Sunday, March 11, 2018

Triton by Samuel R. Delany

"There was this man, you see, from some sect she called the Dumb Beasts--I mean, if there is such a sect.  But considering all that happened, how do you tell if any of it was real?  I don't know big their endowment was...and maybe the 'endowment' was part of the 'theater' too." 
Recently Joachim Boaz, Fred Kiesche, Winchell Chung and I had a conversation via twitter about the Mitchell Hooks cover of Samuel R. Delany's 1976 novel Triton.  Martin Wisse spoke up, urging me to read the novel tout suite.  I didn't have anything in particular planned after The Future Is Now, so I figured, why not? 

Triton appears to have been more successful than a lot of the books I talk about on this blog, going through many different printings and editions and being included in a Book-Of-The-Month Club omnibus edition called Radical Utopias along with Joanna Russ's The Female Man and Suzy McKee Charnas's Walk to the End of the World.  Joachim Boaz harbors doubts that I will like the novel, and it is true that I thought Delany's Nova and Empire Star were just OK, but the copy on the back cover of my edition, an eighth printing that does not include Frederick Pohl's name on the cover (Triton was a "Frederick Pohl Selection" and the first printing was labelled as such) but does include a reference to the 1979 Tales of Nevèrÿon, makes it sound awesome:

On the other hand I have an aversion to utopias and the novel's table of contents and other front matter, like a half-page epigraph from British anthropologist Mary Douglas's Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology, make we wonder if Triton isn't the kind of extravagant New Wave artifact that Terry Dixon so recently warned me about.  Well, let's just read Triton and see if it passes the MPorcius test (some, no doubt, will prefer to see this excursion as an inquiry into the possibility of MPorcius passing the Delany test.)

The first (brief at 24 pages) chapter of Triton introduces us to the city of Tethys, which lies on Neptune's largest moon, and the book's themes, which revolve around the fact that real knowledge is very difficult to come by--we can almost never really know anything for sure--and that communicating real knowledge is very difficult--defining and describing things accurately is practically impossible.  In this chapter Delany foregrounds various weird religious sects--some mendicants and others dangerously violent--and a troupe of bohemian performers who live off government endowments and present one-of-a-kind spectacles to more or less randomly chosen individuals they run into in Tethys's "unlicensed sector," a neighborhood where the law is not enforced.  The one-person audiences of these "micro-theater dramas" are drugged (surreptitiously, without their prior consent) to foster "better access to the aesthetic parameters" of the troupe.

Tethys is a place where things are not as they seem and communications cannot be trusted, and these two dozen pages are rife with examples of hidden knowledge revealed, deceptions, and garbled or meaningless communications.  The city is covered with a "sensory shield" that alters (prettifies) the appearance of space and Neptune from Triton's surface; artwork is torn down from a wall to reveal further, fragmented, layers of artwork and texts (Delany uses the word "palimpsests") that our protagonist interprets from his perhaps vague memories of seeing such texts before; one religious sect assigns its members new names that consist of long strings of random numbers, another trains its members to precisely mumble absolutely meaningless sequences of dozens of syllables, and yet another forbids its members to speak.  Our protagonist is tricked into attending a performance of the aforementioned troupe, and he is not sure if a fight he witnesses is part of the performance or an actual violent encounter.  One of the odd cults we hear about may not be real at all, but an invention of the troupe's leader, a woman named "The Spike."  Sexual ambiguity is one major component of this theme of malleable and unknowable truth; besides the woman with the phallic name, the troupe's ranks include a "hirsute woman" with a horrible scar indicating "an incredibly clumsy mastectomy" whom the protagonist mistakes for a man, and who may have actually been portraying a man earlier in the performance.

Our protagonist is Bron Helstrom, a traveler from off-colony come to study and practice "metalogics," a type of "computer mathematics."  Bron was born and grew up on Mars, where he worked as a prostitute who served women before coming out to the colonies on the satellites of the gas giants.  Delany scrambles up all our 20th-century expectations about gender in this book; examples include the characters in the novel who have names traditionally associated with the opposite sex, and the fact that most of the cops in Tethys are women (in the last quarter of the novel we learn that women in the time of the novel, the year 2112, are as tall and as strong as men, maybe due to rapid evolution, maybe because 21st- and 22nd-century adults are equally affectionate towards female and male infants, whereas parents for thousands of years prior lavished attention on boys and neglected girls.)  Bron is an intellectual traveler as well as a geographic (astronomic?) one--in the past he studied to join one of those bizarre religious sects before abandoning it (he couldn't memorize those pointless chants) and currently he is friends with an elderly homosexual, Lawrence.  Bron always rejects Lawrence's regular sexual advances, and the septuagenarian acts as a sort of mentor or guru, dispensing wisdom to Bron; in particular, Lawrence talks about how all people are "types."  (Identity--what makes you who you are, whether who you are is natural or artificial, and how malleable who you are might be--is another of the novel's themes, and there is much discussion of people's names and ID numbers and a taboo in Tethys on talking about your parents, a taboo ignored, like most customs, in the unlicensed sector.)

