Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, Kelly Robson (Tor.com 978-1-2501-6385-1, $14.99, 240pp, tp) March 2018. Cover by Jon Foster.
There is much to admire in Kelly Robson’s novella Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach – her surprising skill at rigorous SF worldbuilding after a career distinguished mostly by clever fantasies like “The Waters of Versailles”, her nuanced characterization, especially of a cranky, middle-aged woman protagonist (with six leg-like tentacle prostheses), her very original deployment of a familiar SF time-travel technique – but the one that struck me very early on, before we even learn much about this post-cataclysmic 23rd century, was a lot more modest: Robson seems to know a good deal about real-world grant writing. This isn’t as trivial as its sounds. Too often, SF writers conveniently overlook the somewhat messy processes by which science gets funded, but Robson opens with a convincingly bureaucratic RFP, complete with unrealistic deadlines, from a bank affiliated with something called Centers for Excellence in Economic Research and Development (CEERD) and, more immediately relevant to the plot, a division called the “Temporal Economic Research Node (TERN)”. The acronyms alone are terrifying. More than gods and monsters, this is the sort of thing that strikes dread into the hearts of working scientists, and I suspect Robson had a lot of fun making it up, even though the organization itself quickly recedes into the background of the story. It’s also an example of her meticulous attention to detail, though.
The novella essentially falls into two parts. In the first, we meet Minh, that aging environmental geologist with tentacles for legs – the result of damage caused by ringworm, she explains at one point (“the pandemics hit us hard”) – whose story is presented in parallel with much shorter snippets from the point of view of the ancient Mesopotamian king Shulgi (the connection between the viewpoints quickly becomes apparent). Minh is a plague baby, one of a group of survivors of a massive ecological collapse who, after decades of hiding out in subterranean communities called hells, have begun trying to repopulate the surface through a combination of demonstration habitats, called habs, and ecological restoration projects. But funding has been scarce, and the discovery of more glamorous time-travel by the above-mentioned TERN has made it even more difficult, so when Minh and her team receive a request for proposals to travel back to 2024 BCE Mesopotamia in order to study the drainage basin of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers as a guide to future restoration projects, they seize on the opportunity to gain resources from their erstwhile nemesis. Minh’s enthusiastic and ambitious young assistant Kiki provides a lively contrast to the older woman’s caution and cynicism, and her colleague Hamid serves at times as a kind of buffer.
The second half of the story focuses on the actual trips back in time, in a vessel named the Lucky Peach (after Mihn’s ongoing efforts to establish a peach orchard on the surface). This takes us into somewhat more familiar SF territory, with the time travel itself not really affecting the past, since timelines created by travelers apparently evaporate when the travelers leave. The clash of cultures and worldviews between ancient and future societies (together with the occasional ironic comeuppances) is at least as old as L. Sprague de Camp and Poul Anderson, but Robson is less concerned with playing historical games than with developing more complex relations among her characters. The passages from the point of view of Shulgi are carefully restrained, more mythical in tone, and convincingly alienating: the distant past, it turns out, really is a different country. The sheer richness of invention in Robson’s story, from having the time travelers first arrive in the past at a “Home Beach” in the south Pacific to Shulgi’s ancient military strategies, is close to astonishing, and her conclusion is both surprising and dramatically appropriate. If there had been any doubt that Robson is one of the most accomplished and versatile new writers (her SF career only dates back to 2015), Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach should dispel it.
Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.
This review and more like it in the March 2018 issue of Locus.
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