I mentioned The Kaiju Preservation Society in Episode 4 of this season of my podcast as one of the hot new sci-fi books of this year and a rare serious literary treatment of the giant monster trope. This is the latest book of John Scalzi, also known for Old Man’s War and Redshirts. I have since actually read the book, and…I think it was a lot of fun.
My rating: 4.5 out of 5.
The Kaiju Preservation Society is notable for being one of the first, if not the first major sci-fi book to be set during the COVID pandemic, but that’s not the point of the book. The premise is that in 2020, Jamie Gray, a man struggling to get by in a locked-down New York, takes a job with the mysterious “KPS,” a non-profit dedicated to protecting “large animals.” It’s only after he joins that he learns that KPS actually standard for the Kaiju Preservation Society, which has access to a parallel universe where the Earth is inhabited by giant, skyscraper-sized monsters—the very same creatures that inspired the Kaiju of Japanese monster movies like Godzilla.
And these aren’t just very large animals. Like the Godzilla of the movies, these Kaiju are nuclear-powered! They have biological nuclear reactors inside their bodies, which is what allows them to grow so big. It also means that our decades of nuclear tests, which just so happen to weaken the barrier between universes, occasionally let Kaiju through into our world. This becomes a problem when a nesting mother Kaiju, “Bella,” parks herself on top of a recent nuclear explosion and subsequent portal, around the same time that an evil businessman hatches a plan to exploit Kaiju Earth for money. And it’s up to Jamie and his colleagues to avert disaster.
The idea of a nuclear powered animal isn’t completely crazy. (Honestly, if you allow the biological nuclear reactors, the largest limitation on their size will probably be height, as I discussed in a recent video.)
A full treatment of the science will need its own post. I’ll just say that Scalzi made one major mistake there. I mentioned the “recent nuclear explosion.” Because evolution makes do with “just good enough,” the Kaijus’ bioreactors can be unstable and at risk of melting down. If this happens, they explode as a literal atomic bomb.
But this does not work. The design of a nuclear reactor is not the same as the design of a nuclear bomb, and in fact, a working reactor can’t explode like a nuke—probably not even if you tried. Chernobyl wasn’t a nuclear explosion; it was a steam explosion, which scattered radiation around the area.
Other than the nuclear explosion bit,* the book was really good and definitely up to Scalzi’s standards. I might even say better than Redshirts. It’s not high literature, and it’s not meant to be, but that doesn’t negate it being a really good story.
I’m referring to the fact that the story behind the story of The Kaiju Preservation Society is an interesting one. In his Author’s Note, Scalzi said that in 2020 and 2021, he had been contracted to write an epic novel that was “dark, heavy, complex, and broodingly ambitious,” but between all the messed up world events of 2020 and beyond, and catching something he “was sure was COVID, but all the tests told [him] it wasn’t,” he just wasn’t able to write that book. And, he decided, it wasn’t the book we needed at a time like this anyway.
The Kaiju Preservation Society was the idea that replaced that one—one that (as I and probably many other writers can relate to) dropped into his head fully-formed the day after he called off his other novel. And this book is completely the opposite. It’s not dark and brooding. It’s silly and completely over the top. Scalzi called it the book equivalent of a pop song—light and catchy and definitely not complex (but see for example here), but that’s actually a good thing. It’s meant to be fun, not deep, and that has a value all its own. This is the book we need in these troubled times.
I didn’t give the book full marks, however, because I have one large stylistic disagreement with Scalzi. I was annoyed that he never described what the Kaiju actually look like. The whole time, they’re described as being like a moving mountain and generally being too big for words. We do know that (at least in Bella’s case), they have wings. They have large, recognizable heads that are big enough to bump with a helicopter. I think they had scales, but I don’t remember for certain. They have a cloaca, which usually specifically describes terrestrial vertebrates, but they were also implied to have more than the usual four limbs—and tentacles on top of that; and they’re implied to have some sort of pass-through airflow system that helps provide lift—none of which are tetrapod traits.
The problem is that despite all these hints, we never get a coherent picture of what the Kaiju look like as a whole. I’m almost certain that was a deliberate stylistic choice—perhaps to preserve some of the mystery, much like in a horror movie where the monster is not clearly seen until the end. But since the characters see the Kaiju from a distance plenty of times, it shouldn’t be that hard to describe them. That’s the one big thing I’d change in the story. Other than that, Scalzi did a great job.
Stay tuned for a post on the science of the book.
* Oh, and also, the “parasites” he keeps talking about are not parasites. They’re clearly symbionts.