The Kaiju Preservation Society

by John Scalzi

Cover image

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2022
ISBN: 0-7653-8913-4
Format: Kindle
Pages: 264

Buy at Powell's Books

As this novel opens, Jamie Gray, our first-person narrator, is working for the business side of a startup food delivery service named füdmüd. He's up for his six month performance review and has some great ideas for how to improve the company's market standing going into pandemic lockdown. His boss has other ideas: Jamie at the bottom of the corporate ladder, delivering food door-to-door.

Tom is working for a semi-secret organization with a last-minute, COVID-induced worker shortage. He needs someone who can lift things. Jamie used to go to some of the same parties, can lift things, and is conveniently available. And that's how Jamie ends up joining the Kaiju Preservation Society, because it turns out the things that need lifting are in a different dimension.

This book was so bad. I think this may be the worst-written novel at a technical level that I have read since I started writing book reviews.

It's become trendy in some circles to hate Scalzi, so I want to be clear that I normally get along fine with his writing. Scalzi is an unabashedly commercial writer of light, occasionally humorous popcorn SF. It's not great literature, and he's unlikely to write a new favorite novel, but his books are easy to read and reliably deliver a few hours of comfortable entertainment. The key word is "reliably"; Scalzi doesn't have a lot of dynamic range, but you know what you're getting and can decide to read him when that matches your mood.

When I give a book a bad review, it's usually because I found the ideas deeply unpleasant (genocidal theology, for instance, or creepy voyeuristic sexism). That's not the problem here. The ideas are fine: a variation on the Jurassic Park setup but with kaiju and less commercialism, an everyman narrator to look at everything for the reader, a few assholes thrown in to provide some conflict — sure, sign me up, sounds like the kind of light entertainment I expect from a Scalzi novel. The excuse for interdimensional portals was clever (and consistent with kaiju story themes), and the biological handwaving created a lot of good story hooks. The material for a fun novel is all present.

The problem, instead, is that this book was not finished. It's the bare skeleton of a story with almost-nonexistent characters and plot, stuck in a novel-shaped box and filled in with repetitive banter and dad jokes of the approximate consistency of styrofoam packing material.

When I complain about the characterization, I fear people who haven't read the book won't understand what I mean. He's always had dialogue quirks that tend to show up in all of his characters and make them sound similar. I noticed this in other books, but it wasn't a big deal.

The characterization problems in this book are a big deal.

I can identify four characters, total, from the entire novel: the first-person protagonist, the villain, the pilot, and the woman who does the forest floor safety training. None of those characters are memorable or interesting, but at least they're somewhat distinct. Apart from them, you could write a computer program that randomly selected character names for each dialogue line and I wouldn't be able to tell the difference. I have never given up on character identity and started ignoring all the dialogue tags in a book before. Everyone says the same thing, makes the same jokes, has the same emotional reactions, and has the same total lack of interiority or distinguishing characteristics. The only way I can imagine telling the characters apart is if you memorized the association between names and professions, and I have no idea why you'd bother.

The descriptions are, if anything, worse. Scalzi is not a heavily descriptive author, but usually he gives me something to hang my imagination on. You would think that if you were writing a book about kaiju — one where kaiju are quite actively involved in the story, fighting, roaring, menacing, being central to the plot — you would describe a kaiju at some point during the novel. They're visually impressive giant monsters! This is an inherently visual story genre! And at no point in this entire novel does Scalzi ever describe a kaiju in any detail. Not once! The most we get is that one has tentacles and a sort of eye spot. And sometimes there are wings. There are absolutely no overall impressions, comparisons, attempts to sketch what the characters are seeing, nothing.

Or, for another example, consider the base, the place where the characters live for most of the story and where much of the dialogue happens. Here is the sum total of all sensory information I can recall about the characters' home: it has stairs, and there's a plant in Jamie's room. (The person who left the plant, who never appears on screen, gets more characterization in two pages than anyone else gets in the whole novel.)

What does the base look like from the outside? The inside? How many stories does it have? What are the common spaces like? What does it smell like? Does it feel institutional, or welcoming, or dirty, or sparkling? How long does it take to get from one end of it to the other? Does it make weird noises at night? I have no impressions of this place whatsoever. Maybe a few of these things were mentioned in passing and I missed them, but that's because the narrator of this book never describes his surroundings in detail, stops to look at something eye-catching, thinks about how he feels about a place, or otherwise gives the reader any meaningful emotional engagement with the spaces around him.

And it's not like this story was instead stuffed with action. There is barely a novelette's worth of plot and most of that is predictable: the setup, the initial confrontation, the discovery of the evil plan, the final confrontation. For most of the book, nothing of any consequence happens. It's just endless pages of vaguely bantering dialogue between totally indistinguishable characters while Jamie repeats "I lift things." (That was funny the first couple of times; by the fifth time, the funny wore off.) The climax, when it finally happens, is mostly monologuing and half-hearted repartee that is cringeworthy and vaguely embarrassing for everyone involved.

I don't really blame Scalzi for this book. I wish he had realized that it was half-baked at best and needed some major revisions, but the author's note at the end makes it clear that the process of bringing this book into the world was a train wreck. It was written in two months, in a rush, after Scalzi had already missed a deadline for a different book that failed to come together. Life happens, and in 2020 and early 2021 a whole lot of life was happening. The tone of the author's note is vaguely apologetic; I think Scalzi realizes at some level that this is not his best work.

The person I do blame is Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Scalzi's editor, who is a multiple-Hugo-award-winning book editor and the managing editor of science fiction at Tor and absolutely should have known better. It was his responsibility to look at this book and say "this is not ready yet"; this is part of the function of the traditional publishing apparatus. This could have been a good book. The ideas and the hook were there; it just needed some actual substance in the middle and a whole lot of character work. Instead, he was the one who made the decision to publish the book in this state.

But, well, the joke's on me, because The Kaiju Preservation Society sold a ton of copies, got nominated for several awards, won an Alex Award, and made Amazon's best of 2022 list, so I guess this was a brilliant publishing decision and the book was everything it needed to be? Maybe I'm just bad at reading and have no sense of humor? I have no explanation; I am truly and completely baffled.

There are books that I don't like but that have obvious merits for people who are not me. There are styles of writing that I don't like and other people do. But I would have sworn this book was objectively unfinished and half-assed at a craft and construction level, in ways that don't depend as much on personal taste. I recommend quietly forgetting it was ever published and waiting for a better Scalzi novel, but it has a 4.04 star rating on Goodreads with nearly 32,000 reviews, so what do I know.

Anyway, I was warned that I wasn't going to like this book and I read it anyway for silly reasons because I figured it was a Scalzi novel and how bad could it be, really. I brought this on myself, and I at least got the fun of ranting about it. Apparently this book found its people and they got a lot of joy out of it, and good for them.

Rating: 2 out of 10

Reviewed: 2023-03-21

Last spun 2023-05-13 from thread modified 2023-03-22