Friday, March 23, 2018

Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach, by Kelly Robson

[Tor Novella]
★★★★☆ Great Writing, Cool Setting, Strong Characters

(Post-Apocalypse Time Travel) 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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"Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach," by (edited by Ellen Datlow), published on by .

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

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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