3/11/14

Book Review: MONSTER MAKERS, INC. by Laurence Yep (1986)

We are going to get literary for a moment, and if you read the caption on the front of this novel, you will quickly see why!
Did that just say "Rob's pet Godzilla?" Wait, what?
I discovered this book accidentally, as it completely flew under the radar when it was published in 1986.  Amazingly, the words "owned," "licensed," "property of," and "Toho" appear nowhere in the book at all, but as you can see from the cover, it's pretty crystal-clear who we are talking about.
So, I knew that any American novel with Godzilla as a main character must be mine.  When I received the book, I began thumbing through it, and then turned to the first chapter...where I immediately got sucked in.
Mr. Yep is a Chinese-American author, who in recent years has gone on to write award-winning children's books.  Although this first novel was just put out there by the publisher as an "adult" book, and dumped amongst all of the other science-fiction available at the time, it is really a very well-constructed children's novel, aside from a couple of mild swear words and one mild comment about the female shape.  I think it probably would have even been a hit if it had gone through the channels of kid's literature, like Scholastic.  I say this not to demean the story, but because an 18-year-old boy is the main character, and, simply put, the story is great fun.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was a fast-paced adventure novel, and Mr. Yep's clear style keeps the action moving.  Even without overwhelming description, the reader feels pulled into the action on the rocky and volcanic planet of Carefree.  He uses a few terms for made-up creatures indigenous to the novel's world, but never to the point that it feels like the reader is being excluded from a special glossary that doesn't exist (hate it when that happens), and often, this leaves you to form your own mental images of what some of these creatures entirely look like.
In short, Piper (the main character...and not "Rob" as the cover incorrectly states) and his father live on the colonized world of Carefree, where his dad's occupation is making genetically-constructed creatures, in the hopes that he can sell them to buyers as work animals or exotic pets.  To finance his ambitions, his creations are displayed for the public to come and see, sort of like a zoo, but functioning more like a showroom.  Besides some alien creatures, the menagerie includes a six-foot, giant otter creature named Sam, a miniature mastadon, and, as mentioned, a small Godzilla (creatures not only sized for ease of mangement, but also, as it is explained, for genetic reasons, in that larger animals would be unstable, with regard to their frame and build).  It's never exactly stated how tall this Godzilla is, but he is small enough to be picked up and carried around--I imagined something around the size of the old Shogun Warriors Godzilla.  In fact, the company slogan is "Yes, Virginia, we have a Godzilla." when answering the phone, as it is often the subject of the phone inquiries of interested parties!  
Before we look at a brief excerpt from the book, a couple of points.  First, from the Godzilla-centric perspective of this blog, how is the character of Godzilla handled? Aside from describing him as "green" several times, quite well.  It's clear from the writing that his inclusion was handled lovingly by the author, who I'd assume was a true fan.  You will see what I mean in the excerpt below.  He also plays a good-sized part, instead of being a one-time gimmick, which I was happy to see.
Secondly, if I had to find a criticism, my only complaint about the book would be that I felt a bit bogged down in the many underwater scenes.  It's not that they aren't important or integral parts of the book, I just felt they went on too long, and limited the pace of the narrative. It's a difficult thing to write scenes like that, where the characters are limited in speaking directly to each other, and the narrative has to step up and propel the action.  Since Piper narrates the book, this was a benefit, but I began to notice that the story slowed down quite a bit at those times.  
Thirdly, I think this novel would make a great film.  Of course, crucial to that would be Toho's blessing and involvement.  But Hollywood, if you are going to cheap out and substitute a plain dinosaur for Godzilla, don't do it.
Finally (and I never even got to the alien invasion plot!), track this book down.  Here's a good reason why (all you need to know is that a very wealthy man's daughter has come to look at some of Piper's father's creations):

EXCERPT:


"When we reached the pen, Shandi greeted Godzilla merrily and he came right over to whine to her…
Shandi cooed and fussed and made the appropriate noises.  Then she noticed the cardboard cutouts of various skyscrapers that had been stacked up off to the side.  “What are those?”
     Dad dismissed them with a wave of his hand.  “They’re just props for a little show that Piper puts on for the tourists.” 
     “But I’m a tourist.”  Shandi turned around to look and saw me lingering in the background.  “Aren’t I, Piper?”
     “It’s corny.” I shrugged in embarrassment.  In fact, it was pure hokum, but the tourists seemed to eat it up.  And the postcards they bought paid for the animals’ feed.
     “Why don’t you let me be the judge of that?” She knew how to turn on the charm when she wanted.  “I want the whole experience of the island.”
     Dad sighed as if he wished he’d never cooked up the idea of the floor show.  “All right, Piper.”
I set up the cardboard cutouts.  I was going to look like enough of a clown without going into the regular spiel so I just called out.  “Tokyo, boy.  Tokyo.”
     Right on cue, Godzilla assumed his stance—kind of like a punch-drunk heavyweight who hasn’t gotten much sleep.  His paws feinted at the air.
     It must have been Shandi’s presence because Godzilla really hammed it up.  He snorted and stomped along as if he were hundreds of times his actual weight, his claws clacking on the rocks.  Stopping abruptly, he swung his tail so that it knocked over the first cutout.  Then he smashed and stomped on a few more cutouts, pausing every now and then to beat his chest.
     Finally, I pointed out the last one.  “Tokyo, boy.  Tokyo.”
     He paused for a moment, taking on an intense look as if he were constipated.  His stomach rumbled and then he opened his mouth, exposing needle-sharp fangs.  There was the sharp, pungent smell of methane vapor.  And out came a column of fire that spread over the cutout so that the building disappeared in flame.
     I stepped up to him and patted his head approvingly.  My other hand slipped him a bit of choco-bar…."

--MONSTER MAKERS, INC., by Laurence Yep, 1986 Arbor House, pp. 69-70.

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