Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Kelly Robson and "Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach"

This hangout looks twice as exciting now that Kelly has gone on to win a Nebula in the meantime (for her novellette, A Human Stain)! It was a pleasure to have her on the show to talk about her recent novella, Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach.

Kelly started out by telling us about how critical economics was to this story. She's passionate about economics! (And so she should be; worldbuilding without economics is flimsy.) She calls it "the physics of worldbuilding." She told us that when she was first writing historical fiction, she began with medieval settings because it seemed more straightforward to manage, but that since then, she's branched out into greater challenges. In this story, the historical portion is set in Mesopotamia!

I asked Kelly about where she found the entry point for this story. She explained that she and Alyx Dellamonica had just moved to Toronto when there was an exhibit about Mesopotamia at the Royal Ontario Museum, and they went to it four or five times. One of the things she learned there was that in 2000 BCE, Mesopotamia had a complex, centrally planned economy. Kings, priests, and priestesses kept a handle on how much grain was grown and distributed.

Kelly was also excited to learn that there was a king named Shulgi whose job was killing monsters. This was an official duty of his job, and he possessed weapons designed specifically for monster-killing. As she told us, "They knew there were no monsters." She asked what it must be like for this king who had this very specific duty and had never done it. How do you deal with that problem?

The second plot thread she told us about was the idea of someone with octopus arms for legs, which she had always liked. As it turned out, the story ended up being a "coming of age" tale for an old woman, finding her purpose.

Kelly said she really wanted to work with a future Earth that could have a connection with ours, but is not hours. One of her major inspirations in designing it was the book Debt: The First 5000 Years. One of the major points it makes is that we have this idea that barter was a standardized practice, but there is really no evidence for it in the anthropological/archaeological record. The book questions the existence of this practice that has been so mythologized, and illustrates how economic systems actually work, which is far more complex. The concept of debt is central to how humans interact, even on the level of courtesy and favors. It's not just about coins but about how we live together.

In Kelly's far future, all you can buy or sell is people's time. The giant companies are professional services firms. She named the primary company in the story after an environmental consulting firm that belonged to friends of hers. Robots do all manual labor, and everything is automated. Everything in a services firm happens because people make it happen. Robots must be programmed and designed by people. The year is 2267, and in a post-scarcity environment, the only thing of value is people's time.

People do not live on the surface of the planet in this world because Kelly decided she didn't want land to be something of value. In this version of history, climate change caused humanity to retreat underground because it was too difficult to deal with the bad weather, etc. The other advantage of the underground environment to Kelly was that it was a completely managed environment and you have to manage  your own waste. In comparison, our world makes it difficult to see the consequences of all the decisions we make (as when we drop trash on the ground).

The "Manhattan of this underground environment" is a place called Bangladesh Hell. Everything is cool there, and celebrities are there. Even there, it's a managed, closed environment. The word Hell is used in the Chinese sense, meaning just that it's underground. Kelly said she chose this to play with people's expectations.

The main character, Minh, is 83 years old, and working on reclaiming the surface. When she was a toddler in Sudbury Hell (Sudbury being a real place with underground pits in Canada), the world was having pandemics in a public health catastrophe. Minh lost her legs to a form of ringworm, which is why she uses the octopus prosthetics. Her generation is called Plague Babies. All of them had horrible medical interventions as children. There was a generational exodus, when the plague babies decided they want to get away from the doctors and colonize the surface.

Another key character, Kiki, is 23 years old, from the generation referred to as Fat Babies. They are perfect tank-gestated healthy human beings. Their bodies are not giving them abnormal problems. They were birthed by the Plague Babies because of the need for more people to feed the people-time economy, but the Plague Babies are still rugged individualists who want to do it all, and don't want to give up anything to the kids. It functions as a kind of parallel to the relationship in our world between the Boomer generation and the Millennials.

Here are some questions Kelly asked, which are great questions for any worldbuilder: What does our society see of value? What history do we have? What kind of generational values do we have? Kelly remarked that you can see these kinds of things in pseudo-hipster cartoons from the Regency era as well as in our own time. Kelly notes that as a member of Generation X she feels sandwiched between the antagonistic Boomers and Millennials.

I asked Kelly whether she had done a lot of research for this story. She said, essentially, no - but in fact a lot of her research had been done before she had the story come into her mind. She read the David Graber book three times. She simply reads nonfiction for pleasure, and nonfiction informs her understanding of how the world works. Kelly describes herself as a systems thinker.

I asked Kelly about the corporation that features prominently in the novella. The time travel corporation, TERN, is essentially the antagonist here. Kelly said it was a bit of an answer back to Connie Willis' approach to time travel, which she absolutely loves but thinks is unrealistic. Kelly made sure to stipulate that you can't influence the present by changing the past.

