Mon
Aug 2 2010 2:09pm

I am a Reasonably Happy Man: The Trouble with Trouble on Triton

After the last post on Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, it made sense to me to read through Samuel Delany’s Trouble on Triton in my best of utopian sci-fi experiment. (An experiment that is taking a lot longer than I expected). The Nebula award nominated 1976 novel Trouble on Triton is a very deliberate response to the The Dispossessed—announced on the title page by their warring subtitles: “An Ambiguous Heterotopia” and “An Ambiguous Utopia” respectively.

Samuel Delany takes the concept of the heterotopia from French philosopher Michel Foucault’s book The Order of Things (although there was a posthumously published lecture “Of Other Spaces” later). Foucault writes, “Utopias afford consolation: although they have no real locality there is nevertheless a fantastic, untroubled region in which they are able to unfold… Heterotopias are disturbing, probably because they make it impossible to name this and that, because they shatter or tangle common names.” Later—in “Of Other Spaces”—Foucault writes, “brothels and colonies are two extreme forms of heterotopia…and…the ship is the heterotopia par excellence.”

The linking of these two ideas is obviously important for Delany. I actually came to Delany through his excellent Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, which is a reflection on late 1970s and early ’80s Times Square porn theaters as a cruising ground for gay men. This is exactly the kind of space Foucault is talking about when he discusses heterotopias. And I take it this is what Delany has in mind as well.

So what do we get in The Trouble on Triton? We get Bron Helstrom! Ex-male prostitute (mostly for women), who is so cocksure in fundamentally all he says and does that he finds himself completely unable to fit into a world where everything, theoretically, should be provided for him. Though the book begins with Bron declaring: “I am a reasonably happy man,” his happiness lasts only until the tragic love interest The Spike shatters it ten pages in.

A famous director and actor in small theater pieces aimed at breaking through routine, banality, and the everyday, The Spike is initially interested in how her theater practically renders Bron inarticulate, prone, and suddenly (although only momentarily) open to new sensations, desires, and ideas. (My guess it this is because of the melodious guitar playing of one Charo). This passes soon (SPOILER ALERT) because he’s a total toolbox. On their second or third date he takes a walk with her because he wants to learn something about The Spike, but can only prattle tirelessly on about himself and his shame and discomfort in the world.

When The Spike (who Bron calls Spike throughout the text, even though her name is clearly something else) breaks it off with him through intergalactic letter (more or less brutal than text?), he howls into the desert about how she’s crazy while staring at a list of grievances that I, too, had written down about his general character. What I’m trying to say is that Delany walks a difficult line where Bron is so unlikable that I am unsure whether or not we are supposed to feel like we are learning or horrified by his mistakes. I find myself judging books based on how often I slap my forehead with my hand and mutter things like “aww come on.”

She could have saved a lot of intergalactic postage and just written: Dear Bron, you’re a twit. THE Spike.

Part of the central thrust of Delany’s argument is that even if all types exist and have been provided spaces to flourish, you may not find your type; instead, you might find yourself wandering pitiably alone cursing the injustice of a world that never promised justice. And in that way the book is quite good. We have to wonder about the people who fall through the cracks of utopian desire. In totally different language: you always want to figure out who is picking up the garbage. Talking about the end of the novel is such a huge spoiler that I’m not going to even start, but suffice it to say getting a boob job doesn’t always lead to fitting in.

What’s the one thing that Samuel Delany’s got that Ursula Le Guin doesn’t? A great big bushy beard!


Sean Grattan wishes he could grow a huge beard... Even in this brutal summer heat.

7 comments
Tony Zbaraschuk
1. tonyz
I have to say that this review gives me a strong desire to avoid this book entirely.
Stef Maruch
2. firecat
The problem with this review is that it only discusses a couple of minor characters. The main character is the heterotopia itself.
p l
3. p-l
This is a great book, and it's really one that should be recommended enthusiastically to all - excuse my bluntness - conformist douchebags. It's about a society where there really is no mainstream culture. A fine place for people who don't really "fit in" - because no one does, and "fitting in" is not even a sensible concept there - and a terribly corrosive place for people like Bron who would probably do just fine if only they could identify the mainstream and excel in it.

The famous twist in the book is indeed wonderful, and I'm glad you didn't spoil it. I've always wondered what it would be like to read Triton without foreknowledge of that...

Anyway, if this book has one major flaw, it's the ridiculously pretentious foreword by Kathy Acker included in the latest addition. Do yourself a favor and get a $1 copy of the old paperback.
Sean Grattan
4. SeanGrattan
@ 3. I think that I agree with you, but Bron's problem in the book is that he basically wants to recreate 1950's gender roles. So in this situation he's the "conformist douchebag." I guess the problem here is that the heterotopia gives Delany the chance to create a socioeconomic climate that's pretty great, but rather than give us the tour via any exciting "non-conformist douchebags" he writes a character as absurdly traditional and essentialist as Bron. Thus in order to take the book seriously at all (which i do) you have to read Bron as a fatal (often hilarious) failure and a throwback. And i think this is the sticking point: you either find this throwback and the dissonance around his inability to find a world where he can just be "average" (average here carrying a very specific socioeconomic valence) interesting, or you don't.

I think it is a sign of Delany's great skill that he can write characters that are utterly abhorrent and yet you feel for them (i'm thinking of Hogg here), but for me Bron just isn't one of them.
Eugene R.
5. Eugene R.
In a discussion of Trouble on Triton, Delany talks of Bron as a "case study". As opposed to a character with whom the reader identifies, Bron is meant to get the reader to question the value of the heterotopia until the realization occurs that the narrator is unreliable, which is further nuanced in the second appendix with the idea that other Martians have attitudes similar to Bron's, introducing a political angle into the debate. See http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/interviews/delany52interview.htm

On the whole, I am most impressed by the critique of heroism in the book, where Bron's actions and celebrations of the typical "action hero" are turned back on him as examples of a social neurosis, akin to pyromania among firefighters who need to provoke the very crisis against which they are meant to guard us.
René Walling
6. cybernetic_nomad
MIght I suggest people also look at Jo Walton's review of Triton (it's the original title the book was published under)
Eugene R.
7. Foxessa
I much miss science fiction written for adults these days. Triton was adult sf, and I liked it very much.

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