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All Science Fiction Coverage

After wrapping up the Interdependency trilogy, sci-fi author John Scalzi planned to write a weighty and serious novel. Instead, he had a monster of a good time. The Kaiju Preservation Society is an adventurous romp that follows one-time delivery driver Jamie, who lucks into the job of a lifetime working for the titular organization, studying and protecting enormous monsters who live in an alternate dimension. We talked to Scalzi about the book he calls “as much fun as I’ve ever had writing a novel.”

There’s nothing like a good monster book to shake things up. What drew you to writing a story about Kaiju?
Well, I was actually writing another novel entirely—a dark and brooding political novel set in space—and it turns out that 2020 wasn’t a great year to be writing a dark and moody political novel, for reasons that will be obvious to anyone who lived through 2020. That novel crashed and burned, and when it did, my brain went, screw it, I’m gonna write a novel with BIG DAMN MONSTERS in it. It was much better for my brain, as it turns out.

When creating the world that the Kaiju live in, what details were important to you? Were there certain inspirations you drew from?
I think the most obvious inspirations were the classic Japanese Kaiju movies, starting with the original Godzilla. From there, I worked backward: If you want to have Kaiju, how do you build a world where they could not only exist, but in fact, it makes sense that they exist? I wanted the world to have at least a sheen of plausibility. So the end result is a much warmer, much more oxygenated Earth, to start . . . and when you have those two things, a lot of other aspects of the world present themselves.

“Self-honesty is important, especially when some creature wants to eat you.”

You mention in your author’s note that The Kaiju Preservation Society is “a pop song . . . meant to be light and catchy.” Did it feel like that to you, easy and fun, while writing? Or were there elements that proved to be surprisingly challenging?
Not going to lie, writing Kaiju was as much fun as I’ve ever had writing a novel. Some of that was in contrast to the unfinished novel before it; anything would have been easier than that one, given the subject and year I attempted it in. But most of it was just giving myself permission to feel the joy of writing, and of creating something expressly to be enjoyed. I wrote it as quickly and as easily as I’ve written anything. 

There are many homages to sci-fi and monster movie tropes in this book. What preexisting audience expectations served you best?
All of the preexisting expectations served me! One of the important things about world building is that the characters are in on the joke—they’ve seen all the Godzilla movies, they’ve watched Pacific Rim and Jurassic Park, and so all the tropes are on the table for them and the book to lean into, to refute and to play with, depending on the circumstances of the plot. No one, not the characters nor the readers, has to pretend that the characters have no concept of Big Damn Monsters, and that opens up a lot of narrative opportunities. 

The dialogue in The Kaiju Preservation Society positively crackles with life. How do you approach writing dialogue?
Dialogue is one of the things I “got for free”—which is to say, something that was already in my toolbox when I got serious about writing. That’s great, but that also means it can be a crutch, something I fall back on too easily, or get sloppy with because I know I can do it more easily than other things. So, paradoxically, it’s something I have to pay attention to, so that it serves the story. 

Read our review: ‘The Kaiju Preservation Society’ by John Scalzi

Do you see yourself as a Jamie? Ready to believe, optimistic, quick with a joke? (Maybe we all wish we were like Jamie, at least a little bit.)
You’ve hit on something, which is that Jamie is meant to be someone whom the readers can see themselves in, or at least could see themselves relating to. There’s a little of me in Jamie, sure. There’s also some of me in Jaime’s friends. They each have qualities that help them work together, which becomes important in the book. 

OK, real talk: What weapon would you reach for first if you were face to face with a Kaiju?
If I’m being real, I’m going to remember what the weaponmaster in the book asks the characters, which is, basically, “Are you competent enough for that weapon?” Self-honesty is important, especially when some creature wants to eat you. In which case, I’m going for the shotgun: widespread, low level of difficulty to use. Perfect. And then, of course, I’ll run like hell. 

Did working on this book make the insanity of 2020 and 2021 any easier to bear? What did you feel like when you finished writing?
When I finished writing, honestly, I was all like, “Fuck yeah, I nailed this one.” Which absolutely made the previous year easier to bear, considering how badly I flubbed the previous novel I had been trying to write, and how awful the year had been generally. I should note I wasn’t having a crisis of confidence in my skills; I’ve written more than 30 books, I know I can do it. But I was disheartened at how that one novel was a mess, and how it all-too-closely mirrored my mental state for 2020. Kaiju got me back in my stride, and I’m grateful for that.

