Time travel is a classic trope in science fiction, posing questions about fixing the past, paradoxes, or simply spectating in a time long before your own. In her new book, Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, author Kelly Robson spins out a fantastic story that neatly sidesteps the inherent problems that come along with messing with your past. Instead, she tells a sharp story about how looking to the past can help with the future and some of the pitfalls that come with a world without consequences.
By the 2260s, Earth is in tough shape, and humanity has burrowed under its surface to survive. Massive cities kept the species alive, and in the six decades before the story begins, new generations of humans have emerged, set on fixing what was broken. Minh is one such worker: she’s a researcher who’s spent her life studying and restoring river ecosystems. There’s been a problem, however: time travel has recently been invented, and that has begun to pull money and attention away from the work that will make the surface of the planet habitable again.
Some spoilers for Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach ahead.
When the opportunity arises for her to lead one of the first research teams into the past to aid reclamation efforts, Minh assembles a small group of colleagues: Kiki, a fabrication specialist; Hamid, a large specialized animal; and Fabian, a strategic historian from the Temporal Economic Research Node (TERN), the organization that invented time travel, who acts as their guide in the year 2024 BCE. Once there, however, she finds that while the region’s inhabitants are living millennia in the past, they’re able to comprehend the threat that these new visitors pose, and the travelers’ interactions with the Mesopotamians presents its own set of ethical challenges.
Robson recently explained that she wasn’t really interested in playing with time travel paradoxes, and unlike Tom Sweterlitsch’s The Gone World — which is all about paradoxes — the time travel in Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is consequence-free: when travelers go back, they essentially create an alternate timeline, which collapses once they leave. There’s no impact on their future, which makes their work a bit easier: they don’t have to worry about stepping on that stray bug, for fear of throwing the timeline out of whack.
What I appreciated the most was how Robson structured the book: each chapter opens with a sequence that clearly comes later, and she makes it obvious that while the people that Minh and her team encounter live thousands of years in the past, they’re not idiots. They recognize the danger that these strange new people and accompanying objects pose, and their arrival plays into their own power struggle in 2024 BCE.
But this consequence-free travel is dangerous. Fabian explains that TERN takes tourists back all the time, and that they sometimes run into problems. As a result, he has no qualms about being aggressive in their defense, at one point killing a group of soldiers who go out to investigate the strange objects that appeared in their fields. Kiki argues that they’re still people, and how they treat them reflects them. Minh just wants to focus on gathering her data, but the conflict threatens to tear the team apart as danger looms.
Robson’s story is engaging and thought-provoking, as is the world that she sets it in. While reading it, I was considerably reminded of the world featured in Annalee Newitz’s fantastic debut novel Autonomous. Like in that novel, the world has faced considerable societal and climate-related challenges, but people haven’t simply gone underground and huddled for shelter, waiting for everything to get better. Robson sets up a world where life goes on: and while this is a short, quick read, this is a novella that’s positively stuffed with things to look at. There’s complicated generational structures — Minh is a “plague child,” part of a generation that faced incredible scarcity and illness, while her research partner, Kiki, is part of a generation known as the “Fat Babies.” She hasn’t experienced the same hardship as Minh, and Robson deftly layers these tensions in between the characters, making their outlook on the world as unique as their bodies — Minh, with prosthetic legs, while Kiki enjoys a massive, healthy body.
Like Autonomous, Robson uses her world to take a close look at the larger societal structures that inform the world. Banks have a significant degree of control over cities, organizations, and individuals, buying and selling individual debt, and essentially financing the big projects that Minh and others are working on. But while those institutions make it possible for people to get an education or run big projects, Robson points out, they only do so when it’s in their interest. As a result, time travel isn’t used for research purposes: it’s used for tourism. This echoes some arguments made by Kim Stanley Robinson in last year’s New York 2140, which looks at the ties between capitalism and climate change. Robson doesn’t quite go as far here, but the point is apparent: capitalism-style economies aren’t great at tackling the bigger issues that face society.
Much of this thinking runs in the background as Minh and her team go deep into the past, and it’s a testament to Robson’s writing style to cram all of this in unobtrusively alongside a fun, optimistic science fiction adventure. Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is a splendid read, one that had me wanting far more by the time I turned the last page.