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(aka Trouble on Triton)

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

Even when it has been years (or decades) since I read a book, there is usually at least one character or scene (or one idea) that I will remember. I'm not sure how long I've had the paperback of Triton, but there was little about it that sparked a memory, so it is possible this was my first reading. Maybe I had it confused with the later novel, Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, which I know I have read (and with which it shares a few themes). Triton has few similarities to Delany's previous novel, Dhalgren, which seemed to be his attempt to merge science fiction with the literary novel, and it was full of allegory and symbolism. It took me a while to get through this one, mainly because it doesn't have a central focus, and at times I got the impression Delany didn't know exactly what he was trying to do with it (or did he?).

UPDATE: Now that I've re-read and reviewed Stars I realize that I had read Triton before, it's just that I had confused certain scenes and/or characters between the two.

At one point you might think it is going to be about a confused man in a complicated (but very free and liberated) society on Neptune's largest moon, then later it seems to be a love story (unrequited though that love might be). For a very brief time it delves into political intrigue and planetary war (even if we only witness a few results of that war, not any major event). Some segments deal with discussions of political and social import, with some detailed explanations of genetics and psychology. Lastly, we get back to that confused man, out of place (maybe out of his time), who becomes convinced that what his life needs is a major change of perspective. It all sort of rambles around seeking a connecting theme (which it may have accomplished, and I'll attempt an explanation). And spite of all that (which many would consider negatives), it presents so many interesting ideas and concepts that it turns out to be a book that has as much meaning for us today as when it was written.

I'll stop with the parenthetical phrases (maybe), but that was just mimicking the way the book is written. The main character is Bron Helstrom, a metalogician working for the "hegemony." That word was never capitalized, so I'm not sure what was implied; was it part of the government? That doesn't seem likely, since it is stated that there are scores of political parties, and each and every candidate of each party actually serves in some capacity, but only controlling the lives of those who voted for them. Helstrom lives in Tethys, largest city on Triton, the society of which is described in egalitarian terms. One can work at whatever job they wish, as long as they can find someone to hire them, or they can occasionally live off the dole, which is democratically dispensed with the least amount of bureaucracy possible. Artists are just as highly regarded as artisans, poets as much as politicians, and street-sweepers as much as soldiers. There is a bit of a hierarchy in social and financial terms, but no one seems to be jealous or resentful of those who have more than them. Even though rumors are rife of an impending war between the Outer Satellites and the Inner Worlds (Earth, Luna, Mars), the majority of the population doesn't want to think about it, they only want to pursue their own interests.

Perhaps the best example of the freedom of this society is in the realm of sexuality, and this is where the novel speaks to many current events and concerns. There are no graphic sex scenes here as there were in Dhalgren, but almost everything else is discussed. While marriage itself is almost unheard of, whether straight or gay, people are free to form any union they like, and to live a lifestyle true to their nature; straight, gay, bi, or neutral. Sex change operations are common, and even sexual orientation can be changed through various medical and/or therapeutical methods. At all levels of society, even at work, it's clothing optional. Whatever floats your boat as the saying goes. There are communes of like-minded souls, as well as co-op living quarters of various kinds; co-ed, exclusively hetero-males or hetero-females, or gay males or females. No one is supposed to feel pressured to do anything they don't want to, and yet Bron Helstrom doesn't seem to fit in anywhere. He was born on Mars, and at one time in his youth he had been a prostitute, and he prides himself on his sexual prowess. However, he cannot seem to connect with anyone on an emotional level, but he thinks that situation might change when he meets a street performer known as the Spike, renowned for her spontaneous micro-theatrical productions. Trouble is, he's wrong.

Remember, Helstrom's work is in metalogic, which is defined as "the logical analysis of the fundamental concepts of logic." Sounds sort of like a dog chasing his own tail. Bron over-analyzes everything, from his own thought processes to his conversations and confrontations with everyone he meets. However, he has no skill at reading other people, while most everyone else has no problem reading him. He hasn't had a lasting "sexualizationship" since his arrival on Triton nearly fifteen years earlier. He may have a few friends, but the impression is that it may be more out of pity for him than anything else. The Spike likes him initially, mainly because of his enthusiastic and emotional response to one of her troupe's performances, and they do engage in a couple of sexual dalliances, but he drives her away with constant pleas for more intimacy. He is convinced he is in love with her, but when she rejects him he is so devastated the only thing he can think to do is to become a woman with a sexual orientation toward men. After the operation they have another chance encounter, and she (I mean Bron here) once again professes her love for the Spike and says she will even reverse her orientation back towards women if she will only agree to be with her again. Of course, that doesn't work either, and the final chapter has Bron despondent about what the future holds for her. Can she find love, or just companionship, with anyone, woman or man? Should she revert back to being a man? The book never resolves that issue, so I guess each reader has to decide for themselves which way it should go.

The Spike talks a lot about her work, how she designs and choreographs her productions. She also names several of her influences, including, among others, María Irene Fornés, a Cuban-born avant-garde playwright and director, and American poet/composer/playwright Jackson Mac Low, whom wikipedia describes as "a practitioner of systematic chance operations and other non-intentional compositional methods." Contrast this with Helstrom's rigidly complex way of viewing life, it's no wonder they would never have made a viable couple. It seems to me that Delany structured the novel to reflect these two opposing world views, with all scenes featuring the Spike to be wild, free and unpredictable, while most of those with Helstrom on his own being relentlessly analytical, dry and boring. He doesn't think of himself as a misogynist, and yet in almost all of his actions he makes it clear he feels men are superior and more important. So why does he later change gender? I'm sure even she doesn't know the answer to that.

In the current debates concerning the rights of LGBT people, it is difficult for those of us that do not belong to any of those categories to be seen as sympathetic to their plight. How can we understand their dilemma since we have not lived it? In much the same way, Delany's ideas about gender identity might not be embraced by women, and yet he makes what I think are some excellent points. I am a straight, white male, and Delany is a gay, maybe bi, black male. What would either of us know about what it is like to be a woman? Yet here is something one of Bron's aquaintances (an older gay man) says about it:

"The difference [between men and women] is simply that women have really only been treated by society as
human beings for—oh, say sixty-five years; and then only on the moons; whereas men have had the luxury
of such treatment for the last four thousand. The result of this historical anomaly is simply that women are
just a little less willing to put up with certain kinds of shit than men—simply because the concept of a
certain kind of shit-free universe is, in the female 'collective unconscious,' too new and too precious."

Both the original publication of Triton, and the current one with the title Trouble on Triton, are subtitled "An Ambiguous Heterotopia." Delany is on record as saying it was his response to Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed, which is subtitled "An Ambiguous Utopia." Generally speaking, a utopia is a society where everything is good and in balance, as opposed to a dystopia, where everything is wrong and out of balance. A heterotopia is a place where everything is different. In the case of this novel, that difference is mainly in societal mores, in the way that government and citizen co-exist, in how each individual is (at least theoretically) the master of his own fate. In much the same way as utopia is sometimes defined, we can assume that there is also "no place" we might find a heterotopia. Currently, that is. It might change in the future, but in order for that to happen we all need to strive for a shit-free universe.


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Samuel R. Delany


Nebula nominee

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