One of the leading writers of space opera in modern science fiction, it can only be imagined that when Jonathan Strahan approached Alastair Reynolds with the anthology theme ‘godlike machines’ in 2010, Reynolds jumped at the chance to contribute a story. Going on to headline the anthology, the novella he produced, Troika, is a Big Dumb Object story for a new generation.
Troika opens with Dimitri Ivanov stumbling through the freezing cold having just escaped from a mental institution. Clutching a precious metal object in his hand, hypothermia is setting in as he wanders the backroads of a Russian winter. Picked up by a passing plow driver, he is dropped at his destination point, shivering but revived, and rings the doorbell of Nesha Petrova. An ageing woman answers the door, and after initially doubting the man’s announced identity, lets him in. Sitting over a pot of tea, what unfolds is an intriguing tale of exploration and discovery of a BDO the size of Tasmania that had appeared in the galaxy many years prior. Ivanov one of three cosmonauts sent by Second Soviet to probe the massive shelled entity, the reader must wait until the last pages to learn how the metal object plays into the story of Petrova.
As can be imagined with the theme of ‘godlike machine’, the BDO Ivanov and his crew members explore is full of twists and turns, puzzles and elements never quite clicking into logical place at the outset. Reynolds’ ultimate explanation for why it exists is a touch weak, but this does not prevent his creative largesse from extruding itself onto the page. Relevancy sacrificed for good old fashioned Golden Age adventure and intrigue, the pages do indeed turn as one shell after another are penetrated.
From what few of Reynolds’ novels and short stories I’ve read, I’m not a fan of his writing style. The ideas are all I could want in space opera, but the lack of refined, practiced prose ultimately damages my final opinion. The characters become cardboard, plot movement is openly contrived, and any sense of plausibility evaporates as a result. Troika, however, features Reynolds noticeably throttling back on the info dumps and tightening what is usually clumsy writing. The sentences are short, quick, to the point, and give the reader a little room to imagine the small details. And the novella wholly benefits from this approach. Ivanov, his crew members, and Ivanov all feel more like real people. He remains short of Bradbury or Ballard when it comes characterization and dialogue, but the writing does not hinder, and at times even enhances the reading experience.
In the end, Troika is a revamping of the BDO science fiction motif that Reynolds pulls off successfully. Balancing a split narrative (past and present), as well has honing in his prose on the necessities, the author proves his skills as a writer are improving over early efforts. From a thematic point of view, however, he remains as pro-science as ever—a The City& the Stars concept underlying the denouement of Troika. Clarke and BDOs going back decades, Troika is retro sci-fi for the modern era. Oh, and, have your Profokiev on hand reading the novella…