Kelly Robson on the Economics of Time Travel in Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach

Minh is an 83-year-old scientist in 2267, working to restore earth’s ecosystems in the wake of a world-ravaging apocalypse. King Shulgi is a warrior in ancient Mesopatamia whose destiny is to kill monsters. How these characters, who are separated by thousands of years, come together is the heart of Kelly Robson’s time travel adventure, Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach.

By journeying into a lost past, Minh faces harsh lessons about herself, and the shaky ethical ground on which she stands. Through the devices of time travel, economic instability, and ethics, Gods interrogates the core of what it means to be human, regardless of place and time.

I caught up with Kelly Robson to talk about intergenerational conflicts, evil corporations, ancient kings, and more.

Many readers, including me, get excited at the idea of time travel. In Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, time travel is a vehicle for the exploration of themes about past and future, and what each owes the other. Can you talk about how this idea developed?
I’m a big Connie Willis fan, and her time travel stories have been a major influence on me. The great thing about time travel is concept is wide open.  Every writer creates their own time travel rules to suit the stories they want to tell.

Connie’s really interested in the role of fate in the daily lives of people, so her time travel stories contain a lot of misplaced messages and calls for help that aren’t heard until the very last moment. I’m interested in something different.

What really gets me going is economics, in the broadest sense. When I say “economics” I don’t mean money. I mean what we owe to each other. This can take a lot of forms, from person to person, group to group, generation to generation, nation to nation, culture to culture, or between the past, present, and future. How do we interact? How do we behave responsibly, care for others, ensure our actions are moral and ethical, even under the most complex circumstances?

In our world right now, the biggest illustration of a failure to care for each other, or to recognize the humanity of others, is our history of colonialism as enacted worldwide for the past 500 years. Colonialism is about economics. And for me, time travel is a concrete metaphor for colonialism.

But that makes it sound like I sat down and planned to write something deep. I didn’t. I just wanted to tell a good story about people who get themselves into deep trouble.

Of all the time travel destinations you could have chosen, Mesopotamia seems like a symbol of powerful significance—a cradle of humanity, where so many things began. Was this on your mind when you selected it as your characters’ destination?
Mesopotamia developed writing early. They wrote on clay tablets which persist in the archaeological record. Because of the area’s connection with major world religions, archaeology was practically invented there, so we know a lot more about Mesopotamia than practically any other ancient civilization. We know they developed the first centralized bureaucracy, which established standard sets of measures and administered a managed economy. They practiced complex mathematics and geometry, taught sophisticated systems of medicine, and established trade connections far and wide.

I was first entranced by Mesopotamia at a big special exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum, with artifacts from the British Museum. The seed for Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach came from a statue of a king carrying weapons which were specifically meant for killing monsters. I was fascinated, because people knew then (just as we know now) that there are no monsters. Sure, maybe they believed monsters existed in other countries. They had the equivalent of urban legends and ghost stories, and some people were superstitious and believed in monsters (as some people do now), but many of them knew darn well monsters don’t exist.

The king had monster-killing weapons. His job was to kill monsters, but he never saw one. I wondered — what did he think about that? And that was my seed for Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach.

The inter-generational conflicts that emerge in Gods are reminiscent of similar conflicts today. What are your thoughts on this similarity?
As a member of Generation X, I’m deeply interested in the Boomer/Millennial conflict. Like all Gen X, I’ve spent my life in the shadow of the Boomers, and I’m still waiting for them to retire.

The main relationship in Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is between Minh, an 83 year-old scientist and Kiki, a 23 year-old admin assistant. Minh’s so passionate about her work that she’s basically never going to retire, and because of the demographics and economics of their hab, Kiki has few opportunities to do meaningful work. She sees Minh as a mentor; she wants to learn to do what Minh does so that she too can enjoy passionately meaningful work. But Minh hasn’t agreed to play this role, and she isn’t particularly interested in it.

So here’s a question about what we owe to each other: Minh’s spent 60 years working endlessly to restore Earth’s ecosystems. Kiki would like to do that too, but how can we ask Minh, after a lifetime of labour, to step aside and let Kiki take over? We need Minh to think about succession planning, because Minh’s not going to live forever. But you can’t tell someone to stop what they’ve been doing their whole life and share their knowledge, skills, and wisdom with someone else. We can’t tell Minh she owes it to Kiki — to the future — when Minh knows darn well she’s been paying all her life.

So yes, absolutely the generational conflict in Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is our Boomer/Millennial conflict. With Generation X overlooked as usual. *grin*

Can you talk about your decision to make corporate corruption a pivotal aspect of this book?
The world economy of the years 2267 in Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is basically capitalism on the outside and socialism on the inside. Capitalism is practiced between what are essentially city states ruled by national banks (I call them habs, hives, and hells), and each city state offers its citizens different variations of socialism according to their different priorities and economic opportunities.

The habs, hives, and hells compete for economic power, and economic power ultimately comes from populations. A free market requires free movement of population, so everyone is free to basically vote with their feet. If they don’t like the quality of life in the hab, hive, or hell they live in, they are free to move to a different one. A hab, hive, or hell with a shrinking population knows that it better change its quality of life offerings if it wants to stop hemorrhaging people.

It’s a dynamic world that ultimately respects humans as the only generators of value and purpose in the world. I like it.

Hang on with me in this, I’m getting to the corporate corruption.

Not every economic unit is a hab, hive, or hell. Think tanks and universities lease living space from habs, hives, and hells, and private banks are independent economic units formed to acknowledge genius-level individual contributions to science, art, and technology. (If you’re Albert Einstein in 2267, the World Economic Council could decide to turn you into a private bank, and if that happens your life gets very interesting indeed.)

My antagonist is TERN, the time travel division of an independent economic think tank. They tend to think of humans not as generators of value and purpose, but as obstacles to be overcome. And that’s where corporate corruption comes into it. TERN’s physicists have decided that nothing you do in the past matters — you can go to the past, do whatever you want, and when you leave the timeline collapses. You can go back as many times as you want, and each time you will encounter a fresh timeline where everything is just the same. Nothing will ever change. This means they feel they can treat the past — and people in the past — as if they don’t matter. And that’s the essence of evil in my book.

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach leaves plenty of room for sequels. What are your plans, going forward?
I’m working on a sequel, and there are several stories I want to write in this world as well. It’s a rich enough vein to yield a lot of gold. I already have two stories set in this world, but hundreds of years in its future: “We Who Live in the Heart” in Clarkesworld, and “Intervention” forthcoming in the anthology Infinity’s End, edited by Jonathan Strahan.

Kelly Robson’s short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Tor.com, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and multiple anthologies including many year’s bests. Her Tor.com novelette “A Human Stain” is currently a finalist for the Nebula award. In 2017, she was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her novella Waters of Versailles won the 2016 Aurora Award and has been a finalist for the Nebula, World Fantasy, Sturgeon, and Sunburst awards. Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach is out now. Kelly grew up in the foothills of the Canadian Rocky Mountains and competed in rodeos as a teenager. From 2008 to 2012, she was the wine columnist for Chatelaine, Canada’s largest women’s magazine. After many years in Vancouver, she and her wife, fellow SF writer A.M. Dellamonica, now live in Toronto.

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