Kelly told us that she would love to time travel. "I would die to do that," she said. "I'd cut my legs off."

In this story, time travel is just for historical research purposes.

The different dwelling-places of the future setting she creates are called Hives, Habs, and Hells. They are essentially like city-states that compete with each other in quality of life. They compete to draw people to their area. Bangladesh Hell has the cool factor. Sudbury Hell has more space. The surface habitations include Iceland, Cuzco, and Calgary.

Other economic units include universities, vocational training entities, and think tanks. TERN is a division of an evil economic entity.

There is also such a thing as a "private bank." Private banks are actually people. If you are a genius who makes a unique contribution to society, the world government will let you act like a bank, and when you die you become a think tank, or a university, for as long as your economic principal exists. She created this concept because she wanted to make sure she could show that some people do make a difference. It also gives people something to strive for. "Someday I could be a private bank..."

TERN controls time travel, and is allowed to do so by the World Economic Council. They are worried about losing this control, so they are secretive and tell lots of lies about their technology.

Minh is a fluvial geomorphologist, or someone who studies how riverbeds change. (Kelly clearly loves the name of this line of work!) Minh also does snowpack management. She lives in Calgary, which is a self-contained Ziggurat habitat. The people there are trying to live lightly and restore the bow river valley. They have been working on it for 60 years and still have much to do. Minh planted a glacial seed in the nearby mountains. They have constructed wind baffles around the mountain to guide rain to particular valleys. Now, the river flows into the city and all of the water gets used. They want to make it so that some water remains to flow onward and support another city. Minh loves rivers and loves mountains, and will die doing her work.

Kelly said that while working in Vancouver she learned a lot of ecological restoration stuff.

We recommended to her a book by Simon Winchester called The Map That Changed the World, about William Smith and how he discovered the geological formations underlying England when he was traveling around trying to help people find coal. At the time there was no systematic way of finding it, but everywhere he went, Smith saw the same 15-layered structure in the earth, and helped people to systematize what lay under the ground.

Che asked why Kelly wrote a novella when she had this much worldbuilding to work with. Kelly said, "I don't know how to write a novel." She wanted it to be the story of Minh, and focus on "The most important thing that ever happened to a person, or that a person ever did." She said it would have to be a different story to be a novel. She told us she is currently writing a sequel featuring Kiki as the main character.

By the end of the story, Minh has learned the thing she'd been missing: that people matter, and not just to the economy, but to her personally.

I asked Kelly whether she had intentionally juxtaposed the concept of monsters with the design of the time-traveling characters, and she said that she hadn't done it intentionally, though she loves the idea of animal-human chimeras, which she also used in her story, Waters of Versailles. I asked this question because of the way that Kiki changes her appearance during the story, which makes her appear more mythological (SPOILERS are coming!).

In the story, Minh and Kiki have to win the work by responding to a Request For  Proposal (RFP) for sending scientists into the past to research the rivers and inform future restoration efforts. Kiki freaks out because she's an administrative assistant and is so excited at the idea of a non-boring project. She gets on the team writing the proposal. Kelly explained that she has done a lot of proposal writing, and that "you are going to win it by offering the client something they didn't know they wanted." In this story, the amount of stuff you can transport in the time machine is limited by volume. Because Minh is small and can fold up her legs, and another of her friends on the team is a little person, they would be able to maximize the volume they can bring back. Kiki wants to be on the team but is too big (she's 6 feet tall)... so she cuts her legs off, and gets a set of high-tech goat leg prosthetics.

Paul noted that Kelly's decision not to let the past influence the future solves some problems. He asked her how she came up with her theory of time travel. Kelly said she needed the time travel to behave in such a way as to allow her to tell the story she wanted to tell. She wanted to have its effect be only on the characters' experiences rather than the world. When you go to the past, there is no way to do damage. The question is what it does to you. Thus, she chose the simplest form of time travel where there would be no paradoxes that might cause trouble. The time travel timeline collapses as soon as you leave it, but it's still an interesting thing to do. The idea is thus that you can't keep going back to the same timeline, since it's gone the moment you are no longer in it. Kelly told us that if she could go back in time, she would cure Jane Austen and let her continue writing the book she was writing, then take the manuscript home, return to the same moment, have Austen read it and continue the work. She said that after 30 or 40 trips you could have a new Austen book! However, it would be a lot like a Groundhog Day scenario, and be incredibly tedious to figure out what you needed to do for the desired result.

Thank you so much for coming on the show, Kelly! It was a fascinating discussion. Everyone look out for Kelly's sequel to this story (which she's currently drafting), called, "Time, Trouble, and the Lucky Peach."

Today, Dive into Worldbuilding meets at 4pm Pacific to discuss Auguries and Predicting the Future. I I hope you can join us!



#SFWApro