As evidenced by the accolades her short stories have received, Kelly Robson is the kind of writer who can pack a lot into a small package. Her newest project, the novella Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, is no different—a sub-250-page package filled with time travel, body modification, disability representation, a future made unrecognizable through global climate change, and intricate corporate politics. This isn’t more for more’s sake, either—not a single issue feels shoehorned in, nor does a single plot point land without impact, nor is a word out of place.
In 2267, climate change has made the Earth nigh-uninhabitable, and humanity has moved underground, forced to make do and live life in hells, and habitats (habs), and tunnels. Not content to accept fate, the brightest minds are working to fix the mistakes of the past. The future is on the surface, and the rebuilding efforts are active on multiple, sometimes combative, fronts. Minh has been on the front lines of those efforts—except now, banks aren’t putting willing to put their money behind her efforts. Instead they’re funding what seems to be a far easier way to fix a broken world: time travel, which has just been proven viable. Why painstakingly restore a riverbed ecosystem when you can just hang out in a non-toxic past?
Robson understands that time travel can’t exist in a vacuum. Time travel is the kind of trope that necessarily has to acknowledge it affects the world—not just the Chekov’s gun of what happens when one person exists twice in the same place at the same time, but the way in which a society thinks about time.
Most authors tend to illustrate the effects of time travel in one of two ways, either focusing on the way in which time traveling humans affect history, or the way in which the world is affected through the advances of science or physics picked up along the way.
Kelly Robson is the rare author to address the wide-reaching, ultimately fascinating issue of how time travel would affect business and economy. Here, she creates a world in which banks make speculative investments via time travel, investing in research opportunities that aren’t about pillaging the past for artifacts, or changing the course of history, but are about finding places where the geography of Earth itself can be mined for information to save us from the worst effects of what we’ve done to the environment, and ensure a healthy balance sheet for the coming quarter.
When Minh and her colleague Kiki decide on a project, it has to make sense—not to academics who own a lab, or to the historians who guard the timeline with their lives, but to the bank that will finance their plan.
This sobering dash of reality somehow makes the novella more fun to sink into. Despite the fantastical trappings, it’s realistic. Of course corporations would invest in time travel, of course they would hoard it like dragons hoard gold. Of course they would destroy the study of history in the pursuit of financial gain.
Our heroes are scientists, and to save the world, they have to be business savvy. They have to play the game in the hopes of snagging the contract of a lifetime. That means doing a whole host of things to successfully pitch the client, never mind brave the uncharted reality of the past. This is time travel fiction like I’ve never seen it before.
“The client is fixated on Mesopotamia.” Minh says. Not the department. Not, certainly, the other historians. Nope. The financier.
Minh builds a team of people who can work together, experts with overlapping skill sets. These folks are dedicated: when one of them is deemed unable to join the expedition due to her size (the vessel they will take back in time—its likeness earning it the titular moniker “Peach”—well, let’s just say she takes matters into her own hands in a breathtakingly serious manner. When they finally get the contract, the world opens up to them like a flower. Beautiful opportunities exist for Minh and her team, but only if they can be nice with the people holding the pursestrings.
Intricate plot machinations aside, the book stands out for its other qualities. One of the magical things about Robson’s world is that in it, disability isn’t a barrier. She’s developed a world in which disability is more of an opportunity and less of a stigma than in our own world. Our main character has prosthetic legs that look like an octopus’s tentacles. Another’s resemble a goat’s hooves. These characters don’t exist in a world in which they are required to present as human.
There’s a particular moment worth contemplating:
Kiki asks Minh, as they are making their way to the farm of their third teammate, Hamid—who is charming, and raises horses—if she remembers walking.
Minh’s response is simple: “I’m walking now.” She doesn’t remember being able-bodied, before she lost her legs to a ringworm pandemic.She doesn’t miss what she used to have.
There’s something refreshing about an able-bodied author who is willing to acknowledge that for many, the point at which you are living your life is exactly when you don’t want to bother thinking about the live you used to live. Some of us (like me) gained our disabilities early enough that we have no memory of living without them. Like me, Minh instead has memories of getting prosthetics, of surgeries, of canes. But she doesn’t remember being anything or anyone but who she is now. She doesn’t remember having a body that would be considered normal—and she’s fine with that. Minh is comfortable with her body. Her desire is to do her job, not to change who she is.
Because this is all happening in the year 2267, her prosthetics feel futuristic, if sometimes difficult to process because of how far fetched they are. “I love them,” Minh says. “Everyone should have six legs.”
The character development is deft, smart, and deeply honest. I don’t often compliment abled writers on their management of disability and disability politics. I find myself seeking out the flaws in their character development, the gaps in their understanding of the world I inhabit. But in Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach, I saw a future that included me. It may be an uncomfortable future, but it is one with a medical infrastructure that can support people like me. It is a future where bodily autonomy is at a premium, and disability isn’t a blockade to a real job. No one in the big banks cares if their techs have prosthetics. What they care about is the bottom line.
For such a short work, this one packs an enormous wallop of imagination and worldbuilding. Take your time to savor it, to drink in its intoxicating imagery and poetic prose. If you’re looking for a new kind of time travel fiction, or if you’re simply interested in seeing what the world looks like through the eyes of someone with a true creator’s gift, Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is for you.