By Jacob P. Torres
Spoilers abound in this review of Kelly Robson’s Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach.
Cover Description: “Discover a shifting history of adventure as humanity clashes over whether to repair their ruined planet or luxuriate in a less tainted past.
In 2267, Earth has just begun to recover from worldwide ecological disasters. Minh is part of the generation that first moved back up to the surface of the Earth from the underground hells, to reclaim humanity’s ancestral habitat. She’s spent her entire life restoring river ecosystems, but lately the kind of long-term restoration projects Minh works on have been stalled due to the invention of time travel. When she gets the opportunity take a team to 2000 BC to survey the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, she jumps at the chance to uncover the secrets of the shadowy think tank that controls time travel technology.”
What is the book about?
Set in a post-ecological-apocalypse where humans had been forced to live underground for generations and where humanity is only just now beginning the long process of reclaiming the surface. The book is told from the perspective of Minh, one of the first generations of humans working on the surface to reclaim and repair humanity’s natural environment. As Minh does her ecological work she has to deal routinely with banks to acquire funding and support to continue repairing the earth, one small biome at a time. Because of course it’s a future with a human economy so we’re looking to save the earth in the cheapest way possible.
Minh’s work is made more difficult and problematic by the invention of time travel. Interest in actually fixing the planet has started to dry up or completely plateaued. Minh is give the opportunity to bid on a unique job that would use time travel to model past ecological states and use that data to better fix the present. With the assistance of her assistant Kiki, who was one of the first generation of humans to be born on the surface after restoration work began, they win the bid and get to travel back in time to ancient Mesopotamia.
Their time in the past is spent almost entirely on taking scientific readings and samples. One disastrous early encounter with the local natives ends with them being killed en masse and some ethical moral debates on whether this was a cool thing to do or not that causes some dissension between Minh and her assistant and the time travel historian sent to pilot the ship and protect them. The book ends with the inevitable betrayal of the group by the time travel pilot and the stranding of Minh, her assistant, and one of the others in the past timeline.
What Did I Like About the Book?
It feels totally unique despite definitely pulling from several tropes. There are significant elements of transhumanism. Minh can regulate her bodily functions including things like hormone and adrenaline productions. She has six octopus legs instead of normal human appendages. Kiki undergoes elective surgery to get prosthetic legs for the trip to the past. Characters use “fakes” which are some kind of A.I. representation of themselves for meetings and stuff they don’t want to do.
This may be the only post-healthy ecosphere book I’ve read where there isn’t a sense of total unified action on the human race’s part to fix the earth. The impression that you get is that most people don’t care anymore, especially not the people who still don’t live on the surface.
The finance that governs this world feels totally realistic and depressing. Take our current 1% earners, give them a couple hundred years of being the 1% earners and then ask them to fix the planet. If you can’t imagine this turning out well, you’ll totally understand the setting of this story.
This was also probably the first time I’ve seen someone use time travel to get ecological data of past environmental states so they could be more easily fixed in the future. In narrative they do it this way because the method of time travel established has no effect on the present. Though the way the story ends leaves us with a few questions about whether this is strictly speaking true or not.
None of the characters, few that there were felt one-dimensional or bland. They all have purpose and function and quirks and feel complete. Whether or not we’re supposed to like them is a whole different story.
Who was my Favorite Character?
Hands down it was Kiki. Minh is the chief protagonist but she’s intensely unlikable. She’s jaded by the work she has to do with banks to get any kind of ecological repair done. She’s significantly older than the other characters, and has that charming age knows best mindset for most of the book. While she develops genuine affection for her assistant, her redeeming morale revelations come about five seconds before being stranded in the past and the abrupt end of the book. Kiki tall, vibrant, and youthful on the other hand was an enthusiastic, adventurous character that was willing to do anything, including amputate her legs so she could meet the time travel ship’s mass requirements to do something that would help the planet. Kiki is our voice that ties this novel to current events, who argues that overthrowing a morally bankrupt system is better than sustaining it and doing what we can. She basically spends the whole of the book tilting at every windmill she finds and inventing a few more windmills when she runs out.
What Did I Not Like?
I like time travel stories. But they’re so binary. Either it changes the past or it doesn’t. It creates an alternate time line or it doesn’t. The travelers make it back to the future or they don’t. The best time travel stories subvert these expectations somehow. They try to make them shocking. While this story succeeding in giving us a new reason why to time travel the actual part in the story where they time travel felt the most drawn out and thin.
Robson also painted the time travel organization in all the colors of mystery she could find and then spent very little time exploring that mystery. You spend the first half of the book hearing oblique comments about how shady or messed up the organization is and they just turn out to be some ethically questionable scientists in a cave with a time travel machine and physics they protect like it was IP.
Each chapter also started with a little section of story from characters in ancient Mesopotamia. These weren’t bad but they didn’t break the story up in a natural way or one that felt engaging. Mostly they felt unfinished. When the time travelers ultimately make it to the past they interact with these characters only barely and that was mostly treated in a way of asking “in this timeline that we created for this trip and will be destroyed after we leave is it cool to kill these past people or not?” Survey says no.
Scrape away all of the time travel and transhumanism and you have a book with three central themes. The nature of idealism, the power finance has over trying to do the right thing, and maybe something about the exploitation of indigenous peoples? That last one feels like it was kind of a stretch, but honestly, I can’t find another way to express what the whole moral argument about killing people in the past was about except maybe that. The other themes felt much more concrete and compelling. Should you do what good you can while working with a necessary evil or should you throw out the necessary evil if it might, maybe, possibly allow you to do even more good.
Ultimately Robson gives us a unique world, with engaging characters, compelling writing and inventive twists on common themes in science fiction. I’ve not read anything else of hers and I don’t know that this was good enough for me to go and pick up her other works. Final rating, 2.5 out of 5 cups of tea. Pick it up if you adore time travel, it’s a short read and it won’t take you long to finish but don’t expect to be thrilled with the story.
|Final Verdict: 2.5 out of 5 cups of tea. Not bad but not great either. Pick it up if you adore time travel, it’s a short read and it won’t take you long to finish but don’t expect to be thrilled with the story.|
|+ Inventive reasons to travel through time and character motivations.||– Distracting past characters took away from the pacing and the story instead of adding to it.|
|+ Very well drawn characters. They’re interesting even if you might not like them very much.||– oh, my god. There’s so much about banking. It’s distracting, if sadly realistic.|
|+ Interesting transhumanism and post-eco-disaster elements paints a setting I’d have like more detail in.||– Abrupt ending leaves you hanging, not wishing for more.|