Kelly Robson’s killer novella Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach opens 250 years into our future. Many decades prior, catastrophic climate and environmental change forced humans into massive underground metropolises, or “hells.” Eventually, the plague babies—survivors of epidemics that burned through the hells in years past—braved the topside in an attempt to reclaim the land. One of those topsiders is Minh, a river rehabilitator in the struggling Calgary habilitation center. With the solid if not abundant financial backing of the banks, she and other plague babies were doing good work repairing damage to the earth to make it livable once more. And then the organization known as TERN invented time travel and everything fell apart. What little cash there was now goes to shiny new short term projects full of flash and bang rather than not so exciting long-term ecological necessities. Minh, who saw her livelihood and all her work’s meaning disregarded in the wake of TERN, is left bitter and bored.
When Minh gets the chance to use TERN to finally do some good, she pulls together a rag-tag crew and sets off to run river analysis in ancient Mesopotamia. At first, Minh, Kiki (an overeager grad student), Hamid (an old friend and wannabe cowboy), and Fabian (their TERN contact) have everything under control, but their well-planned expedition quickly falls apart. Tense interpersonal relations, historical conflicts, and shady tech wreak havoc on their project right from the beginning. The past, present, and future collide in unexpected yet devastating ways.
If the mark of a good book is that regardless of length, it leaves you panting for more, then Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is one of the greats. I literally screeched when it ended. So loudly I woke my pet rat up out of his nap and sent him skittering under the couch. No joke. This novella is far bigger on the inside than its 230 pages belie. Robson lured me in with the promise of time travel and post-apocalyptic survival, lulled me with R&D proposals financial finagling, and hit me hard with an epic adventure.
Lucky Peach has as much world building as most full-length novels. The novella tells two stories simultaneously, one set in ancient Mesopotamia and the other in Minh’s present. Robson deftly keeps them apart, the former gradually revealing itself to the latter, making it all the more thrilling when they finally fold in on each other.
Her vision of the future is full of cool, connective technology, but is rooted in reality. Despite being staggeringly advanced, it’s all so banal. People can use biometrics tech that allows them to control their physiology, but only if you pay the license fee. Scientists have glacier seeds, can create rivers from nothing, and have brought animals back from extinction, but still have to draft project proposals and secure funding. They invented time travel, but the tech is locked behind NDAs and proprietary walls and used almost exclusively for tourism. And Robson isn’t that far off from the truth. Look at us today: we have smartphones that can do things that were literally impossible when I was a kid, and what do we do with them? Mostly just watch dumb videos and share fake news.
For me, world building, no matter how intricate, isn’t enough to earn my adoration. Without compelling characters to hook me in, my interest will only go so far. Given the tenor of this review, it should be no surprise to learn that Lucky Peach is full of great characters. Intriguingly, Robson hints at certain character tropes—the hard-ass older woman in charge, the excitable young apprentice, the sinister middle manager, the laissez-faire male genius—but only to show how incomplete those tropes are. Her characters are greater than the sum of their parts.
Minh and Kiki were my particular favorites. The two women are at once complements and contrasts. Where Minh is closed off, stubborn, and frustrated, Kiki is effervescent, determined, and open-minded. Minh sees the TERN job as a chance to secure capital for future Calgary projects, but for Kiki it’s the adventure of a lifetime and the chance to prove herself. Kiki is desperate for Minh’s approval and sees in her flickers of a mentor, parent, older sister, and friend. Minh, meanwhile, explores her tempestuous relationship with Kiki through her own reluctance to engage and connect. They’re fascinatingly complex characters with rich inner lives, deep personal histories, and intersectionally diverse backgrounds.
I’ve said a million times that I don’t like science fiction. But every time Tor.com sends me another novella unlike any sci-fi I’ve ever read before, I end up loving the hell out of it. Maybe it’s not that I don’t enjoy the genre itself but that I’m reacting negatively to trope-y, technobabbly, non-diverse sci-fi? I don’t know, but I’m digging the experience of getting to know a genre I typically don’t dabble in. If you dig Robson’s world as much as I did, you be pleased to know there are two more entries to explore: “We Who Live in the Heart” is free through Clarkesworld and her novelette “Intervention” in the upcoming anthology Infinity’s End.
Sci-fi fans and non-sci-fi fans alike should pick up a copy of Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach. There’s enough wicked cool tech to satisfy hard SF geeks, character development to please SF dilettantes, and fantastic storytelling to enamor everyone else.
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is available from Tor.com Publishing.
Alex Brown is a YA librarian by day, local historian by night, pop culture critic/reviewer by passion, and QWoC all the time. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, check out her endless barrage of cute rat pics on Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on Tumblr.