Despite being a world-hopper with a high-concept premise, the latest effort from Hugo Award-winning sci-fi novelist John Scalzi, “Starter Villain,” starts surprisingly autobiographical, leaning on his past lives as both a journalist and a Chicago resident. Like Scalzi, protagonist Charlie Fitzer is the son of a single parent, graduated from a Chicago-area university, wrote for a Chicago newspaper, and had a journalism career end in a wave of layoffs. Unlike Scalzi, Charlie suffers a divorce that crashes him from his Ukrainian Village apartment to his late father’s suburban home, struggling to pay its bills through substitute teaching while his estranged siblings demand its sale. While Charlie languishes in Barrington, he finds solace in a longshot dream of getting a loan to purchase the local pub McDougal’s as well as the two stray cats he brings into his home, Hera and Persephone.
Charlie’s floundering is interrupted by his estranged but wealthy uncle’s death. Uncle Jake, nominally a parking-lot titan, asks his sole relative Charlie to stand at his wake in exchange for needed collateral. This seems easy enough until the funeral home receives strangely hostile floral arrangements and one of the “mourners” tries to stab Jake’s corpse. When Charlie’s house subsequently explodes, he learns that Jake was secretly a supervillain, complete with a volcanic lair, a death ray, and genetically modified sentient cats, including Hera and her intern Persephone, who are revealed as spies protecting Charlie on Jake’s orders. And Charlie, revealed as the sole heir to Jake’s enterprise, must take over the family business, quickly learning the ropes so he can face a league of rival villains.
Science fiction has long struggled against its pulp pleasure reputation, often resisting by positioning itself as the “novel of ideas” genre, as if its sole quality comes from the philosophical questioning that results from speculative ideas. Scalzi is a pulp-first kind of writer, unapologetically starting from a fun concept and trying to entertain with it as thoroughly as possible. Scalzi is at his most effective when he also philosophizes in the fun, as the Hugo-winning “Redshirts” did, but “Starter Villain” clarifies where Scalzi’s priorities are. Many of the speculative elements, including the typing sentient cats and vulgar union-organizing dolphins, are here not because Scalzi is trying to say anything particularly deep about transhumanist uplift, but because their presence introduces great gags, a thrilling moment or two, and in the case of Charlie’s relationship with Hera, a cute emotional core.
This isn’t to say that Scalzi says nothing with this fun-forward approach. As Charlie acclimates, he frequently expresses dismay at how banal the boardroom-centric, cis male-dominated world of villains is. With the experience of previously covering the finance world, Charlie realizes the villains he must defeat are the same nepo babies and bus-reinventing tech bros already ruining the world without death lasers. “Starter Villain” joins a chorus of recent works, including Rian Johnson’s movie “Glass Onion,” that take apart a myth of wealth we mistakenly label as a genius. While burning Elon Musk’s effigy is effective, Scalzi is correct to burn the likes of Blofeld and Lex Luthor with him. Figures like Musk have gotten as far as they have based on the myth of genius; demystifying figures like the evil genius is a necessary antidote. And much like medicine you would give a cat, Scalzi knows this is an antidote best identified as a treat instead of medicine. Sometimes treats can be medicine too.
By John Scalzi
Tor Books, 272 pages