character’s androgynous name, the reader is free to interpret Jamie as any gender they please.) Angry and despondent about the prospect surviving in that insanely expensive metropolis while the city is shutting down and work is increasingly scarce, Jamie is reduced to working as a deliverer — or “deliverator” — for the app that just fired him. But Jamie becomes acquainted with one of their regular customers, Tom Stevens, with whom they have some unexpected college connections, and who is familiar with Jamie’s abandoned doctoral dissertation on utopian and dystopian fiction. Tom ends up handing Jamie his business card, mentioning that his employer is looking to hire right now. Knowing nothing more than that the company works with exotic animals, Jamie does the interview and gets the job.

Unlike Jamie, we know the title of this story going in, so we’re aware the “exotic animals” in question are truly something else. On a parallel Earth, with a denser atmosphere, where the meteor never killed the dinosaurs and humanity never evolved, all manner of bizarre wildlife roams the dense jungles of North America. And some of them are very, very, very large.

I won’t lie, it’s all kinds of fun as Scalzi builds this alternate world, with quite a lot of thought devoted to the science explaining the existence of the kaiju. Granted, much of the science is hand-wavy “sci-fi” stuff, but within the context of the story Scalzi makes it perfectly believable how such colossal creatures could thrive without collapsing under their own sheer mass, and their symbiotic relationship with other life-forms such as the parasites that act as their cooling system. Scalzi has always worn his influences on his sleeve, and much of this book reads like vintage science fiction, with nearly its first two-thirds thick with talk, as one character or another explains how the world works. Take away some of the post-2010 pop culture references, and it’s easy to see how someone like Greg Bear or Stephen Baxter or Jack McDevitt could have written this book in the ’80s or ’90s. But it might not have been quite as fun. Again, it’s thanks to Scalzi’s breezy writing that none of the book’s clumps of exposition are ever boring.

Still, it means we don’t get to the really good stuff until the third act. But the good news there is that we aren’t kept waiting too long for it. Like any good vintage SF novel, The Kaiju Preservation Society is only 260 pages total, rather than the 400+ that most 21st century SFF tends to run. Yes, in the end, Scalzi seems to see the real world as a bit more just than it is in some regards. But when we’re living in a time of plague and war and a sense that all the good in the world is just being burned away, a story like this can be just the thing to help you cling to your faith in humanity. And anyway, the movies where the kaiju were the good guys were always the best ones, weren’t they?