With a title like Gods, Monsters, And The Lucky Peach, and a cover that depicts a woman with cybernetic octopus-like tentacles for legs, you’d expect Kelly Robson’s time travelling sci-fi novella — which is now out in paperback and on Kindle — to be, well, weird. But in the following email interview, she explains that the book is also, well, political.
Let’s start with the obvious questions: What is Gods, Monsters, And The Lucky Peach about?
In 2267, to avoid the effects of ecological turmoil, most humans live underground in highly managed, dense urban habitats. My main character, Minh, is a member of the generation that first began re-colonizing the Earth’s surface and rehabilitating ecosystems. She’s an ecological scientist, and she’s angry because the work she’s dedicated her life to has been stalled by the invention of time travel; the banks simply aren’t interested in funding long-term projects any more.
When Minh gets the chance to time-travel to 2000 BCE to do a past state assessment on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, she jumps at the chance not only to do exciting work, but to have the chance to expose the shadowy think tank that controls time travel technology.
Where did you get the impetus for Gods, Monsters, And The Lucky Peach, and how different is the finished novella from that original idea?
The story seed came from a Mesopotamia exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum, which I visited multiple times. One of the items was a statue of a king carrying weapons which were specifically meant for killing monsters. Imagine a king with monster-killing weapons. His whole job is to kill monsters to keep the kingdom safe, but he’s never seen a monster. What would he think about that? How would that affect him?
In the end, the story became more about the time-traveling humans who the king sees as monsters, rather than the king himself. Though Shulgi, who was an actual Akkadian king, is an important character.
Gods, Monsters, And The Lucky Peach is clearly a science fiction story, but is there a subgenre of sci-fi, or combination of them, that describes the book better?
I think of it as pure science fiction. Some have called it hard science fiction because of the focus on ecological science. Since time travel is impossible I’m not sure it deserves that designation, but I’m happy to embrace it.
As you mentioned, the plot of Gods, Monsters, And The Lucky Peach is set-up by an ecological disaster. First, does the novella have a socio-political message, or is it just used as a set-up?
All fiction is political, but not all fiction is didactic. I try not to be didactic. I’m passionate about providing an antidote to all the future dystopias we have been seeing over the past decades. I wanted to provide a fleshed-out idea of a viable future for all humans. Something optimistic.
In my head, I call my setting “Professional Services World.” It’s post-ecological-disaster but it’s not a dystopia. It’s a post-scarcity world. Nobody starves, and everyone has their basic needs met, but it’s not a utopia either. Humanity has reorganized itself into underground city states with the world economy based on the idea that the only thing of value is human time. This allows cities to trade expertise with each other.
Another founding concept of this world is the idea that people all have different needs when it comes to quality of life. The cities that can offer the most people the highest quality of life will be the most economically powerful. But not everyone likes the same things, so the world is very diverse. People can move freely from one city to another, following their idea of bliss.
You kind of touched in this already, but did you set out to tell a story with a socio-political message, or did it just naturally come up in the course of writing the story?
If we agree that all fiction is political, there’s no getting around a book having a socio-political point of view. Mine are pretty simple.
I believe that organizations that treat any humans as worthless are evil. I believe that the handover of power from one generation to the next is never going to be smooth or easy. I believe that we should treat the earth as a closed system and work hard to keep from destroying the natural ecosystem processes that support our civilizations. And I believe that true, lasting change takes a long time, but unfortunately humans aren’t really very good at long term thinking.
Time travel is also a big part of Gods, Monsters, And The Lucky Peach. But when it came to deciding how time travel would work, did you look more towards versions in fiction or to theoretic scientific theories?
Luckily, time travel is impossible, so we’re not constrained by science. Everyone who writes time travel stories creates their own rules to suit the kinds of stories they’re interested in telling.
I’m not interested in paradoxes, so I’ve designed my time travel to exclude that possibility. Basically, mine is time travel without consequences. Very powerful, but not of much practical use — and with great dramatic possibilities.
So what fictional descriptions of time travel did you based Gods, Monsters, And The Lucky Peach on and why that?
I’m heavily influenced by Connie Willis’ time travel stories [which include her novels Lincoln’s Dreams, Doomsday Book, and To Say Nothing Of The Dog], which I have always loved. Like Connie’s, my time travelers are historians. But mine aren’t as pure of heart as hers, and like real historians, they’re very concerned with getting funding for their research.
Now, calling the novella Gods, Monsters, And The Lucky Peach makes me think there might be some humor in this story. But is it more like the situational humor of, say, a John Scalzi novel [Old Man’s War, Head On], or a more obvious approach like Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy?
It’s situational humor. To me, one of the funniest thing in the book is the image of Minh riding a bike. She has six octopus prostheses for legs, and her research assistant Kiki is pretty amused by it. And there’s quipping humor, too. Hamid, who is the gay veterinarian who time travels with them, cracks a lot of jokes to lift the mood when Minh is getting too intense.
Of course, the title also makes me think of James And The Giant Peach. So, yeah, I’m gonna go there: In what ways was Roald Dahl’s classic an inspiration on Gods, Monsters, And The Lucky Peach?
I didn’t intentionally reference James And The Giant Peach, but it’s appropriate because Roald Dahl’s book is about a self-contained habitat that sustains and nurtures its occupants, and that’s how I see the cities in my world.
Speaking of Dahl, Scalzi, and so on, are there any writers or stories that had an influence on Gods, Monsters, And The Lucky Peach, but not on your previous novella, Waters Of Versailles, or any of your short stories?
I’d say all my work is influenced by the writers I love: Connie Willis, Michael Bishop, Walter Jon Williams, and Alan Bennett.
How about such non-literary influences; was Gods, Monsters, And The Lucky Peach influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games?
There’s a video game aspect to my mechanics of time travel, where you can repeatedly time travel to the same point in time and replay your actions until you get it right. You can also create a decision tree to different outcomes, like Groundhog Day. This is like real life played as a video game.
As you know, a lot of science fiction stories are not stand-alone tales, but are parts of larger sagas. Is Gods, Monsters, And The Lucky Peach a self-contained narrative or the first book in a series, and why is it whatever you made it?
I wrote it to be self-contained, but there will be a sequel. I was surprised when readers called for a sequel, because I didn’t see the ending as a cliffhanger at all. My guess is that as a novella — 40,000 words — the story has more of a short-story ending than a book ending. It’s a satisfying emotional conclusion but the plot obviously can go on. Which is kind of interesting; maybe this is the difference between a novel and a novella?
Makes more sense than page length, given how novels used to be as short as modern novellas. Anyway, what can you tell us about the sequel?
I’m writing it now, and it’ll be from the point of view of Kiki’s, Minh’s 23-year-old research assistant. She’s a very likable character and it’s fun to be in her head.
Obviously, if people are interested in this series, they should buy Gods, Monsters, And The Lucky Peach now, and at least three or four more times just to be super cool. But is there any reason they shouldn’t also read it now, as opposed to waiting for the sequel?
It’s a good story, so I’d recommend reading it now, of course. [grins]
Of course. Earlier I asked about the movies, TV shows, and video games that may have influenced Gods, Monsters, And The Lucky Peach. But has there been any interesting in making it into a movie, show, or game?
I’ve had a few bites from Hollywood but I’m not holding my breath. Those things rarely work out.
And which of those do you think would work best?
Finally, if someone enjoys Gods, Monsters, And The Lucky Peach, what would you suggest they read next and why?
I’d recommend my story at Clarkesworld, “We Who Live in the Heart,” which is a finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. It’s loosely related to Gods, Monsters, And The Lucky Peachand draws on the same economic worldbuilding concepts.