Review: Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi

When the Dragon Award Finalists were announced I asked people:

“Is The Kaiju Preservation Society any good? I had the impression it was more of a light Scalzi-having-a-bit-of-fun sort of thing?”

But I was in the mood for something light and so plugged myself into the Wil Wheaton narrated audiobook version. That was a couple of weeks ago and I forgot whether I’d written a review or not. Truth is, I didn’t have anything to say. My assessment of the book before I had read it was wholly unchanged having read it.

In short, it is essentially just the fluffy bits of John Scalzi’s writing. And that’s fine, if that’s what you need. I wouldn’t have nominated it for an award though and I can imagine it would be as annoying as fudge for anybody who was expecting something meatier.

But this morning, I remembered that I did have a point to make. KPS is disposal fluff and in the afterword, Scalzi describes the novel as a way out from his own covid/2020-insanity writing slump. It is what it is. However, looking back at it now, I can see that is also very like what some people (some of whom haven’t read it) think Redshirts is.

There are some substantial similarities with Redshirts. Both novels riff off pop-culture cliches in a fannish way. Both novels have a core set of characters who are new/junior people placed in a science fictional organisation and face science fictional peril. However, KPS lacks the metatextual elements and has none of the emotional punch of Redshirts. You could strip out aspects of Redshirts and end up with a version of the novel that is more like KPS in style.

Looking back at criticism of the book, I recall there was some stabs at Scalzi being very vague or oblique when it came to describing the kaiju themselves. Aside from them being big, radioactive and crawling in big parasites, by the end of the book it remains unclear what they look like. Godzilla? Mothra? Lovecraftian tentacle beasts? One-eyed pineapples? It’s weird that Scalzi keeps it vague but undoubtedly intentional. Overall, I think that vagueness works. Scalzi isn’t a particularly visual writer and having the kaiju be a sort of protean every-monster was something I appreciated. Happy to fill in that sketch myself.

There were also elements here that reminded me of two key dinosaur-themed stories. James Tiptree jr’s The Nightblooming Saurian and Brian Aldiss’s Poor Little Warrior. The Tiptree story features put-upon scientists running a time travel project who have to deal with visiting politicians who really only want to shoot dinosaurs. Aldiss’s story is another example of what James Davis Nicoll described as a sub-genre: “Idiots with rifles and a yen to kill dinosaurs”. However, Aldiss’s specific idiot with a gun gets his comeuppance when the big lobster-like parasites on the dinosaur he shoots, come and eat him alive. Scalzi swaps out kaiju for dinosaurs and parallel Earths for time travel but there’s a lineage here.

Anyway, diverting fluff. If the more chirpy elements of Scalzi’s writing annoy you then I guarantee that you will hate this. If not, it is the literary version of a can of Coke Zero rather than the substantial (if idiosyncratic) burrito that was Redshirts.

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14 responses to “Review: Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi”

  1. I can’t tell whether you noticed that the protagonist’s gender was unspecified. This also ties in to Scalzi not being very visual: the details of their appearance don’t matter enough in the story that they would have to make the gender possible to tell.

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    • I only read the sample, but that gave me the impression that the protagonist was female, despite no gender specification. I guess how they were dissed and fired at the beginning felt very much like what women go through at work.

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      • Point, though that sort of thing certainly does happen to men also. But that may be why the tor.com reviewer assumed that Jamie was female. For my part, I assumed male and was surprised to find out that it was actually unspecified, and I think that there were two reasons for this:
        1) the default Scalzi “voice” is snarky and sarcastic, which I think of as more a male thing than female
        2) Jamie’s job with the KPS explicitly involves heavy lifting, which again seems more male to me than female
        Obviously one sex has nothing remotely like a monopoly on either of these, I’m just saying.

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  2. I haven’t read the Tiptree but I too was reminded of “Poor Little Warrior”. Also of the Island Zero issue of Planetary.

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  3. Spot on! (Love the burrito ref) There’s a place for books that serve as light relief and do what they say on the tin. As for that place being in an awards list, well the Martian was up there and for me that work served a similar role (& was less well written!)

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  4. Little or no visual description is definitely a Thing with Scalzi – I recently read “Redshirts”, and noticed one character who had an ethnically African name, and wondered “Does that mean she’s Black?… Does that mean the rest of them aren’t?”, and I realised that I had no idea what any of these people looked like.

    It can be a valid stylistic choice, of course – Ian Rankin famously provides no physical description of his long-running character DI Rebus, leaving the reader to project whatever image they like on the character. And I gather that in “Lock In” (I haven’t read that one) it lets Scalzi get away with a protagonist whose gender and physical appearance are unknown and largely irrelevant. I don’t exactly disapprove of this – reading fiction is not a passive act, it’s a collaboration between the writer and the reader – but I’m not a huge fan of it. I do prefer, myself, to have the author’s vision come with some visuals.

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    • Orson Scott Card has at least one novel where he doesn’t describe his POV character but we do know their gender. That makes more sense to me than not describing stuff POV characters are witnessing.

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