Headshot of John Scalzi courtesy of the author.

Why The Kaiju Preservation Society was the most fun John Scalzi has ever had as a writer.

John Scalzi had lofty goals for his next book, but like many of us, he found that the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted even the best-laid plans. He found himself looking for a release, something to keep his mind off the unmitigated disaster that was 2020. Writing the funny and endearing Kaiju Preservation Society turned out to be just what the doctor ordered.  

Food app delivery driver Jamie Gray has just about had it—with work, New York City and the pandemic. But a chance encounter leads Jamie to Tom, an old friend who offers Jamie a job working for a mysterious animal rights organization called the KPS. Eager to do anything to get out of town, Jamie jumps at the chance. But this job is unlike anything anyone could have imagined. On another Earth, one warmer and devoid of humankind, gargantuan creatures called Kaiju roam. It’s up to the Kaiju Preservation Society to make sure the incredible, powerful monsters don’t hurt anyone—and that no one tries to hurt the Kaiju.

Why writing ‘The Kaiju Preservation Society’ was the most fun John Scalzi’s ever had as a writer.

It’s impossible to read this book without sensing how much fun Scalzi was having while writing it. The Kaiju Preservation Society revels in its own nerdiness, joyfully calling out the absurdities that Jamie and the other new KPS employees experience in their journey to the other Earth. The dialogue practically skips along, with jokes and minor insults pinging off each character at a near-constant pace. And the richness of the alternate Earth, with all its odd flora and fauna, is clearly the result of a creative mind let loose.

The camaraderie formed among the hodgepodge group of scientists and explorers entertains throughout. Jamie’s optimism and enthusiasm for the mission provide the focal and entry points, from which readers can track how tightknit the group becomes. No one character is too unlikable or outright obtuse all of the time, and everyone gets a good line, a heroic moment or a chance to shine. 

What better way to escape the feeling of being trapped inside, from pandemic-related reasons or anything else, than to go somewhere vibrant and unique, where you can feel loved by your friends, valued by your job and morally unassailable as you fight to preserve vulnerable wildlife? It certainly works for Jamie, and it will work for anyone lucky enough to pick up a copy of The Kaiju Preservation Society.

Feeling trapped? Go to another Earth and take care of some monsters in John Scalzi’s totally endearing new sci-fi novel, The Kaiju Preservation Society.

Dead Silence

A small, underequipped crew discovering a long-lost ship sounds like an interesting enough premise for a novel. But what if that long-lost ship holds a gruesome and unexplainable secret? Now you’ve got my attention. S.A. Barnes’ Dead Silence mixes horror, mystery and sci-fi into a thrill ride sure to shock you out of your reading rut. The crew of a small repair ship at the edge of space picks up an unexpected signal. It leads them to the hulking, dark shape of the Aurora, a luxury space cruiser lost 20 years ago. Team leader Claire Kovalik decides they should salvage the wreck and bring in the lost ship. Once aboard, however, the crew discovers that something went very, very wrong on the Aurora. What follows is a claustrophobic race against time as the ship’s horrors begin to affect the crew one by one. Dread slowly builds as small, frightening moments inside the Aurora multiply, showcasing Barnes’ patient plotting and steady pacing. This is one of those time-warp books—the ones where you look away from the clock, then look back and it’s suddenly way past your bedtime.

Redwood and Wildfire

Sometimes reading a book is like paddling a rushing river: You just have to jump in and see where it takes you. Such is the case with Andrea Hairston’s richly layered Redwood and Wildfire. In early 1900s America, magic is as old as the swamps, the woods and the bayous. Some people, descended from those who have lived for generations under canopies of cypress trees and Spanish moss, can harness that magic. In Peach Grove, Georgia, Redwood, a Black woman, and Aidan, a Seminole Irish man, both have this talent. The two kindred spirits set out on a grand adventure in search of a place of their own, with Chicago, the City of Lights, as their final destination. Hairston describes a country at the tipping point between an ancient past and an electrified, dazzling future. The reader will feel this tension within the prose, as well as these two misfits’ yearning to create a life in which they can be their fullest selves. It’s immediate, it’s unflinching and it’s wonderful.

