Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Stepan Chapman's THE TROIKA

This one came to me via Story Bundle's Weird Fiction bundle, and it sure is! It's maybe the weirdest thing I've encountered since The Bed Sitting Room, and I don't mention that crazy film/play by mere chance.

The Troika, quite unlike the Alastair Reynolds book by the same name that I just adored, is only science fiction in that it takes place on some other planet with three purple suns and seemingly endless desert. So, you know, think Jaku or Tatooine or...

No, it's nothing like those, either.

This is WEIRD, weird fiction, you guys. Something more akin to, say, magic realism than the big cosmic space operas that are a staple of my reading. Because get this.

There are three characters, and only three, and they are a car, a dinosaur and an elderly Mexican woman. That's right. A jeep (with solar panels and whatnot to allow it to run indefinitely, and I do mean indefinitely) named Alex, a brontosaurus named Naomi, and a leathery, white-haired woman named Eva. They're on an eternal trek through an unknown desert for unknown reasons, and they have been for centuries. Oh, and every once in a while a big ol' storm rolls through that, in addition to all of the annoyances and hazards one might reasonably expect from desert storms, also has the bonus effect of ripping the characters' souls out of their bodies and then dumping those souls back into one of the bodies at random. So, for instance, the first time it happens, Eva becomes the jeep and Alex the old lady, but Naomi stays a brontosaur. So right away, it feels like a sort of sister-story to The Bed Sitting Room; this could be what that family is like hundreds of years after it undergoes its strange transformations after Britain's "nuclear accident." But here, it's not played for laughs.

Got that?

Oh, and for added fun, they tend to refer to themselves as a family, with Eva ("originally" the old lady) as the mother, Alex ("originally" the jeep, but carrying with him memories of working in a warehouse in 20th century Chicago on good old planet Earth) as the father, and Naomi (brontosaur) as the daughter. And they bicker like family. They bicker like only a nuclear family that's been stuck with one another for hundreds of years can bicker. Like a family utterly dependent on one another (but, it seems, especially on whomever's inside the brontosaur body, which has to pee every night in the jeep's radiator and feed some of her lichen-cud to the old lady every night, too).

Told you it was weird.

But what all that described weirdness does not convey is what weirdly compelling fiction it is. And how well it all just works. Which is to say that The Troika is a textbook example of surrealism done right. Dream sequences blend into schizophrenic episodes blend into (kind of) straight narrative, all at the same high level of prose artistry and competence. No matter how strange a passage gets (an early Aztec-flavored dream sequence full of fish-headed men and women of various species sacrificing one of our characters in spectacularly weird and grotesque fashion, being a good example of this. For instance), it has an underlying logic and coherence. Everything is a metaphor. Nothing is a metaphor. The reader kind of gets to choose at what level to take things as metaphorical.

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