As soon as I finished Alastair Reynolds’s latest, the novella Troika, I thought “this would make a great Twilight Zone* episode. Actually, it would probably require a movie-length treatment to tell the story correctly, but you get the idea.
Troika is a first-contact story. It’s also, as it turns out, a time travel story. And a story of the ultimate future of humanity. And a musing on the meaning of identity and memory. In short, a science fiction story. All of that in about 115 pages.
Troika is the tale of three Russian cosmonauts who investigate an alien artifact that has appeared in the solar system. “Troika” also is, of course, a Russian word meaning roughtly three of a kind, and in its meaning as a three-horse open sleigh, it is the title of the fourth movement of a symphonic work by Sergei Prokofiev, the soundtrack of the 1934 film Lieutenant Kijé. As you might guess, threes are important to the story, starting with the fact that it takes place during the artifact’s third apparition in the solar system. It entered (from a worm hole?) at a sharp angle to the plane of the ecliptic, so it is only within reach from Earth every 12 years.
The Russians call the artifact Matryoshka, which is Russian for those nested babushka dolls. That’s because it is not a solid thing, but rather a series of shells, three known outer obstacles guarding the entrance to the core, where so far no humans have yet penetrated.
As the story unfolds, we know that something very disturbing happened to the cosmonauts. One of them, Ivanov, has escaped from the Siberian mental institution where he and the others have been held since their return from space. And that the time that they spent at the artifact somehow gave the three the ability to merge their personalities and memories of those who come close to them. But there is much that we don’t know, and that is revealed only slowly, as we learn the story in flashbacks.
Some questions are not answered, chief among them, why is it a Russian team that has gone to study Matryoshka? What has happened to the United States that it is unable any more to mount a space program? How did the Soviet Union come to be reborn? And what has happened to all of Earth that this was the last expedition into space for any nation? Economic collapse? Ecological catastrophe? Or is this perhaps an alternate Earth, where history took a wrong turn somewhere? And what, if anything, does Matryoshka have to do with that?
There is, at the end, a Twilight Zone-worthy twist. I won’t tell you about that. You’ll have to read it yourself. And you should. It’s a good read, and it won’t take you much time at all. Oh, and watch for Troika to show up in the end-of-year award nominations.
(Subterranean Press, 2011)