Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach
by Kelly Robson
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted August 14, 2019
Kelly Robson's Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is up for a Hugo as Best Novella, the winner of which will be announced in four days. Other nominations include for Nebula, Locus, Aurora, and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial awards. It's a tale of scientists traveling back in time to study a past diverse ecosystem in order to formulate future restoration projects in a world devastated by climate change and population decline.
In Calgary, Alberta, Canada, in the year 2267, Minh is among a generation known as the plague babies, the few that survived an earlier massive human die-off. They were either born premature, or conditions caused them to be very small at birth. Later generations are known as fat babies. Most have gone underground into various settlements known as "hells," but Minh and others have returned to the surface to establish other habitats. Almost everything, both above and below the surface, is controlled by various banks, which offer contracts for remedial projects around the world. The latest to come to Minh's attention involves an organization she despises, yet she is intrigued enough to want to bid on it. TERN (Temporal Economic Research Node) has developed time travel, but only to the past, the future is out of bounds. Minh's animosity towards the group is due to several factors; TERN's reluctance to reveal details on the technology of time travel; their unwillingness to share information derived from their various projects; time travel now takes the majority of funds the banks used to earmark for work by Minh and others working to rehabilitate surface ecosystems. TERN claims their travels do not affect the past or change the future, that their bubble of influence collapses when they leave and everything goes back to the way it was, but they don't allow anyone else to study the data to confirm or deny that contention. Even though the ecology is devastated, technology has advanced considerably, and not just with temporal displacement.
The first two words in the title actually refer to the same entities, which include Minh. She is shown in the cover image, an 83 year old woman who has six prosthetic "legs," which more closely resemble tentacles. She refers to herself as a human octopus, but when another says an octopus has eight tentacles, she waves both her arms around, saying "These make it eight." A younger colleague, Kiki, is from the generation of fat babies, also knowns as crèche babies. Even though a lot of technology is mentioned, not much of it is explained, it's up to the reader to figure out some things on their own. I'm not sure if Kiki is a clone, or product of some other form of genetic design, but it is implied she is not the result of "normal" gestation and birth. The mission is to go back to 2024 BCE to the "cradle of civilization," the Tigris/Euphrates river basins. There is a strict mass limitation in the capsule that will take them back. Kiki fears her size will prohibit her from joining the team, so she voluntarily undergoes surgery to remove her legs and get prostheses too, since they can be collapsed to reduce body mass. Two others fill out the team; Minh's friend Hamid, expert in animal husbandry, and TERN's historian, Fabian. A lot of the tech they'll take with them is miniaturized electronics; cameras, collection modules, and satellites to control everything, including communication between team members. Everyone has implants to access data feeds, remotely communicate with others, even project a "fake" of themselves for certain tasks when they're busy with other things. Also, a biom, through which a person can monitor their medical condition, even alter blood chemistry by increasing or decreasing hormone levels. All of this tech, along with their appearance, is what causes the inhabitants of Ur to think of them as both gods and monsters. The third part of the title refers to their primary vehicle, given that nickname by Kiki.
At first I was thinking the place they visit and the people they encounter were mostly fictional, but Ur was a real city, seat of a kingdom that lasted more than three thousand years. Robson also described it very well, including a structure that still exists, the Great Ziggurat of Ur, near the modern day Iraq city of Nasiriyah. Construction was begun by King Ur-Nammu, and completed by his son, Shulgi, who features in the story. The beginning of every chapter has a paragraph or two from Shulgi's perspective, although they're not in chronological order, in fact the first one recounts an incident toward the end of the story. About the end? Well, it's not really the end, Robson may be considering a follow-up, which I would definitely like to read. I won't say anything more about the plot, except that a continuation might either confirm or refute TERN's declaration that time travel doesn't alter the past. While some stories leave me wanting, frustrated by too little information, that's actually one of the strengths of this one. Robson trusts her readers to fill in the blanks, to either identify with or be repulsed by the characters, to decide whether this form of time travel is just or contemptible. I have one more Hugo novella finalist to read, and while this might not get my number one vote (if I was voting), it does get a very strong recommendation.
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