(2022) John Scalzi, Tor, £14.99, trdpbk, 264pp, ISBN 978-1-509-383532-4
Here be dragons…
Jamie Gray gets demoted from a promising, middle-management job for an online food delivery company by a particularly self-serving boss who got his start-up investment from his family's old money. Now in a low-paid job delivering food for the same company, he bumps into an old friend who actually is looking for someone to hire.
Not much is revealed about his new job except that it will involve large wildlife conservation somewhere far off and they need someone to 'lift things', lug stuff around. 'Far off', it transpires, is actually a parallel Earth in which the dinosaurs were not wiped out and which sees what are in effect large dragons. This Earth has been known about for some time: Godzilla was not entirely a work of fiction and the reason why the atomic text bomb treaty came into force was that it weakens the boundary between our parallel worlds.
Through Jamie's eyes, we learn of this world and our relationship with it as well as the nature of the kaiju dragons. Aside from scientific research, one reason for an international preservation society was that some wish the kaiju harm. If they aren't stopped humanity may be responsible for yet another species' extinction, only this time a species not of our Earth…
Scalzi has given us a ripping adventure that gallops along at a cracking pace. There's plenty to standard SFnal tropes: this is Michael Creighton's Lost World, meets Harry Harrison's Deathworld by way of Paul McAuley's Cowboy Angels. It is also a master class of the painless information dump as we the reader learn of the parallel world and the kaiju through the eyes of the new recruit Jamie: as his job is explained to him, so it is explained to us. This is greatly eased by Scalzi being an expert at conversational prose, as he did so well in the political-intrigue sarcasm in his 'Interdependency' trilogy that ended with The Last Emprox. Here, the conversation is largely in the form of work colleagues' banter, and it makes the novel flow with speed.
The science in the SF is, of course fictional, but this does not matter not only because it is science fiction, but because the idea of a parallel universe is so established in SF (and the multiverse even has a little traction in speculative physics should you buy into Hugh Everett III's idea). Indeed, I particularly liked the explanation as to why the position of the stars in the night sky were the same as on our Earth but the dinosaur-extinction asteroid was not. But then I am a bit of a geek and you are reading this on the Science Fact & Science Fiction Concatenation.
One gripe, and here I must have a rant. While SF authors may have a fantastical fantasy aspect to their science, it helps for a science literate readership if the rest of the science is as accurate as possible. And so, sadly, Scalzi let the side down with a school-level biology error in calling the kaiju's 'symbiotes' 'parasites'. He does try to clarify matters (page 157) but fails to recognise, and so perpetuates, this error. Worse, this is not a one-off; he makes it a dozen times. Hence my now making a firm point.
SF authors need to be aware that their readers are becoming evermore scientifically literate: today in Britain it is mandatory, at what was the 16-17 year-old GCSE/O-Level level, to take double science and this includes biology. I realise that in the US things are not quite the same (for example, apparently some US schools refuse to teach Darwinian evolution and school book-banning is an ongoing, contentious issue). If you, as I do, contend that the genre of SF is more than just frivolous entertainment – that it instils values in readers – then one of its benefits is to engender an enthusiasm for science. (This was true a quarter of a century ago and is more so today in our ever increasingly technological and knowledge-based society.) SF authors ought to treat their readers with the simple courtesy of getting their school-level science right. And, if they do not feel sufficiently equipped, then get help: that is in part what fandom is for! (If they do they may even get a bonus, in this case, say, in the form of a naturally occurring nuclear reactors such as at the Oklo, Gabon uranium mine)
Now, this might seem a point of pedantry – and yes, I am steeped in the biosciences – but it is not: it speaks to the difference of being an SF author and a hack. Nor do I expect SF publishers to get it. SF publishing consists almost universally of folk with an arts background: anyone with a science degree seeking a career in publishing almost invariably gets snapped up by the academic presses and learned society publishers. It is up to SF authors to check their own work or to get help doing so. Here endeth the rant.
Nonetheless, do not let this little tirade put you off The Kaiju Preservation Society: it is a great romp and a proverbial page-turner. This last is a veritable cliché in book reviewing but here take it as a health warning: do not use The Kaiju Preservation Society as a bedtime read as you will get little sleep!
The book also has a neat afterword explaining how the book came about (I do like afterwords). Apparently John Scalzi had been trying to write a more substantive work but the events of 2020 for him meant that his head was not in the right place and so he penned this one fairly quickly (perhaps that explains the biological faux pas?). He wrote it as a 'pop song' and here, as a page-turning romp of an adventure, it surely works. Meanwhile, I look forward to the book that we did not (yet) get.
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