Minh wants to rebuild the Earth. Kiki wants to be useful. The banks want easy, guaranteed profits. But with a bank funding an environmental research trip back in time to Bronze Age Mesopotamia, maybe everybody can get what they want…
There’s so many ways in which Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach plays right into my wheelhouse: rebuilding the world post climate-apocalypse; an original future; a Bronze Age past (hooray); economic and political subtexts; generation divides; and two memorable heroines in resolute young Kiki and a grumpy old Minh.
The world went to hell in a climate change hand-basket and humanity retreated into subterranean hells and hives. Years later, new generations are trying to reclaim the surface. The plague babies refused to allow the diseases that affected them to hold them back. They are determined to restore glaciers and develop liveable environments, deeply invested in their habs and deeply in debt to the banks that fund them. Projects win green lights on the basis of their economic viability, but are accepted with the single-minded vision of returning humanity to the fresh air.
Iceland, Cusco, and Calgary are all successful, but there are just as many settlements that have failed – closed down or sold off. And funding has dwindled since TERN invented time travel; restoring the planet is less sexy than going back in time to stop it being destroyed. So far, though, nobody has figured out how to make changes stick: time travel opens up temporary parallel time streams that collapse when the time travellers return home, meaning history never changes.
In Calgary, Minh has 6 octopus legs to replace the legs she lost as a child and a lifetime of experience supporting the regeneration of river valleys (and peach orchards, but she does that for fun). When her admin assistant Kiki brings the consultancy an RFP from the Mesopotamian Development Bank, it seems to have something for everyone: time travel to study a historic environment in order to restore a modern river valley. Minh may not understand why they’ve chosen the Tigris and Euphrates rather than the Indus, but she’s not going to push her luck. It’s a chance to win a big project, pour cash into Calgary and get back to doing what she loves best. Even if it does mean working with TERN.
The novella covers Minh and Kiki’s efforts to win the project; their adventure in Bronze Age Mesopotamia; and the unexpected POV of Mesopotamian king Shulgi, harried by his chief priestess and concerned by reports of new stars and weird monsters in his land. We’re set up from the start to know things are going to go badly wrong in the Bronze Age: the question is why, and whether anyone will make it home safely.
In spite of ticking practically all my boxes, I never really warmed to this novella. I loved that Minh was a grumpy diva (and that we were given an older woman as a protagonist, still much too rare), and I loved even more than her friends call her out for her attitude and presumption. I do enjoy an unlikeable heroine for her own sake; so I was willing to give her a lot of room. But let’s make no bones about it: her self-absorbed arrogance didn’t help me care whether she achieved her goals.
I appreciated Kiki’s enthusiasm and her increasingly acid commentary on how little the plague babies understood the fat babies’ needs or ambitions; but I was uncomfortable with how much she was willing to trade away to achieve her goals (specifically, the implication that her asexuality was up for barter. Sure, that’s determination, but, ew). While I enjoyed her obsession with the past population’s passions and ways of life – and how it led to a discussion of time travel ethics with Fabian (the TERN minder) – I didn’t appreciate that after some promising hints of more, Fabian slid into the minimal dimensions of a paper-thin corporate SF villain. So I was left under-invested in all the characters, although I enjoyed the emotional arc of Minh and Kiki’s relationship.
I also struggled with the often opaque world-building. While Robson does fill in many of the blanks eventually, she initially throws around concepts with little context. I don’t mind working hard for my fiction, but I don’t like being unnecessarily confused, either. In this case, I found that some of the wafted world-building got in the way, distracting me from the story with questions. However, I did enjoy the fabric of this future world – digitally-enabled humans, prosthetics to enhance function rather than mimic human form, glacier seeds, time travel – and how these were interwoven with the mundane obstacles of banks, research proposals and debt. I may have had questions, but they’re the sort of questions that could tempt me to read more stories in this setting.
While I think this is a story I may enjoy more the longer I sit with it (or on a reread), I don’t think it’s quite balanced. The slow build-up of Minh’s resentment of TERN and the winning of the grant feel like they’re given a lot of room to breathe followed by a hasty scramble through the Bronze Age. Sure, there’s realism there, too: I’ve also spent longer winning an RFP than I’ve had to deliver the work, but as a reader, I wanted more from the Bronze Age. And crucially – and in spite of the steady foreshadowing throughout – I wanted more from the ambiguous climax.
Ultimately, there’s lots of great ingredients here, but it doesn’t quite bake a satisfying cake for me. But I might have to read it again just to be sure.