The Troika by Stepan Chapman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I say this book saved me; some will claim it condemned me.
After a promising start as a young reader of fantasy and science fiction (and, yes, I admit it, a lot of Hardy Boys and comic books), I temporarily lost my way in the maze of teenage-hood and young adulthood. From the age of about 15 to 26, I hardly read anything that wasn't an academic textbook. There were exceptions, but they were rare. Still, this didn't stop me from browsing bookstores and libraries, on the off chance that an opening of time (ie, between semesters when I wasn't working on a senior thesis or Master's thesis) would coincide with an irresistible book.
Such an happy occurrence came my way in 1998, when I stumbled on Stepan Chapman's The Troika at our local Borders. Though it was a chain book store, the local staff, being Madisonians, were very good about finding more obscure titles. By this time, The Troika had won the coveted Philip K. Dick Award (for which I was once a finalist, but, alas, not a winner), so it was not wallowing in ignominy. Still, it was a small press book so it had not garnered a lot of attention outside of those who follow speculative fiction awards. And I was not one of those people at that time.
One of the employees, apparently, did follow the awards. This intrepid indie had done up a little review on a card and put it in front of the book, explaining (and I paraphrase) that the main characters of this work were a brontosaurus, a jeep, and an old Mexican woman who wander in a strange landscape lit by purple suns, exchanging minds whenever a sandstorm blows in. Add to that an assassin angel and a music box that contains the world and . . . well, need I say more?
I was thunderstruck. I read the book and was completely blown away. In hindsight, there are a couple of difficulties with the story, but no deal-breakers. Could it have been a bit more coherent? Of course, but take a look at the Dramatis Personae - how much coherence can you expect?
The Troika is a surreal romp. Not for those seeking a pastoral landscape with milquetoast characters. However, if you've got an existential streak, love language, and are looking for something at the nexus of science fiction, surrealism, high literature, and an acid trip, this is it. The first time I read it, I kept asking myself the question "You can do that"? I had no idea that something so bizarre could be so compelling and well-written.
So a spark was set off inside my head and heart. I thought, "heck, if Chapman can write something that strange, I can get some of the stuff in my head out onto paper"! And I did. This book was the trigger on the starting gun of my writing career. Hence, my statement at the beginning. I was saved in that a new window opened up in my life. Condemned, possibly, to become addicted to writing.
Since that fateful night when I picked up the book, I have developed a friendship with Stepan and have published a couple of his stories in anthologies I've edited. He continues to produce strange tales of wild imagination, as well as doing some cartooning (more on that in an upcoming review or two). I owe Stepan and The Troika much credit for having opened up the writer in me and introducing me to a very important part of my life. Thanks, Stepan. Here's to you, The Troika, and the happy accident that brought us together.
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