We meet Lawrence in the flesh and learn about Bron's home life in Chapter 2.  Bron lives in a "single-sex unspecified-preference co-op" with both straight and gay men.  (There are several types of co-ops and communes on Triton and Delany gives us a whole rundown of what proportions of the population live in each type.)  Lawrence is teaching Bron vlet, a complex war game, and the chapter revolves around a match between them. (You'll notice that Mitchell Hook's at-first-glance fine but generic painting on the cover of the novel is in fact very specific, incorporating chess pieces, as well as the kinds of mirrors and goops an actor might use in preparation for a performance, direct references to some of Triton's plot elements and themes.)  Watching the game are other residents, including the handsome and well-educated diplomat Sam, and a retarded man who goes by the nickname Flossie, whose mental shortcomings are partially alleviated by computer finger rings, and his ten-year-old son Freddie.  (Freddie presents one of the several opportunities Delany takes advantage of to hint to us readers that in Tethys it is normal for children to have sex with each other and with adults.)  As befits a SF utopia (we all know how SF titans Robert Heinlein and his pal Theodore Sturgeon felt about the subject!), most of these people hang around naked, and even go to work naked on occassion.

In keeping with the novel's themes of incomprehensibility, the rules of vlet are astoundingly complicated; below is the "modulus by which the even more difficult scoring system...proceeded."

The vlet match is interrupted by a power outage that temporarily disables the sensory screen and allows the inhabitants of Triton to see the real sky for once.  The second chapter of Triton ends as Bron does research in a computer directory on The Spike, learning her real name and reading critical analyses of her work; again Delany pushes home his theme of inscrutability as we learn that The Spike's writing is deliberately opaque, and, while widely commented upon, actually seen by very few people (Bron is one of the lucky ones!)

In the third chapter we see Bron at the office, where he uses metalogic to program a computer to make predictions (or something--Delany here, as elsewhere, is deliberately obscure.)  He meets a new employee, Miriamne, a woman who is "his type," and gives her (and us) a nine-page lecture on metalogic, much of which is difficult going; I think this fairly represents the salient part:
Areas of significance space intermesh and fade into one another like color-clouds in a three-dimensional spectrum.  They don't fit together like hard-edged bricks in a box.  What makes "logical" bonding so risky is that the assertion of the formal logician that a boundary can be placed around an area of significance space gives you, in such a cloudy situation, no way to say where to set the boundary, how to set it, or if, once set, it will turn out in the least useful.  Nor does it allow any way for two people to be sure they have set their boundaries around the same area.  
Bron hopes to seduce Miriamne, but soon learns she is a lesbian (for now, at least.)  Luckily, she lives in the same co-op as The Spike, with whom Bron (as he reluctantly admits to himself) is infatuated, and facilitates the beginning of Bron's brief sexual relationship with The Spike.  Then we get some sitcom/soap opera business from Delany--Bron is jealous, thinking The Spike and Miriamne may have a relationship, and so he acts in such a way that Miriamne loses her job.

(I wondered if this business with Miriamne was a nod to Proust; Marcel famously acts crazy because he is jealous of Albertine's lesbian affairs.  A number of times I thought I detected hints of Proust in the novel; late in the book The Spike is directing a performance of Phedra, presumably the same play by Racine that plays a prominent role in the second volume of In Search of Lost Time.  Marcel's confusion when seeing Phedra and his changing opinion of the performances mirror some of Delany's own themes about knowledge here in Triton.  The very template of Triton--a long story about varying types of love and sex among intellectual/artistic types set against a background of international diplomacy, intrigue and war--is similar to In Search of Lost Time.) 

Bron is then chagrined to learn that The Spike's troupe is leaving the colony in a matter of hours.   

