The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I own several books by John Scalzi, but I think this is his best so far. It follows his familiar pattern: fast-paced, breezy, snarky and fun (indeed, in the afterword he calls the book "a three-minute pop song"). But the alternate Earth where the dinosaurs never died and kaiju--three-hundred-foot monsters with their own parasitic ecology, powered by bionuclear reactors--evolved instead is a surprisingly well-thought-out world, and is in fact the most interesting part of the book. The protagonist, Jamie Gray, is also well-written, and despite his ongoing protestations that he's just there to lift things and likes doing so, he's the most level-headed and resourceful of the bunch. Together with the four core characters who are his friends, he saves the day.
One thing that struck me is the demonstration of how much better Scalzi has gotten at writing dialogue. It's night and day compared to his first book, Old Man's War. I flipped through that book for the first time in ages, and some of the dialogue is downright painful: not flowing well and interrupted by incessant he/she saids. This book's dialogue, on the other hand, is far more natural. Which is a good thing, as dialogue comprises probably 75% of the book. I understand it's already been optioned for television, and I can see why: characterization, plot, worldbuilding, nearly everything, is conveyed through the spoken word, which would be a requirement for adaptation.
Which brings me to the only knock I have against this book, and the reason I didn't give it five stars: its near complete absence of description. I know description is not Scalzi's thing, and I can even understand its lack in the case of the kaiju, up to a point. I'm sure he thought it would be better for each reader to come up with their own mental picture of a 300-foot-tall living mountain (knowing most of those mental images would be wearing Godzilla's face anyway). Still, I would have preferred a little more description of the world and characters. Don't get me wrong, the lack thereof doesn't spoil the story. But sometimes it became hard to distinguish the supporting characters, because I had no pertinent characteristics to attach to each name, and they occasionally tended to blur together.
Also, this book is definitely set in the early days of Covid, and peppered with pop-culture references that will probably date quickly. As much as I enjoyed the idea of two mating kaiju named Edward and Bella, put another fifteen or twenty years on this book and the reader will just go, "Huh?" At least Scalzi employed enough restraint to avoid mentioning the president of the time by name. He also avoids--well, except for one snuck-in first name--naming fellow billionaires of the bloated egotistical raging asshole antagonist, Rob Sanders, who definitely gets his comeuppance at the book's climax (offscreen, but the reader can picture very well what happens to him).
This book isn't terribly deep, but it's fast and fun and I enjoyed it. Sometimes, that's all you need.
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