With the space shuttle program almost concluded there seems to be a sense that that window of opportunity for the human exploration of space is closing. There is no successor for the Space Shuttle, NASA's budget is shrinking, the US is dependent on other nations to get people up to the International Space Station and exploration of the solar system has completely shifted to robotic probes and Mars rovers. The premise of whole libraries of science fiction novels appears to be increasingly unlikely and that clearly worries a lot of people in the field, including former ESA astronomer Alastair Reynolds.
Personally, I think the drama over the last space shuttle missions is rather US-centric. It can't be denied that the space race between the USSR and the US is over and out competing the other super-power no longer gives the US space industry a boost, but there is a lot going on in other nations. In a multi-polar world, the nature of space exploration has changed. Interest in space exploration won't disappears overnight, even if the US is no longer the leader of the pack. Whether or not we can spare the resources in the long run is another matter. In a way, Reynolds deals with both these matters in his Hugo-nominated novella Troika.
In the near future the USSR has made a comeback. It is once again one of the leading nations in space exploration and when a mysterious alien object appears in the solar system, it is one of the few nations capable of investigating it. The structure of the object and the way it suddenly appeared in the solar system baffle the scientific community. When probes have discovered everything they can, there is only one way left to find out more. Go out and have a look. Three Cosmonauts are sent out on a long mission to explore the object. A mission that will face its share of problems.
There are two main story lines in this novella. The first introduces us to a man recently escaped from an institution for the mentally unstable, which in this second USSR includes people who say things the government would rather not hear. He is on his way to the nearest city where he hopes to find a disgraced astronomer. This story line is a classic example of an unreliable narrator, carefully designed to make you doubt whether or not he has lost his mind.
The significance of what this man tries to achieve is mostly worked into the second story line. This one takes us back a number of years to the manned mission to the alien object. This part of the story, Reynolds approaches as classic of the science fiction genre, a Big Dumb Object story. I use approaches here, because unlike classics like Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, we do eventually find out the purpose of the object's visit to the solar system and its message is alarming.
There is a tremendous sense of loss and missed opportunities in this novella. Especially in the story line dealing with the escaped patient, it appears to be completely irrelevant whether or not his mission succeeds. He knows nobody is interested in his message. He is mostly doing it for his own piece of mind. It's not surprising he doesn't like Prokofiev's Troika playing on the radio. Too much of an upbeat composition. Prokoofiev's music and the plot of this novella contrast in interesting ways.
The more cynical reader will probably consider this novella a bit of propaganda for space programs in general, and manned space flights in particular. It's warning us that turning our backs to space, despite the economics of its exploration, is a serious mistake. As the Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky once put it: "The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever." Whatever your opinion of the matter, it won't settle the question whether or not space exploration is worth the billions invested in it, especially since there is plenty of work still to be done on Earth.
Troika certainly provides food for thought along those lines and it does so in style. This novella is carefully crafted and works to an interesting twist in the plot at the end of the story. It's well-written and most certainly well-timed piece of writing. It's a novella that celebrates sense of wonder science fiction but also wonders if that drive to explore, through science as well as fiction, has perhaps passed. For me, Troika worked very well, both as a warning and a piece of literature. It faces some stiff competition for the Hugo but I think it would make a fine winner.
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Publisher: Subterranean Press
First published: 2011