Hunt the Stars

Jessie Mihalik’s thrilling first entry in her Starlight’s Shadow series, Hunt the Stars, is a perfect example of why bounty hunters are such classic sci-fi characters. It’s hard to find a more compelling conflict between getting paid and doing the right thing. War veteran-turned-ship’s captain Octavia “Tavi” Zarola gets a job offer that could make her and her crew rich for years. The problem is that the one paying is Torran Fletcher, a ruthless alien general that Tavi once fought against. Despite her misgivings, Tavi brings Torran and his crew of fellow telepathic Valoffs on board. During the job, Tavi and her crew discover a plot that threatens peace in the galaxy, forcing her to choose a side even as she grows closer to Torran. Amid all the action and adventure, Mihalik also shows how a group of people in close quarters can become a family. Those developing relationships form the emotional center of the story, especially the connection between Tavi and Torran, which evolves and deepens in unexpected ways. Fans of “The Mandalorian” or “Firefly” will love this sci-fi romance.

A terrifying thriller set on a spaceship and a wonderfully unique historical fantasy will shock you out of your reading rut.

Summarizing Scotto Moore’s debut novel, Battle of the Linguist Mages, is an exercise in futility. Reducing it to the skeleton of its plot—Isobel Bailie discovers a talent that is considered magical, goes on a quest to save the world and maybe falls in love—would be ludicrously simplistic. Treating it as a philosophical treatise or a searing critique of contemporary politics would discount the fact that it’s also a riveting romp of an adventure.

Isobel, an avid gamer who lives in Los Angeles, contends with villains in the form of cynical advertising executives, disinterested game designers, conniving politicians, idealistic anarchists and arrogant gods. Along the way, she has to figure out how to get the “good” ending and she must also confront the mother of all trolley problems. To make matters worse, it’s all happening in real life, not in the friendly confines of her favorite virtual reality game, Sparkle Dungeon. Her talents in that game’s vocal spellcasting mechanic make her an ideal fit to learn power morphemes, vocalizations that alter people’s perceptions of reality so thoroughly that they change reality itself. While becoming the embodiment of a weaponized Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (the idea that the structure of language shapes a person’s perception of reality), Isobel learns that all of existence is under threat and must be saved.

Battle of the Linguist Mages reads like Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler conceived a metaphorical child while high on LSD and blasting Skrillex in a basement. It is hilarious and irreverent, and it relishes the intrinsic ridiculousness of real-life mages and superheroes training in a video game that’s a cross between Kingdom Hearts and Beat Saber. In blindingly inadequate words, Battle of the Linguist Mages is, conceptually, very dense.

Scotto Moore unpacks the myriad inspirations behind his “science fantasy.”

Flashes of social commentary shoot through this lurid unreality like lasers through a nightclub haze, but the most fascinating element is the deftness with which Moore crafts a fantasy epic about characters who role-play fantasy epics. Lying beneath endless music puns, pointed re-creations of Angeleno excess and cynicism about the modern-day celebrity cult is an impressive narrative self-awareness, an acknowledgment of every trope that Moore uses to render the reasonably straightforward core plot (discovery of magical talent, training montage, quest to save the world) as subversive.

The most powerful aspect of Battle of the Linguist Mages is not the sly humor, unrepentant geekiness, slow-burn romance or the trenchant sociopolitical commentary. Rather, it is the story’s tacit argument that books (and video games) are power morphemes. They contain the toolsets to construct entire universes but require readers (or players) for that vision to be fully realized. And, to pursue this analogy to its heavily foreshadowed conclusion, every writer is a linguist mage.

Except writers don’t have to be able to vocalize multiple vowels at once. Thank goodness.

Battle of the Linguist Mages reads like Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler conceived a metaphorical child while high on LSD and blasting Skrillex in a basement.

To find the most structurally daring, format-breaking novels of 2021, turn to the far-flung worlds of science-fiction and fantasy. From story collections to novellas to sprawling epics, these books perfectly match form and function in their creation of universes both big and small. 

