I find myself dismissing hyperbole when I’m reading reviews and rolling my eyes when I see book cover blurbs filled with wild statements of praise. Something’s always the greatest thing ever in the history of things, and if the review is online it seems inevitably to be followed by an exclamation point or two to encourage readers to click through and make sure the blogger makes the requisite Amazon percentage. And yet sometimes you need a bit of hyperbole in your life.
I first encountered Kelly Robson‘s work two years ago when Tor.com published her fantasy novella, Waters of Versailles, a light, funny and perceptive story of love, plumbing and nixies impressed me enough that I reprinted it in my annual best of the year. It went on to be nominated for the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards, and was just Kelly’s second published story.
She followed it with a series of smart, interesting and always entertaining science fiction, fantasy and horror stories culminating with two strong stories this year, “A Human Stain” (gothic horror) and “We Who Live in the Heart” SF). I suspect “We Who Live in the Heart” could spawn a much larger work, because who doesn’t want to read about people living in the nasal passages of sky whales! (See? Exclamation point!)
All of this, however, pales beside her forthcoming work, Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach, which is coming out from Tor.com Publishing in March (NB: I work for Tor.com but didn’t acquire this story. Feel free to deduct exclamation points if you feel that’s appropriate.) I was lucky enough to get an early copy of this book-length work and I wasn’t sure what it could be. I had no cover, no description, just an oddly titled Word file. But, gee, it turned out to be smart and good.
Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach opens in 2267, and it quickly becomes clear that the intervening 250 years have not treated our world gently. Global climate catastrophe has seen mass extinction events, radical climate change, and people driven underground to survive the harsh new world. Even underground, though, humanity has found a way to thrive. Cities (hells) have been dug out of the rock, people have survived, and culture has evolved. Kelly introduces us to Minh, a biologically modified scientist described as “an old grandmother from the waist up, but instead of [two] legs it had six long octopus legs”, who has spent her life working to restore river ecosystems and to help establish humanity on the surface of the planet.
A skilled scientist and an adept project manager, Minh has had great successes in her long career, and yet surface reclamation projects are going poorly and losing the support from the banking companies that control the world’s finances necessary to for those projects to continue. She fears nothing more than her beloved Calgary will be abandoned and surface reclamation will cease. Her assistant, Kiki, one of the delights of the book, has a different perspective. She’s young, smart, ambitious, at the beginning of her life and career, and is desperate to succeed. When she finds the chance to become involved in a crazy, exciting new project she grabs it with both hands, taking shocking action that I don’t want to spoil, but it’s powerful.
The new project involves mounting a team to map the Tigris and Euphrates river systems, to closely examine them, collect data and use that data as the baseline for restoring the system. To do this, Minh, Kiki, and Minh’s associate Hamid must travel back in time 4500 years to a point when the river systems were largely unaffected by human activity. The explanation Kelly provides for time travel is fairly consistent and logical, though by story’s end I did have a question or two. Those questions matter little though when compared to the rich, engaging story she has told. The three time travellers, and a company tour guide are all convincingly and well-drawn, the story never lets up, and the human and scientific extrapolation is fascinating.
The cover copy talks about merging time travel with climate fiction and historical fantasy, all of which is fair. The story is much more alive, though. Rich, nuanced characters, deeply compelling story, and a powerfully conceived world make Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach one of the best novellas of recent times, one of the highlight books of 2018, and something to look for on awards ballots come 2019. It also removes any doubt about one simple fact. Kelly Robson is one of the best, most exciting and most complete new storytellers working today. I can’t wait to see what she does next.