Just write the fun parts. Take a science fiction premise — that evolution ran differently on an alternate earth giving rise to kaiju (Godzilla and company, I didn’t know the term before I had heard of this book) — and just write the fun parts. That’s The Kaiju Preservation Society.
The parallel earths, two among presumably many, went along their merrily separate ways until nuclear explosions on human earth weakened the interdimensional barrier between the two. Godzilla came through, in part because nuclear power means food for full-grown kaiju. Soon thereafter, various powers-that-be on human earth figured out how to go to and from kaiju earth. Since that time, they’ve cooperated on keeping the kaiju there and the humans here for the benefit of all concerned. They’ve also cooperated on keeping all of this secret, and set up an organization to reach all of these goals: the Kaiju Preservation Society. There’s a fair amount of handwavium, but it works because it’s internally consistent, because Scalzi doesn’t lean too hard on the science, and because the book is all about the fun parts.
Jamie Gray, first-person narrator of The Kaiju Preservation Society, knows not a bit of this at the start of the novel. It’s early in 2020, just before the covid-19 lockdowns began. Jamie’s a marketing guy for a food delivery app company in New York and goes in to the boss’ office for a performance review. Instead he gets fired. Then one of his roommates leaves, and the other two work in theater so they know a lockdown will evaporate their jobs. This is not a book about scraping by amid a pandemic, so Scalzi skips ahead to when Jamie’s luck changes, although it takes several scenes of snappy dialogue for the change to fully materialize.
The asshole boss insisted on calling the app’s delivery people deliverators — Jamie swallowed his pride and became one after being fired from marketing — and pretended not know the term already existed. Jamie is just completing a delivery when the customer says
“Hope you find your samurai swords.”
I stopped turning. “What?”
“Sorry, inside joke,” the dude said. “You know ‘deliverator’ is from Snow Crash, right? The Neal Stephenson book? Anyway, the protagonist is a delivery guy who has samurai swords. I forget the hero’s name.”
I turned back all the way. “Thank you” I said. “I’ve been delivering food for six months, and you’re the first person to get the reference. At all.” (Ch. 2)
Scalzi is having another level of fun with his readers, because the hero’s name is in fact “Hiro.”
After a couple more deliveries, it transpires that the two of them know each other in a third-hand, met-at-parties kind of way. Just as Tom is getting called away from New York for months and Jamie is losing his spot as a deliverator because of a corporate merger, they discover the circumstances might be an improvement for both of them.
“I thought you were going to give me a cash tip,” [said Jamie].
“This is better. This is a job.”
I blinked at this. “What?”
Tom sighed. “The NGO I work for. It’s an animal rights organization. Large animals. We spend a lot of time in the field. There’s a team I’m a part of. We’re supposed to ship out in the next week. One of my team members has COVID and is currently in a hospital in Houston, hooked up to a ventilator.” Tom saw my face do another thing and held up a hand. “He’s out of danger and is going to recover, or so they tell me. But he’s not going to recover before my team ships out this week. We need someone to replace him. You could do it. This card is for our recruitment officer. Go see her. I’ll tell her you’re coming.” (Ch. 2)
That organization is of course the Kaiju Preservation Society, though some more light hilarity has to ensue before Jamie is fully on board. Something about dietary restrictions during field work; it would be difficult to maintain a vegan diet. Jamie tried veganism briefly but couldn’t live without cheese.
“They have vegan cheese.”
“No, they don’t. They have shredded orange and white sadness that mocks cheese and everything it stands for.” (Ch. 3)
There’s the immunization regimen:
“These are your basic vaccinations,” [Dr. Lee] said. “Just the usual stuff, new and boosters. Measles, mumps, rubella, multispectral flu, chicken pox, smallpox.”
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” She held up one of the syringes. … “Now. How much international travel have you done?”
“Not much. Canada for a conference last year. Mexico as an undergrad for spring break.”
I shook my head. Dr. Lee harrumphed and reached up for another tray of syringes. I started counting and got nervous. …
“Also, really quickly, let’s talk side effects. For the next couple of days you might feel achy or sore, and you might run a slight fever. If that happens, don’t panic, that’s perfectly normal. It just means your body is learning about the diseases we want it to fight.”
“Also, at least a couple of these are going to make you feel ravenously hungry. Go ahead and eat all you want, but avoid excessively fatty foods, since one of these is going to tell your body to purge fats in a way that absolutely challenges normal sphincter control.”
“That’s … not great.”
“It’s a mess. Seriously, don’t even think about trying to fart for the next eighteen hours. It’s not a fart. You will regret it.”
“I don’t like you.”
“I get that a lot. Also, you may find the color blue giving you a migraine for the next couple of days.”
“Yeah. We don’t know why it happens, we just know it does. When it does, just look at something not blue for a while.”
“You know the sky is blue, right?”
“Yes. Stay indoors. Don’t look up.” (Ch. 3)
That’s before Dr. Lee mentions “murder stoner syndrome.” It’s not all shots and games in KPS onboarding, though; there’s the matter of money. They offer plenty. Enough that Jamie’s narration notes, “It was stupidly perfect how all of my problems were suddenly solved with the strategic application of money.” (Ch. 3) Indeed, former deliverator, indeed.
Over on the other side of the interdimensional barrier, there are indeed kaiju, and while they are the apex predators, plenty of other things on kaiju earth would be happy to eat any humans silly enough to present themselves. The climate is, after all, equivalent to the one on human earth that produced meter-long insects. Plus life forms that consider radiation an essential part of their metabolism. KPS is essentially scientific, observing and learning about this other world from a small number of bases spread around the globe. Jamie’s first foray into the field to interact with actual kaiju produces the following summary:
“Oh come on,” Niamh said. “Stop with your whining already. Today you outran a horny kaiju and a mushroom cloud. If you can’t enjoy that, there’s a problem with you.” (Ch. 11)
The setting is dangerous enough for Scalzi’s characters, but as he is at pains to point out early in the story, KPS exists not just to protect humans from kaiju but also to protect the kaiju from humans. When things get worse, it is no surprise that human greed is the root cause. The action and quips don’t stop, even at the tensest moments, because The Kaiju Preservation Society is all about the fun parts. Nor does Scalzi give up on the occasional bit of meta fun.
“It’s a reverse lampshade,” I said.
“I don’t know what ‘lampshade’ means here,” [said Tom], “much less its reverse.”
“It’s a literary term. It means calling attention to something improbable, acknowledging its improbability in the text, and then moving on.”
“And that works?”
“More than you might think.” (Ch. 13)
It works plenty well here. All the way through to the last sentence, which is a lovely zinger.