10. The Helm of Midnight by Marina Lostetter

With a magic system that’s two parts enchantment and one part pseudoscience, The Helm of Midnight is one of the most well-executed and original fantasy novels in recent memory.

9. The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec

Genevieve Gornichec’s beautiful, delicately executed debut shifts the focus of Norse mythology to one of Loki’s lovers, the witch Angrboda, with stunning and heartbreaking results.

8. The Tangleroot Palace by Marjorie Liu

This astonishing, haunting short story collection overflows with vivid characters and relatable themes as Marjorie Liu puts her own spin on traditional archetypes.

7. A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers

This novella is the perfect distillation of Becky Chambers’ ability to use science fiction to tell smaller, more personal stories infused with beauty and optimism.

6. Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

Boasting immersive settings, delightful characters and all-the-feels poignancy, Light From Uncommon Stars is also very, very funny, lightening its sweeping supernatural and intergalactic symphony with notes that are all-too human.

5. A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

Clever, elegant and ambitious, Arkady Martine’s second novel eclipses her acclaimed debut, A Memory Called Empire.

4. Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor

Beautiful and enthralling on every page, Nnedi Okorafor’s elegiac and powerful novella is an example of how freeing the form can be.

3. Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

Black Water Sister terrifyingly depicts the otherworldly and uncanny horrors of the spirit world, but it is also funny and poignant, full of the angst and irony of a recent graduate living with her parents.

2. The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova

An instant classic, Zoraida Córdova’s magical family saga is complex but ceaselessly compelling, and features some of the most beautiful writing to be found in any genre this year.

1. She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

Shelley Parker-Chan’s gorgeous writing accompanies a vibrantly rendered world full of imperfect, fascinating characters. Fans of epic fantasy and historical fiction will thrill to this reimagining of the founding of China’s Ming dynasty. 

See all of our Best Books of 2021 lists.

From story collections to novellas to sprawling epics, the 10 best science fiction & fantasy novels of 2021 perfectly match form and function. 

A motley crew, their skilled leader and a living ship walk into a bar—and the bar explodes.

You Sexy Thing kicks off with a literal bang (and ends with one), but the rest of the story is dialogue and flashback-driven as Cat Rambo shifts perspectives and timelines to color in their cast of characters. Captain Niko Larson, her first mate, Dabry, and a handful of their fellow soldiers escaped their former Hive Mind overlords by declaring that their true calling lay in the culinary arts, not warfare. But when the space station that their restaurant is located on is attacked, they end up seeking refuge on the titular sentient bioship. Shenanigans including space pirates and galactic politics ensue.

Set in a far-flung future teeming with diverse alien life, Rambo’s novel incorporates both magic and science in neat harmony. All denizens of this universe understand that magic and science both exist, and accept both in equal measure. You Sexy Thing’s setting is rife with intrigue, but was clearly designed to accommodate character and plot, rather than the other way around. Which isn’t to say that Rambo’s world building is flimsy or thin, rather that their focus is firmly on their characters and the relationships between them.

With this commitment to character development above all else, You Sexy Thing’s characters need to be engaging, and Rambo absolutely nails it. Captain Niko and Dabry are standouts, solid compatriots who are earnestly seeking both master chefdom and continued freedom from the Hive Mind. One of the greatest characters is the ship itself: You Sexy Thing is a living spacecraft that learns and adapts to its crew, and (not surprisingly) becomes a member of the crew itself.

Rambo does an impressive job of thrusting the reader into the middle of relationships with rich history. The dialogue always feels natural and avoids forced or excessive exposition. Instead, a new crewmate is introduced just after the first act, and her experience learning about the crew and their relationships serves to fill in the gaps for readers. Rambo describes and demonstrates all the unspoken communication between the crew, engendering a wholesome atmosphere suffused with the feeling of warm, deep trust among the closest of friends. There is very little conflict between the crew members and what conflict does spring up is resolved quickly.

You Sexy Thing is a fun start to a hopefully long-running series about the lives of a close-knit fellowship of soliders-turned-chefs-turned-adventurers. Readers will be immediately sucked into Rambo’s light-hearted, camaraderie-filled space adventure and fall in love with their earnest characters.

Cat Rambo’s warmhearted space adventure is light on plot but overflowing with earnest and engaging characters.

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