Aug 17 2008 10:07am

Heterotopian Choices: Samuel R. Delany’s Triton

Triton (1976), or Trouble on Triton, was written as a direct response to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1975). The Dispossessed has the subtitle “An Ambiguous Utopia” and Triton answers with the subtitle “An Ambiguous Heterotopia.” In Delany’s long essay on The Dispossessed (“To Read The Dispossessed” in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw) he takes issue with all the problems he sees with Le Guin’s novel, and it’s clear that he wrote Triton to show another angle on the possible.

Triton is a very unusual book. It blew my head off and re-arranged the contents when I read it at fourteen. All the same, despite this profound effect, I have to admit that I did not understand it.

Delany, just as much as Le Guin, knew the pitfalls of writing utopias. He decided to write about one through the point of view of a citizen who was unhappy with it, and who would have been perfectly content in our world. Bron Helstrom is a white heterosexual man (at least at the beginning of the book) who lives in a society on Neptune’s moon Triton where everything is possible. Nobody is refused basic credit (food, rent, transportation, education, medical), you can get more by working, there are aptitude tests that will find you relatively congenial work, and whoever you are you can find a place to belong. Most people live in communes or co-ops. Sexual preferences are regarded as quirks for appropriate matching. And yet Bron is miserable because the people who love him are not the people he wants to love him.

It's worth stopping to consider what an achievement it is to write an SF book so entirely focused on the personal. Lois McMaster Bujold's recent Worldcon GoH speech mentions SF as the genre of political agency, and however you feel about that, SF is usually pretty externally focused. Stories about small-scale events and emotions often get pulled towards the epic despite themselves. (Tehanu...At Amberleaf’s actually quite hard to think of genre stories where worlds are not shaken.) This is a “personal is political” novel. Triton contains a war between Earth and the moons, but that’s just scenery like the exploding spaceship on the cover of my old British edition. What’s important is Bron’s social engagement in this multi-faceted, scintillating future.

Bron’s world (moon), the city of Tethys on the moon Triton, is drawn with the depth of a real city. There’s microtheater; there’s the unlicensed zone; there are weird religious cults like the Mumblers lowbrow entertainment like the ice operas; there are games, like Vlet; there’s a whole, fully-realized way of living and making choices. There are booths on street corners where you can watch five random minutes of government surveillance on yourself. There are bars where standing on one side means you want to be approached and on the other that you want to be approached. It feels like a real place, a real city on a moon of Neptune. It feels like somewhere you could visit or move to. Bron is himself an immigrant from Mars.

Bron is (as I totally missed for several readings) a profoundly unreliable narrator. He lies to himself. He rationalizes his actions and emotions. He doesn’t know what he wants. At one point, one of the other characters outright tells him that he has defined his problem as insoluble and is therefore rejecting possible solutions. He’s bumbling his way through his wonderful complex world making himself miserable.

Delany is a black gay American writer with experience in the gay and left-leaning hippie communities. In the sixties and seventies he could not write openly and directly about his experiences, he had to disguise it as SF. Arthur Hlavaty has pointed out that now he can write what he wants it’s still interesting but not as brilliant. It was the translation to other planets and other angles that made it so fascinating. I’m interested to read about the sexual byways of New York, if Delany’s writing about them, but I found it much more interesting when he was writing about them transformed to other planets. (In Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand there are undercover semi-illegal bars where sexual deviants who like very tall or very short partners go to meet up. This isn’t exactly disguise, but it’s an interesting way to think about how we divide the world. I already know about homosexuality. Though I admit I didn’t the first time I read Triton.)

In The Dispossessed, Delany found a heteronormative utopia with a token unhappy gay minor character. He also found a loveable genius protagonist who moves through the worlds with his hands open, an ascetic anarchist-collectivist society, and opposed to it a sexist capitalist greed-based society. In his essay, Delany questions the gender-neutrality of Anarres as well as its heteronormativity. It seems to me that in Triton he opposed all of this in the best possible way, not by argument but by demonstration. He held up the genuinely urban to the pastoral, the unpleasant to the pleasant, the closed to the open, and showed a very different kind of anarchism. He also showed a world where people in all positions really could be any gender at random, and he did show it as well as tell us about it. It’s all very well to say “men and women are equal” but when everyone in a position of power in the story is a man, and the female examples look like tokens, the text is contradicting itself. (It was 1975, and preconceptions are very hard to give up.)

Though I’ve re-read Triton quite often, it is more than anything coloured by the way I first read it. It I were to come across it for the first time now I have no idea what I’d think of it. I wouldn’t be the person I am if I hadn’t read it when I did. I think I’d still love the incomparable Delany prose:

But she grasped his hand! He thought of it with the exclamation. And thought, too, That's the first thing that’s happened today that deserves one! And that thought (he thought) was the second...!—which began an infinite regress of pleasure, only interrupted as she took his wrist now and pulled him around a corner. In the small square, a refuse can blazed, flaking light over the dark-haired girl’s guitar; she turned, strumming slowly. The music (the acrobat preceding them did a final flip and, staggering and laughing, stood) quickened.

--which people tend to either love or hate. I’d still like the city-texture of Tethys and the wonderful way the exotic is familiar and the familiar exotic. I’d admire how much the book manages to be a story of being and not of becoming. I wouldn’t be astonished by the sex-change the way I was, or knocked over by the attitude to sex and sexuality. For a book that was so much an idea book, political and interpersonal, it’s interesting to note that when I re-read it now it’s to get drunk on the words and to revel in the detail.

