Friday, March 23, 2018

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, by Kelly Robson

★★★★☆ Great Writing, Cool Setting, Strong Characters

(Post-Apocalypse Time Travel; Lucky Peach) Minh works restoring ecosystems destroyed during the collapse, and she’s intrigued by an opportunity to restore the Tigris/Euphrates valley by using a time machine to gather samples from 4,000 years ago. (39,653 words; Time: 2h:12m)

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Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

Review: 2018.177 (A Word for Authors)

Pro: The narration is transparent and the dialogue is flawless, but the strongest thing about this story is the setting and the characters. The future society emerging from underground to reestablish life on the surface really comes to life. It has its problems, but no one is evil just to be evil; the conflicts are between different groups each of which believes it’s doing the right thing. (E.g. the banks, the time-travel team, the people trying to reestablish ecosystems, etc.)

As for the characters, Minh comes across as the someone who’s bitter about having failed in her life’s work and who manages to blame everyone but herself. As the story unfolds, though, her irresponsibility and lack of diplomacy gradually convince us that she’s really responsible for her failures in the past. Note also that even before she starts this new mission, she already has her excuses for failing lined up.

Kiki has no respect for the opinions of her elders, and it doesn’t help that Minh gives her zero reason to change this attitude. She’s very vocal about her desire to change the world by tearing it down, if necessary. “Maybe going broke would be good for the plague babies. It’d force you to stop playing the banking game and make hard decisions about the future.” Her willingness to make unilateral decisions that affect other people ultimately leads to the disaster when she removes the drones that Fabian could have used to protect them. This is infuriating (this story evokes a lot of emotions), and yet is utterly consistent with her character.

Over the story, it gradually becomes clear that Fabian is a psychopath. He has no empathy for other human beings at all. Killing the local warriors when he probably could have stunned them is one example, but even the callous way he uses Sura shows us all we need to know about him. Minh sees this before Kiki does, but it’s too late by then.

Hamid is just along for the ride, but it’s always nice to hear his voice. He’s the only actually likable character, and his obsession with horses is endearing.

Although he’s a young man, Shulgi rises to the occasion and makes a clever attack on the “gods” who’ve been plaguing his kingdom. He even sees them for what they are, for the most part, and spares their lives at the end, partly because he thinks they can teach him how to have more legs himself.

The scene where Kiki has her legs amputated so she’ll fit into the mission profile is horrifying, but it’s extremely effective because it makes total sense in context of the civilization as a whole and what we’ve learned of Kiki up to that point.

The scientific and technical details all seem to be spot-on. It appears that a good bit of research went into this story.

Con: The story ends in utter failure for the two focus characters. Whether their time line really gets destroyed or not, none of the visitors from the future seems likely to live very long (even if Shulgi reaching out his hand to them represents him trying to take care of them).

I ended up despising all of the characters except Hamid and Shulgi, both of whom are just minor characters. I’d feel better about it all if I thought Minh or Kiki had actually learned anything, but my impression is that they haven’t. As a result, I don't read this as a tragedy, since that would require a noble protagonist or at least one I could respect.

A few minor issues bothered me: Why does Fabian take Susa with him when he goes? Surely he had no use for her.

Why did the ESSA folks need to bring water back to watersheds? Even if all life were extinct, you’d still expect rain to fall and feed lifeless rivers.

When Fabian tells Minh and Kiki he’s abandoning them, it feels out of character. I wouldn’t have expected him to talk to them at all.

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1 comment (may contain spoilers):

  1. Spoilers ahead but if you have already read the RSR review, it is nothing new. I agree with the review by RSR of this novella. It was both good and bad at the same time.

    Good for the writing, the characters and the setting (or world-building).

    The first part of the story takes place mainly in a futuristic corporate environment. It is fairly realistic and uses business-speak. It takes skill and talent to make a business setting both passably realistic but worth it for the reader to keep on reading. The business language may not be to everyone's liking.

    About 1/3 of the way in, I got to a part where I had to stop reading and think about whether I wanted to continue or not. This is the bit to do with Kiki's legs. There are always stories that will stretch your belief, and it is nothing to do with the technology or the magic - it is how stupid / foolish / outrageous / dangerous people act or behave with it, and this is a story that takes that to the maximum.

    If it had been a library book, I think I would have taken it back then and there. As I had purchased an e-book, I decided to read on, and this novella does have some really good points.

    I read to the end and decided that the entire plot is based on characters doing stupid / dangerous / foolish actions.

    Surely they have technology that would allow you to stun someone and not kill them? Fabian is a sociopath. At the very least he is amoral.

    Given all the business / corporate set-up done at the start of the story, surely the time travel agency has a complaints process?

    Kiki could have applied, submitted her CV and then the reader would have some explaination of her skillsets. I had to guess that the "fabbing" she was doing was some sort of super-advanced 3-D printing, but instead we get the "legs" storyline (which did very little for the rest of the story). Minh's legs were enough to move the plot along.

    Other point - they are very cost-aware. Surely the cost to do the surgery, the artificial legs, the rehab and the on-going costs for the rest of Kiki's life would have put a stop to it before it even occured ?

    The novella ends on a Not-cliffhanger but there is more to come. We've just read Part 1.

    Artwork by Jon Foster. Very good artwork that suits the story.