Triton: The Trouble with Triton; its main character, for starters

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsTriton by Samuel R. DelanyTriton by Samuel R. Delany

Samuel R. Delaney wrote Triton in 1974, but it was published in 1976, after his best-seller Dhalgren. Delany’s subtitle for this book was “An Amorphous Heterotopia,” and he stated at the time that the book was inspired by (or a response to) Ursula LeGuin’s “ambiguous utopia” The Dispossessed. Oh, how I wish that I had re-read that book instead of picking up this one.

Delany is a brilliant observer of humanity. I like what I have read of his memoirs and essays. I enjoyed The Fall of the Towers and Neveryona. With Triton, I was just pulled in too many directions. It reads like 1970s vintage social commentary, which it is; it reads at times like satire, which it also is; it reads like imperfectly processed psychodrama in which at least two characters (gay game-playing Lawrence and “big, black and lazy” Sam) are stand-ins for aspects of Delany himself. The book is 330 pages long. It felt like twice that.

Triton’s main character is Bron Helstrom, who lives on Neptune’s moon in the domed city of Tethys. He has a job, but even people who don’t have jobs are supported on egalitarian Triton. Sexuality is open and changeable; nobody cares who you have sex with or what gender you choose to be. This seems to be true on most if not all of the moon colonies, but hidebound “worlds” like Mars and Earth are more uptight. As the book starts, the reader discovers that there is a war between Earth and some of the moon colonies, but that Triton is neutral, at least for now. Bron has chosen to live in a same-gender, but not gay commune, and he continually fends off advances from Lawrence, his friend, who is in his seventies and a homosexual, and tries to get over his jealousy of Sam, the handsome, muscular black man who also lives in the commune. Sam works for the Triton government.

Bron encounters a performance artist who calls herself the Spike in the Unlicensed Sector of Tethys. The Spike and her troupe perform “micro-theater” for “unique audiences”; in Bron’s case an audience of one. Bron is smitten with the Spike. Soon she leaves Triton. Sam takes Bron on a trip to Earth when Bron is on a temporary layoff because of “the war.” Things go badly on Earth for Bron. He is detained and roughed up by Earth security; he meets the Spike again and she breaks up with him. And… oh, yes, Earth kills several of the people in Sam’s party, and declares war on Triton.

The war lasts about half a day. The colonies win, killing at least twenty percent of the human population of Earth. Bron’s feelings are hurt by the Spike’s break-up letter, so he has a sex-change and becomes a woman, but he still isn’t happy.

Life is hard when you’re Bron.

For the most part, the social satire part of this book works. Bron obsesses over what to wear (or not wear, as nudity is an option); people are more concerned about their own lives and dramas than about the war. Everybody is reduced to a “type.” (Bron tells Lawrence that he likes to do things that people don’t expect him to do, and Lawrence says, “That’s a type.”) Bron’s inability to be happy is certainly written convincingly here. It’s just that he is such an unpleasant, uncaring person that I didn’t care. Honestly, there are probably black holes that are more giving and open than Bron. His habit of mentally rewriting history when he thinks back on an incident, particularly if his feelings are hurt, is accurate… but we see this over and over. Bron changes, but he does not grow. This is part of Delany’s point, but it damages the book.

Delany’s vaguely conceived future society did not work for me. Delany plays with gender role reversals and language; cops on Triton are called “e-girls” regardless of gender, but these changes are barely skin deep, and Delany never explains how they came about. Triton is kind of socialist. No one goes without food or shelter, and there are no taxes; you only pay for the services you use. How does that work? It’s a colony, what does it produce? If Earth is conquered, where will the moon colonies sell their goods (if they have any?) How does Triton make its artificial food? Do they import things? Export things? What? What caused the war? What’s at stake in the war? These are never explained.

Theoretically, sex is post-Puritan and anything goes. Medical advances make changing gender, body-type, or skin color easy. Bron was a prostitute for a period of time when he lived on Mars. From the number of men he meets in the course of the story who were also prostitutes, this is apparently about as common as being a barista is now. Why, then, does Bron yammer on about it constantly? And a hundred-fifty years in the future, when we’ve all shed our hang-ups and become so free and open, why are words like “faggot,” “hustler” and the “N-word” still in use as pejoratives?

Delany also chooses a didactic style in which characters lecture each other instead of talk to each other, distancing the reader even further. Again, this is intentional, and Delany is clearly spoofing some of the academics he knew at the time, but it does not work in service to the story. Two passages — the disturbing scene where Bron is taken away by Earth security forces, imprisoned and tortured; and an attack on the city of Tethys — suddenly drop into immediate, concrete words, before the prose floats away again to become showy and cerebral rather than authentic.

There is yet another way to look at Triton, and that’s psychologically. Delany does not have control of his story here. Throughout the book, Bron tells people, “It’s hard to get what you want when you don’t know what you want.” It’s tempting, and equally viable, to see the Spike, the woman Bron both connects with, and can’t connect with, as the gay Delany’s female soul-mate and wife; Lawrence and Sam as magical aspects of himself who conspire to humble the blond, classically handsome “perfect man” Bron, forcing him to acknowledge his real desires and confront his self-loathing. Bron can also be seen as a character common in gay literature, a “type,” so to speak: the straight man who is flattered by the attentions of the gay man even though he continually rejects him. How tempting it is to see a later passage in the book, when Bron, in female form, is sexually rejected by Sam, as a moment of personal revenge for Delany.

Basically, there is a reason why The Dispossessed is still being read in high schools and colleges, and this book isn’t. Delany was ringing all the 1970s bells here. His desire to say something about being the outsider, about not knowing what you want, about feminism, about internalized hatred and homophobia, about governments, and about war, got in the way of him telling a story. It’s hard to say what you want, when you don’t know what you want to say.

Publisher: In a story as exciting as any science fiction adventure written, Samuel R. Delany’s 1976 SF novel, originally published as Triton, takes us on a tour of a utopian society at war with our own Earth. High wit in this future comedy of manners allows Delany to question gender roles and sexual expectations at a level that, 20 years after it was written, still make it a coruscating portrait of “the happily reasonable man,” Bron Helstrom — an immigrant to the embattled world of Triton, whose troubles become more and more complex, till there is nothing left for him to do but become a woman. Against a background of high adventure, this minuet of a novel dances from the farthest limits of the solar system to Earth’s own Outer Mongolia. Alternately funny and moving, it is a wide-ranging tale in which character after character turns out not to be what he — or she — seems.Questions gender roles and sexual expectations in the story of Bron, a recent immigrant to the utopian society on the planet Triton, who becomes a woman to escape the pressures in his life.

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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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