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 Fair...it’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.