Book review: Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson

The Lucky Peach is one of the most compelling time travel stories I’ve read in the recent years.  In an age when almost every viable trope in the time travel subgenre had been explored, Robson makes the wise choice of not focusing on it too much and instead packs this novella with so many other concepts that nearly every reader will find something to hold on to.  From environmentalism, through the ethics of killing, generational changes and body autonomy, to communication technology, this book works on many levels.  However, its greatest strength is that even though it is densely packed with these concepts, The Lucky Peach is still very accessible to its readers.

Welcome to a world that had been so devastated by environmental disasters that humanity moved underground.  Only over the past few decades, people started emerging back out and re-engineering the environment to create a few enclaves on the surface where they could live again.  This process is very slow, though, and requires significant investment.  Our protagonist, Minh, is an aging project manager on one such project.  She is awarded a contract to prepare a project for the rejuvenation of the Mesopotamian basis (current Iraq), and must time-travel to ancient Mesopotamia to study the ecology of the region.  She takes with her another scientist, her assistant Kiki and a guide from the time travel agency.  Separately, a king in the Mesopotamian region is struggling to make sense of unusual sightings, monsters, and his head priestess who is beginning to act even more strangely than usual.

The story is much deeper than this and takes us through several weeks.  While the storyline is fairly linear, it offers a few surprises, even though at a later stage they begin to be telegraphed ahead of time.  I don’t want to take away too much, though.  Instead, I want to focus on the many intricate concepts the author is exploring here.

The most obvious one is the environmental destruction and rejuvenation.  This is the setting the reader starts out with, and the author is using a fair bit of exposition here, which does not tie all that well with the rest of the book.  In particular, she is heavily invested with the financial model of rejuvenation, banks, debts and other elements.  I didn’t understand why this concept had to be so prominent.  From my understanding, the financing serves the purpose of placing constraints on the protagonists and motivate some of them to engage in the new project, but I could easily do without it.  By comparison, the actual environmental element feels a little subdued.

These concepts quickly fade out of the picture as body autonomy and communication technology come into focus.  The protagonists are able to not only modify their bodies (Minh has six legs and Kiki has her legs chopped off and replaced with prosthetics as a matter of personal choice), but also are hooked up on complex monitoring and drug delivery systems.  They can rationally decide to increase their adrenaline or calm down, and they are always aware of any health problems.  Communication is virtual and appears to consist of a social network, displayed as augmented reality.  A lot of talking and planning takes place in this virtual world.  These two concepts permeate the story.  At first, they may be difficult to fully comprehend, especially since the author (wisely, in my opinion) doesn’t do any exposure here.  The reader must figure them out on his own, and as the book progresses, one must admire how wonderfully complex both concepts are.

Superficially, the story-driving concept is the question of morality of killing during time travel.  The way the technology works in this universe, the very act of time traveling creates a fork, and the travelers may start out in a universe identical to their own, but once they leave the past the universe ceases to exist in their reality.  As a result, their actions have no consequences to their timeline.  When Minh is being stupid and puts herself in danger, the time travel guide has no qualms about killing a group of hostile natives.  This doesn’t sit well with Kiki, though.  She is an idealistic young woman, and she believes all life is sacred, regardless which reality they are in.  She begins driving the plot to its disastrous conclusion.

Another story-driving concept is hiding under the surface, though.  It is about the generational change.  The first people who returned to the surface to rebuild it were antisocial loners with engineering degrees.  They built for the sake of building.  The next generation born on the surface, however, is far more empathic to their fellow human beings.  They were raised in group settings and want to improve the world for everybody, not just themselves.  The two sides are represented by Minh and Kiki, and their differences lead to severe communication deficiency between them.  No social media technology in the world can make them understand each other until it’s too late.

On top of these concepts, the author also made the choice of telling two separate but converging stories.  Each chapter begins with a few paragraphs from the ancient king’s story.  The reader will slowly realize that the king is directly affected by the time travelers but does not understand what he’s seeing.  Even later it becomes apparent that the stories are not in sync.  What the king experiences is ahead of the main story, so the question of what happens will have been answered way before the question why it has happened.  This is masterfully done, designed to keep the reader’s interest high.

I have very few complaints about The Lucky Peach.  I could do less with the financial system, which needlessly adds to the complexity of the story without having any real value to the reader.  That’s also the only thing I disliked.  Everything else about this book is superb.  The writing and structure are masterful, and I was amazed at how many different elements were crammed into this book that one could finish in a single long evening.  The fact that I felt so engrossed in this dense work just proves how well it had been written.  The Lucky Peach is an excellent, thought-provoking book that I consider a strong contender for the 2019 Hugo award.

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