Kaiju sugar rush

John Scalzi's latest is a monster-filled blockbuster of a novel

Kaiju sugar rush
Image: Andrew Liptak

I love big, dumb blockbusters. You know the ones that I mean: the types of films like Battle: Los Angeles, Pacific Rim, or The Adam Project. They're films where everything is on the surface, and you don't need to look too deeply for any meaning, because the filmmakers are hitting you over the head with a non-stop parade of explosions, action scenes, and quippy (sometimes memorable) dialogue. They're fun to watch, and they live nicely alongside some of the more cerebral films that have subtext and nuance layered into their scenes and scripts. Sometimes, Pearl Street Pizza (my hometown's new wood-fired pizza joint) doesn't cut it: Pizza Hut's what I'm looking for.

The same is true for the books I read: there are times when I'm not looking for something that requires anything but my attention and which seeks only to be straight-up entertaining. Your milage might vary, but I've enjoyed Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park, or Daniel Suarez's Delta-V for those reasons. You can add John Scalzi's latest novel, The Kaiju Preservation Society to that list: it's a loud, zippy, and entirely entertaining romp, one that checked all of the boxes that I needed it to.

Some spoilers ahead.

If you've picked up Scalzi's books before (especially ones like Fuzzy Nation or Redshirts), you'll know what to expect: quick-witted lead characters who'd brought into a fantastical situation and who use said quick wits to persevere as things escalate.

In this instance, that's what happens to Jamie Gray,  a tech worker working for a VC-funded Silicon Valley startup called füdmüd. In the opening chapters, Jamie's called in to meet with the company's CEO, and instead of getting a promotion, they're shown the door. And then COVID-19 hits New York City, and they're struggling to make ends meet ... working as a delivery person — a Deliverator — for füdmüd.

During one delivery, Jamie meets a former classmate of theirs from college: Tom Stevens, who as it turns out works for a secretive organization called the Kaiju Preservation Society and he's in need of someone to lift things on-site. Jamie's hired, and we're brought over to this fantastical, alternate Earth where instead of humans populating the world, there are these gigantic, nuclear-powered Kaiju roaming the place. And it's the KPS's job to not only study them, but ensure that they don't come to harm: when one of them goes nuclear, it thins out the walls between our reality and theirs, and every now and again (like say, during a period of intense nuclear testing during the mid-20th century), one breaks through and causes problems.

It's a fun idea, and Scalzi spends a good amount of time following characters who outline everything for the reader: the Kaiju's underlying biology, the KPS setup on that alternate world, and the work that they do to prevent problems from spilling over. Those problems do spill over, and it's one of the things that makes this particular book fun.

I'd characterize this book as something like an over-excited border collie: fun, lots of heart, and filled with energy. Put in bookish terms, it's closer to the likes of Jurassic Park, or Delta-V in tone than something like say... Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice or Arkady Martine's A Memory Called Empire.

But here's the thing: while the Ancillary Justices and imperial memories soak up a lot of critical acclaim for their more nuanced arguments to gender, imperialism, and colonization, these types of popcorn blockbusters can also convey that same sort of messaging and critiques about the state of the world. Scalzi's latest does just that: his approach is less with a scalpel than it is a hit across the face with a baseball bat, but he gets his point across pretty effectively.

Midway through the book, Jamie comes face to face with their former CEO, the one who got them canned from füdmüd, and as it turns out, there's some things going along in the background that have to do with the nature of Silicon Valley VC startups and how greed is a powerful motivator for the folks in those circles, and that their unwillingness (or straight-up inability) to consider how their actions, intentions, or desires impact the lives of those around them in a drastically horrifying fashion. Crichton did it with a park of genetically-engineered dinosaurs and Suarez pulled on the same strings with a crew of desperate space miners on a distant asteroid.

I've heard plenty of complaints from the genre intelligentsia who want publishing and Hollywood's output to be uniformly critically acclaimed hits that deliver their stories like an artisan craft, and decry the onslaught of mega blockbusters and cinematic universes as a signal that we're hopelessly lost as a society, addicted to the sugar rush of special effects and snappy dialog that doesn't work without an explosions going off in the background. Not every cup of coffee has to be an artisanally-crafted work of art: sometimes, you just need a cup of something to get you going in the morning.  

But the entertainment world isn't a zero sum game: you can have both moody, introspective films from A24 and installment #32423 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, right alongside The Fifth Season and Ready Player One or The Kaiju Preservation Society.

Scalzi's The Kaiju Preservation Society is fully aware of what it is: a schlocky blockbuster of a book that delivered a solid dose of entertaining dialogue and a raft of characters that're all quick with a pun or snappy comeback. It's one that feels very much like it's benefitted from Scalzi's experience in Hollywood working on shows like Stargate Universe, or Netflix's Love, Death + Robots; a book that feels like it follows the three-act rules of a blockbuster movie to the point where it can easily be flipped into an adaptation (it's already been optioned for a TV show).

At the end of the day, did it deliver a couple of hours of entertainment, or serve as a fun diversion that I didn't have to think too hard about? Yep, and that's all it needed to be.