Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach (2018), one of several exceptional novellas nominated for the 2018 Nebula award, combines some intelligent and subtle world-building in the aftermath of worldwide disasters, the future version of project financing and lobbying (with lamentable similarities to our current world), and time travel to ancient Mesopotamia as research for an environmental remediation project.
In the 23rd century, humanity is beginning to rebuild on the surface of the Earth after living underground for many years in “hives and hells.” Life on the surface is limited to specific habitats, and the need for expensive ecological restoration projects to make the habitats livable has led to funding consortiums with time-consuming (and headache-inducing) formal proposal requirements. In the excitement surrounding the discovery of time travel a decade or so ago, nearly all the funding shifted away from ecological restoration to time travel projects. Now Minh, a cynical 83-year-old ecologist with six prosthetic tentacle-like legs, has received a request for proposal (RFP) that combines both time travel and ecological restoration: going back to 2024 BCE Mesopotamia to study the drainage of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers as a guide to future river remediation projects.
Minh is determined to win the project (the follow-on work could be extremely lucrative). She puts together a small team of three, roping in her colleague Hamid, a biologist who’s obsessed with horses, and reluctantly accepting her eager young administrative assistant Kiki as the third team member. Fabian, an abrasive “tactical historian” from TERN, the research group that discovered time travel, is their guide to the past.
The first half of Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach focuses on the intricacies and subterfuges involved in grant-writing and lobbying to win the project, which may strike you as either dry and boring or reasonably interesting and richly ironic. Personally I found it more intriguing than tedious, but whether you find it appealing may depend on your literary tastes.
There’s enough character-building and world-building to keep this section from getting monotonous, though. We get glimpses of the past disasters, including the plagues that affected Minh’s generation. There are constant references to “plague babies” like Minh and Hamid, who are physically smaller and frailer, as opposed to the younger generation of “fat babies” like Kiki, who are healthier and have much larger bodies (like humans in our day). Technology has taken the tenet of personal autonomy to entirely new levels, with people managing their own physical health and bodies in unexpected and sometimes even alarming ways.
The second half of the novella deals with the team’s time travel adventures in the ancient past in a vessel they name the Lucky Peach, after Minh’s peach orchard hobby. This trip is fascinating and imaginative, with some unexpected twists. The trip ― not surprisingly for the reader but certainly for the team ― turns out to be far more complicated and dangerous than our researchers expected. (The short flash-forward blurbs at the beginning of each chapter, from the point of view of the ancient Mesopotamian king Shulgi, are a broad hint that things are going to go very wrong for our time-traveling team.)
Time travel in this universe is not thought to affect the future; TERN claims that when people travel to the past, a “separate timeline is spun off from ours, and when the time travelers leave, the timeline collapses.” But that’s difficult to for Minh to swallow when people in the past suffer because of the team’s actions. The ancient Mesopotamians take a dim view of the “stars” watching them from the sky, not to mention their monstrous-looking (to them) but powerful visitors. Are they gods or monsters? Or do they have aspects of both?
I found the ending of Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach startlingly abrupt, though I could make the case that it’s actually a befitting conclusion. Still, I was relieved to find out that Kelly Robson is currently writing a sequel, Time, Trouble and the Lucky Peach. It’ll be great fun to see what happens next with these characters.