Kelly Robson’s Hugo-finalist novella Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach is probably one of my favourite reads of the last few months. It’s set far in the future, when much of the Earth’s ecosystems have been devastated, and are just now beginning to recover, with help from humanity. Our Protagonist is Minh, an ecological remediator who’s hired to go back in time and study the ecology of ancient Mesopotamia in the hopes of restoring that region of the world in her own time.
There’s a time travel plot, plus some intrigue of the shadowy-corporation variety, but what I really enjoyed about the novella was the…granularity? of the society it depicts. In one sense everything has changed from our present time: people live either underground or in protected habitats on the surface dedicated to ecological restoration; adaptive surgery is common (Minh has octopus legs, for instance); time travel is a thing. In another sense, nothing has: many of the trappings of capitalism are still in place. That means funding is very much a priority, and much of the politics of the novella are informed by that. It also means that this is a story about project management, a story in which workplace dynamics and tendering processes and workflow management are all important plot pressures.
It’s so interesting that these are the familiar things guiding us through the text – we may not understand how this new society is set up, but most of us have dealt with office/workplace politics before – when these are also things that almost never crop up in SFF. That’s an elision that’s very convenient for capitalist systems: we may not want to read about our offices in our spare time, but their absence from speculative and popular media means that we rarely think about the implications of those workplace pressures, the invisible ways in which they condition our ways of thinking and being. For instance, in Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach, the invention of time travel has drawn investment away from ecological restoration, drastically altering the outcomes Minh can feasibly achieve in her work; a comment, perhaps, on our own prioritising of profit over conservation.
Which segues neatly into the next thing I think is important about this novella: the fact that the worst has happened, climate change wise, and yet people are still working under this desperately flawed economic system to make it better. I think this actually ties into the novella’s focus on the mundanities of work: these are characters doing unglamorous and often thankless things in the pursuit of – not even something as self-consciously dramatic as The Right Thing; it’s something they care about and think is important.
A lot of good is done by people working in the background in the pursuit of things they care about and think are important. In fact, I think one of the points of Robson’s story is that in this complex world of ours this is more or less the only way to get anything good done at all: by building communities in the face of capitalism; remembering the people in the process. That’s a message I want to hear more of.