Samuel R. Delany Jr. has been publishing science fiction since 1962, with the novel The Jewels of Aptor, which can be read as either post-apocalyptic SF or as a quest fantasy. The complexity and range of his work consistently expanded until it reached an apparent apotheosis in the 1974 novel Dhalgren, a massive work that supports comparisons to Joyce, Pynchon, and Gaddis.
The novel immediately following Dhalgren, while strikingly different, is a similarly impressive advance over previous examples of a given format and exhibits no retreat from the ambitious expansion of possibility which has characterized each entry of Delany’s œuvre.
In an essay, Delany writes: “I feel the science-fictional enterprise is richer than the enterprise of mundane fiction. It is richer through its extended repertoire of sentences, its consequent greater range of possible incident, and through its more varied field of rhetorical and syntagmatic organization.” from the Triton Journal.
In the recently released volume one of his journals, we find this series of observations:
“Mainstream fiction today is onanistic and defeatist. SF is the literature that posits man is changing. Mainstream is the literature that posits he cannot change. Science fiction is the only heroic fiction left today; it’s the only fiction today that admits there is a solution to its problems. Mainstream fiction is like looking in a mirror; SF is like looking through a door. SF has liberated the content of fiction the way Proust and Joyce liberated language.”
This last was written in the early Sixties and reflects the state of the art at that time. And yet, when observing contemporary fiction, clearly something of a reaction to the state of the art at that time has manifested in the growing use of science fiction in what we call mainstream literature—indeed, how much outright SF is now being published as mainstream.
When considering the advent of a novel like Trouble On Triton (published originally as simply Triton as one of Frederik Pohl’s selections at Bantam Books) when it came out in 1976, the above observations cast a revealing light on what Delany was doing and gives us an idea of how radical it was to both mainstream readers and science fiction readers.Because the novel is an exercise is parried expectations.
What I mean by that is, upon first encountering the novel it would appear to be a story about a future war waged between Earth and the outer settlements of the solar system, specifically artificial habitats both free in space or in enclosed environments on th many moons of the gas giants. We are in a future that has seen widespread expansion of human presence throughout the solar system. Tensions are mounting and diplomacy is failing. War would appear to be inevitable.
What we find instead is a story told from inside the head of Bron Helstrom, an inhabitant of a sprawling city on Triton, the moon of Neptune, who is from the start almost wholly absorbed in his own status as “a reasonably happy man” trying to find his way in the vibrantly polymorphous society in which he has chosen to live. The narrative is carried by the minutiae of Bron’s problems, ambitions, insecurities, and attempts at codification that are at turns compellingly familiar, frustrating, thoroughly alien, and ultimately revealing of the problems of boundaries in a milieu that seems to offer almost none to any behavior. By the time we realize that it is Bron’s perceptions and what amounts to his petty concerns that comprise the main focus of the narrative, we’re caught within the web of a new social structure based on technological and cultural assumptions continually in a state of flux. It is that state of flux—the continual calling-into-question of assumptions based on common experience—that is the principle æsthetic aim of the novel. It is, in essence, about finding our way in one of the possible futures toward which we may be heading.
Which is nothing new in science fiction. Utopias abound. In fact, the subtitle of Delany’s novel addresses exactly that body of work: An Ambiguous Heterotopia.
Delany was in dialogue with another novel, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, An Ambiguous Utopia In that work, the limits of the presumptive utopian enterprise are examined with reference to the impact on the individual who may not fit well with programmatic solutions. Delany turned this inside out by giving us an examination of the impact on an individual of an almost complete absence of such solutions who may well need them in order to have any reliable sense of self.
“Heterotopia” is a term from Foucault, meaning essentially “Other Place” or “Place Of Differences”—as opposed to Utopia, which basically means No Place. The society in which Bron bounces from one thing to another in search of a state of being is very much a place of differences. In many ways, it is a libertarian paradise. “What should I do?” is at every turn answered with “What do you want to do?”
Which is a problem for Bron, who, as the novel develops, needs the structure of expectations, boundaries, an accepted standard imposed. From the first two sentences the potential problem is revealed. “He had been living at the men’s co-op (Serpent’s House) six months now. This one had been working out well.”