JS Bangs
1. jaspax
I never knew that Delany was black or gay until this article. Huh.
Lenny Bailes
2. Lenny Bailes
Delany might arguably be given credit for predicting the development of the Internet in Triton (although he had people accessing "Google Maps" from those dedicated phone booth terminals, instead of using PCs or PDAs). I also think the footnotes on the outer planet "ice operas" in Triton may have influenced John Varley's construction of the "Nine Worlds" backdrop that appears in "Steel Beach," and "The Golden Globe."
Lenny Bailes
3. Neil in Chicago
Curiously, the companion short story to The Dispossessed, “The Day Before the Revolution”, is exactly what you say is so unusual in sf.  It’s one day in the life of an extraordinary woman.  While there’s a lot of excitement in the world around her, she simply goes through her day.
We the readers know that the events are epochal and about to become even moreso, but it’s our inference from the story, not the events and moods chronicled.  This contrast may even be said to be the “point” of the story.
tycho garen
4. tychoish
Arthur Hlavaty has pointed out that now he can write what he wants it’s still interesting but not as brilliant.

I think what makes Delany's early work so brilliant is that he was young (Babel-17/Empire Star was written, I think when he was like 25), unfettered, and able to write in this really manic way. I've read a lot of his autobiographies and some interviews he did with Robert Reid-Pharr, that indicate that he doesn't really have the chance/attention for since the mid/late eighties.

And anyway, Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand is (next on my reading pile) but I hear it's pretty brilliant and it was written in the mid eighties or so, so I think the correlation between being able to write about being gay and the lack of brilliance strikes me as absurdly false.

But yeah, I like Delany' work... a lot.
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
Tychoish: I don't know that it's that. But all of his recent books (which I have read) have been mainstream novels or non-fiction and featured a lot of stuff that couldn't have been written about earlier. Arthur's point is that the restriction imposed on him by it not being possible to write directly about these things but being able to write about them indirectly through SF led to a lot of terrific SF which just happened to be infused with things that SF hadn't been much infused with up to that point.
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
Neil: I think "The Day Before the Revolution" is one of the greatest stories of all time, but it's the tension the reader has from knowing what is happening while Odo goes through her day and thinks about her life that makes it so brilliant. I think it is a story that goes head on up against what is personal and what is political (the names!) but in the end the woman dies, the revolution goes on.
Beth Meacham
7. bam
Babel-17 was published when Delany was 24, but of course was written at least a year before publication.

The Jewels of Aptor was published when he was 20. Not perhaps as brilliant and memorable as Babel-17 and Empire Star, but it showed what was to come.

Chip was young and brilliant. He's still brilliant, but has grown deeper and more thoughtful about prose over the decades. I agree with Art that having to translate his experience and concerns into SF created some of that early powerful imagery.

I wish he'd write SF again.
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
I wish he'd write The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities, but I do understand why he can't.
Lenny Bailes
9. bobj
Even more interesting: the forward by Kathy Acker in the later editions...
Mitch Wagner
10. MitchWagner
Delany's aunts were Sadie and Bessie Delany, twin sisters who collaborated on three books, the first of which were published after they turned 100. So if Samuel was a prodigy, it balances out in the family.
Clifton Royston
11. CliftonR
If I may differ with you on a key point, Jo, I always felt that the nature of the central character is that he would be deeply unhappy in any society. In our society, he would simply be unhappy for a different range of reasons; I speculate that he might fervently blame "the system", "the feminists", or the latest popular target of blame for his unhappiness.

His core self-destructive trait is that he lies to himself constantly about a variety of small and large things (and hence necessarily lies to others.) He's also nearly blind to anybody else's perspective, perhaps even to the existence of viewpoints not centering on himself. He has enough narcissistic charm that he maintains friends despite this, at least for a while, but it's impossible for him to be happy for long. In the ambiguous utopia of Triton is vaguely hellish for him, because it's so much harder for him to convince himself that his society is to blame for his unhappiness.

Or so I read it...

(I think that implies a strong social/political message there, about the narcissism of privilege, but I don't want to derail the discussion of Delany with it.)
Jo Walton
12. bluejo
Clifton: But in our society he'd have privilege. And he wouldn't find it very difficult (perhaps more difficult now than in 1976 or 1950) to find the kind of woman who would be prepared for the kind of relationship he wants.

He'd still complain, here, but I think he'd be much happier on the points that are making him so miserable in his world. And the code of politeness he's using would be enough.

I've just had a horrible image of Bron as Julianne Moore's husband in the 1950s US bit of _The Hours_. Horrible!
Clifton Royston
13. CliftonR
You make good points. I'd need to re-read Triton again to contest or discuss them meaningfully. I think you're particularly on the mark about the time-frame of the '70s and earlier as compared to more recently.

Spoilerrific: Gurfr qnlf zra (zbfgyl) pbhyqa'g trg njnl jvgu vzzrqvngryl naq boivbhfyl gelvat gb frqhpr n wbo nccyvpnag be vagrea, naq gura svevat ure jura fur qvqa'g tb nybat. Va gur rneyl '70f, gurl cebonoyl pbhyq.

Perhaps we are continuing to make progress, however slow and painfully.
Nancy Lebovitz
15. NancyLebovitz
IIRC, Budrys' Hard Landing was small-scale naturalistic sf-- some aliens are shipwrecked on Earth. They manage as they can. You're right that such stories are rare.

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