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Troika by Alastair Reynolds

Troika is a new novella from Alastair Reynolds and, by any standards, one of the best shorter pieces I’ve read so far this year. However, to get a complete view of this story, it’s necessary to engage in a little deconstruction.

Troika is a delightful traditional Russian folk dance celebrating the social reliance on the three-horse sled as the main form of transport when winter sets in. As orchestrated by Prokofiev, it’s included inside Lieutenant Kije, originally written as a score for the film of the same name and then performed as a suite for the whole orchestra. To reflect the origin of some of the folk components, the music has also been used as the basis of a ballet.

I take the time to explain the significance of the title because the name given to the alien artefact when scientists first get a clearer view of it is Matryoshka, named after the doll in which a set of smaller dolls is revealed as each outer shell is opened. So too, with the music, the melody called Toika is captured in some sophisticated orchestration and included inside a greater whole which can then be used for completely different purposes.

Even more importantly, we are dealing with an unreliable narrator so everything he says may be distorted, burying truth inside a shell of self-deception or alien-induced confusion. Finally, we have two completely separate narrative arcs within the broader whole. First, there’s the story of Nesha Petrova, the brilliant astronomer who first identifies the connection between the alien artefact and music. Then there’s the story of Dimitri Ivanov who, together with two other cosmonauts, goes to investigate the artefact. Both arcs are included within the shell of the story of their meeting years after Ivanov returns to Earth. However, there’s a broader point to be made about social dynamics.

As Nesha explains about Russia, “We live in a flawless collectivised utopia. But a flawless society can’t, by definition, evolve. If it proceeds from one state to another, there must have been something wrong, or sub-optimal, about it.” In this novella, Reynolds is challenging us to understand the process whereby all the different cultures come in a nested form, exactly like the set of dolls. Within a country and its dominant culture, there may be many subcultures, any one of which may be the seed from which a new dominant social structure may emerge. So, for example, through a process of perestroika, a new version of the Communist state may develop. Think of it as being like one of these time travel stories where our intrepid idiot changes the past and creates alternate realities throughout time. Or where one person’s identity comes under pressure and new, unexpected qualities emerge.

Alastair Reynolds wondering what it would be like inside a matryoshka

When you open this handsome book from Subterranean Press, you have already begun to separate the first outer shell of this matryoshka, revealing the words inside. Then, as you read the words, you slowly unpack the narrative elements, seeing each as separate entities, but appreciating the author’s skill in constructing this elegant tale in a nested form.

Appropriately, when you get to the end, you find there’s one more doll inside the whole. It’s a very clever doll that makes the whole thing true, or not, as you decide.

Taking Trioka as a whole, it’s a remarkably strong novella, full of incident when the team tries to get inside the alien artefact, full of intelligence when Petrova and Ivanov review the debate on what its appearance might mean. More fascinating is the issue of the music. Why should the artefact apparently announce its presence by playing a Russian folk song? Perhaps it’s a hint the aliens want to signal something about their method of transport. There may not be three horses in front of this “thing” when it arrives in our solar system, but there may be a connection — a different kind of horse power, perhaps. What makes everything so pleasing is that, even though we’re dealing with imagined levels of science, Alastair Reynolds’ background as an astronomer gives the explanations a substantial veneer of credibility.

I confess to being hooked from the word go. Troika is yet another excellent production from Subterranean Books which seems to be developing a pleasingly high level of quality both in the choices of what to publish and in the physical form of the books they produce. This is well worth the money. As a word of warning to the wise, I suspect this book will fly off the shelves so order your copy now or miss out.

The jacket art is by Tomislav Tikulin. The top image is for the trade hardcover edition and the bottom image is exclusive to the signed limited edition. There are two internal illustrations.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

For a review of an excellent collection by Reynolds, see Deep Navigation, a stand-alone novella The Six Directions of Space, and the start of a new trilogy Blue Remembered Earth.

Finally, Troika was originally published as part of the anthology Godlike Machines, edited by Jonathan Strahan and published by the Science Fiction Book Club. Based on this appearance in 2010, it has been nominated for both the 2011 Hugo Awards and the 2011 Locus Award for Best Novella.


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