Delany has written critically of how the nature of a science fictional sentence is distinct in its intent and impact from a “normal” sentence. For instance, he uses the sentence from Heinlein’s Beyond This Horizon—“The door dilated”—as an example of how such sentences pry apart expectations and illuminate far more than the action described. That in those three words the implications of what the entire world beyond that door may be like. The more you examine it the more you realize you are not in literary Kansas anymore. Similarly, his opening image in Trouble On Triton serves multiple purposes., some of them very science-fictional. Men’s co-op suggests a social structure at odds with our present set of givens. The follow-up sentence tell us there are others like it because he had been living in this one for six months and it was “working out well,” which says he’s been in others and they didn’t. “Serpent’s House” flags the unreliability of the situation—serpents are traditionally linked with deception—but also with the possible mythic foundations of what may follow. But on a personal level, it signals at once that Bron is looking for something that, in fact, “works well” and he has moved—possibly many times—in order to find it. As events unfold, we learn how very true these initial surmises are.
And yet the two sentences seem otherwise innocuous. Introductory furniture.
We learn that Bron is an immigrant. He was born on Mars and lived there into adulthood. He was employed as a male prostitute, a career he has exchanged for the more esoteric one of metalogician. Metalogic is a discipline of solution-finding, problem-solving, anticipatory management. Bron’s coworkers think he is very good at it, which becomes an interesting point along the way because he personally would seem unsuited to such a disciplined “seat of the pants” approach to life.
It would be a simpler reading to see Bron as a mediocre man trying to find satisfaction in a society of high-achieving, multi-expressive near-geniuses, but in truth Bron is in many ways not medicore. But he constantly compares himself to others and not in a healthy competitive way. His obsession with people as “types” and the ongoing discourse throughout the book about how people fall into them shows a desperate need to know where he stands in a society that seems thoroughly uninterested in that kind of question.
Bron is walled off in a continual diagnostic loop that never resolves. He moves from place to place, changes externalities all the time, and always comes back to the same ground state of dissatisfaction. Which actually makes him ideal for his chosen profession even though he is incapable of internalizing its benefits.
He meets The Spike, a writer/actor who produces microtheater, seeming spontaneous (though highly choreographed) mini-events. Bron is drawn into one, becomes enthralled by her, and pursues her for the length of the novel as if she is somehow a solution to his personal dilemmas.
During this, war does break out with Earth. There is a battle which catches everyone on Triton by surprise—the artificial gravity is cut for a fraction of a second—and in the chaos following Bron briefly emerges from his cocoon. He joins, more or less as a tourist, a diplomatic mission to Earth. While there he is arrested and tortured and, when the authorities realize that he doesn’t actually know anything, is tossed back to his group, a few of whom have died under similar circumstances. On returning to Triton, the war ramps up and—
Bron becomes even more obsessed with “solving” himself.
What makes this novel fascinating as science fiction is the play of environment and psychology that depicts a potentially unique approach to self-analysis and the problem of personal acculturation. Bron applies techniques of analyses that are certainly based in neurotic self-sabotage, but he is also attempting to recast himself constantly in a new image. He is not trapped within the limits of his society but trapped by its apparent limitlessness. There are no walls against which he is beating to escape. It is that there are, in essence, no walls and he wants there to be. But he doesn’t seem to have even the language in this future place to define what it is he seeks.
We have here what so many critics of SF have long argued that the form cannot support—a deeply nuanced character study of the psychology of alienation in a society wherein the standards for belonging are so loosely defined that the nature of such alienation itself constitutes a pathological conundrum.
Along the way, Delany gives as a master class on malleability, which is one of the chief pleasures of science fiction.
The world, the politics, the analyses of economics and the scientific bases of the technologies, all are laid in with a masterful skill. This is a Different Place. That, too, is one of the chief pleasures of the form.
Bron is a prismatic character. It might seem odd and perverse to pick such a flawed and emotionally dysfunctional lens through which to examine this world, but what better way to truly look at something than by way of someone who is out of harmony with it all and even lacks sympathy with its putative benefits.
Trouble On Triton (and I believe is was shortened to Triton on original publication to avoid confusion with the earlier novel by Alan E.Nourse, Trouble On Titan—SF was a much smaller world then) is both strikingly different than its predecessor, Dhalgren, but within its scope is every bit as challenging. The Wesleyen Press edition includes an essay by Kathy Acker who makes the case for this novel being another in Delany’s riffs on the myth of Orpheus. I have a different read on that. If there is a mythic character underlying this, I believe it is Hephaestus. He was often an outsider, his own group threw him out a time or two, and he was a metalurgist, someone all about the malleability of form.