Wednesday, June 22, 2011

100 Books 31 - Alastair Reynolds' TROIKA

Well, that was over way too fast, but I knew it would be going in. Novellas are like that. It was awesome while it lasted, though.

Alastair Reynolds is one of those rare authors who has yet to disappoint me. His brand of atmospheric, astronomical space opera is exactly the kind of stuff that I got into science fiction to be able to read -- like Asimov but with modern ideas about character and structure, and a delicious noir flavor to the storytelling. His Revelation Space books brim over with these qualities and more, and throw Reynolds' background as a working astronomer into sharp relief (who else could imagine a civilization's robotic remnants constructing a vast machine that literally sings a star to pieces to keep its secrets?) These books are also very good for making readers' skins crawl with depictions of, e.g. giant "Lighthugger" spaceships and fantastic future cities infected with the "Melding Plague" (in which electronic and biological components mutate and fuse together in baroque, Gigeresque ways on both gargantuan and minute scales) while spinning tales of a small group of people taking on an ancient enemy of all sentient life. I mean WOW.

Since leaving that universe behind, Reynolds has kept the flavor but moved on to other milieus, constructing satisfying narratives and grand thought experiments in great big novels that I still rip through like pulp fiction (the imponderables he poses, I ponder after I'm done and on subsequent re-reads). I'm never sure what he's going to be up to next -- for Terminal World > (see my GoodReads review of same)) he seemed to be playing with steampunk tropes but what he was really exploring was what it would be like to live at different resolutions (i.e., zones in which the laws of physics operate at different degrees of fineness); in Century Rain he explores the idea of an alternate earth on the other end of a wormhole, which is mostly taken up by Paris in the 1950s, while the "real" earth is destroyed and uninhabitable due to cataclysmically bad decisions made in the use of nanotechnology -- and it all comes together!

Which is to say that I approached Troika with high expectations that have most certainly been met. The title, a Russian word for things that come in threes as well as for a type of sled mostly concerns* three cosmonauts, citizens of a Second Soviet Union that is the last of Earth's space-faring nations, who have been sent to investigate a vast alien artifact that has appeared at the edge of our solar system. What they discover there is, in true Reynolds fashion, bigger, weirder and more unsettling than any of them could have imagined, and has major consequences not just for them (death, madness, weird identity bleed-through, feeling like they're being drowned in liquid mercury, the usual) but for the vestiges of civilization they have left behind and to which they return. Two major plot bombs detonate in the last 20 pages that manage to cast every bit of what the reader has experienced in the other 100 or so into a shade of doubt, but not in that Ellen Tigh is the last Cylon and makes Six cry so much she loses her baby kind of way.

Other of Reynolds' readers have complained at times that his novels could stand to be about 3/4 as long as they actually are. Myself, I don't see the bloat; I like the expansiveness and don't see anything in them as padding, but that his novels are mostly pretty long I cannot deny. I hope he'll keep reaching for those big books full of big ideas, but in Troika like in his previous short fiction and the last hardcover novella he unleashed on us, The Six Directions of Space, he has more than proven that a) He is listening to them (I hear he's very approachable, and hey, he's written back to my sweet little old sci-fi loving mother when she's emailed him a few times, so this does not surprise me) and b) he can write tight while still pleasing his "big book" fans. If he continues to do a little of both, it's just possible that we'll all be happy.

Al Reynolds is just that good.

*It also refers to a movement from Sergei Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kije Suite, "Troika", around which, weirdly enough, a significant plot development revolves and to which you can listen via the YouTube clip I have embedded below. It's good stuff!


  1. Thanks, Kate.

    I really like the novels of his I've read, and Six Directions of Space, too.

  2. Paul, always good to meet another Reynolds partisan. I've read everything to date and it's all marvelous! Huzzah for Al!

    Yeah, pretty much drooling fangirl, me.


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