All through the first three chapters, looming in the background and bubbling under the surface, has been vague talk about a war between an Earth-Mars alliance ("the worlds") and the colonies on Luna and the moons of the gas giants ("the satellites.")  Neither Bron nor us readers know much about the war, save that Triton has been trying to stay out of it and everybody assumes Triton will soon be dragged into it anyway.  The war moves closer to center stage in Chapters 4 and 5 as Sam goes to Earth on a diplomatic mission and brings Bron along with him, but we learn absolutely nothing about the negotiations (or whatever) that take place on Earth, and, as far as the war is concerned, apparently it is just a matter of espionage and tariffs and the like, a cold war with no space fleets or marines or anything of that nature.  Delany keeps hammering home his same themes, and early in the trip Sam reveals to Bron a secret--now a black man, Sam used to be a white woman.  Chapter 4, another short one, consists of the trip from Tethys to Earth--I always like reading this sort of thing, the author describing how people experience and cope with lift off and the view of space through the ports and low gravity and all that.

In Chapter 5 Delany does more traditional SF stuff I always enjoy, as Bron, who has always lived under domes and breathed artificial atmospheres, for the first time breathes natural air and walks under an unobstructed sky on the surface of mother Earth!  (This stuff brought to mind Arthur C. Clarke's Imperial Earth, another novel from 1976 about a guy who travels from a gas giant satellite to Earth.)  Bron also gets tossed into jail briefly, and I always find descriptions of being imprisoned oddly compelling.

Later editions appeared under
the title Trouble on Triton
Bron only spends a few pages in jail, but Delany gives us many pages on Bron's date with The Spike, who, by coincidence, is also visiting Earth for the first time.  Whereas in Chapter 1 The Spike stage managed an elaborate performance for Bron, here in Chapter 5, on their date to a fancy restaurant, to which they are transported by a flying limo staffed by four naked female footmen, Bron draws on his experience as a prostitute on Mars (when accompanied women on similarly fancy dates many times) to stage manage an event for The Spike.  I won't be providing any more examples, but rest assured that on every page Delany bombards the reader with his themes of the impossibility of pinning down true facts and transmitting reliable knowledge to others.  Bron declares his love for The Spike and asks her to spend her life with him (marriage is illegal on Triton) but she rejects him.

Just as Bron returns home in Chapter 6 the war gets hot and Triton is right there in the middle of it.  Tethys is battered, with buildings collapsing and some minor characters killed.  Minutes before the devastation (apparently wrought by saboteurs) Bron receives a somewhat garbled letter from The Spike in which she says she doesn't like him and never wants to see him again.  It is here in Chapter 6 that Delany's purposes become, perhaps, a bit more clear and direct.  It is revealed that there are Christians and Jews in Tethys, and they are denounced as troublemakers, Delany suggesting Judaism and Christianity are religions that drive people insane or perhaps appeal only to insane people.  Lawrence, our mentor and guru, is one of the survivors, and Bron makes to him a speech that I guess is Delany's paraphrase of his view of typical 20th-century male thinking: women don't understand men, and men are individuals who have to stand apart from society, which is the domain of women and children, in order to protect that society.  Lawrence calls Bron a fool and tells him such thinking is a perversion that was once almost universal but that now only afflicts one in fifty men and one in five thousand women, and gives a feminist speech about how women for thousands of years were not treated as human beings and men are to blame for all the wars.  (Did this thing go through so many printings because it was being assigned to college students?)  And, by the way, the war is over and the satellites have defeated the worlds, in the process massacring 75% (or more) of Earth's population.

Italian edition
Bron jumps up and runs through the rubble-strewn streets to request a sex-change operation.  After a ten-page lecture and a brief operation (in Tethys a sex change is same-day surgery, no appointment required) he returns to his half-ruined co-op (his room is in the not-ruined half.)  Did Bron become a woman because he got "woke" and didn't want to be a beneficiary and perpetrator of patriarchy?  That is what I expected, but Delany is not so easy to predict.  Back home, Bron tells Lawrence that he still believes all that stuff he told him about men being lonely heroes who have to protect society, that it is those one in fifty men and one in five thousand women who keep our race going.  Bron became a woman to bolster the tiny number of women who have those traditional values, and hopes to be the perfect woman for the sort of heroic old-fashioned man he (thinks he) used to be!

Chapter 7 takes place six months after Bron's sex change.  Bron runs into The Spike again (it's a small solar system) and she again rejects his proposal that they spend their lives together.  Bron makes friends with a fifteen-year-old girl whose regular recreation is sex with 55-year-old men, and this kid tries to help Bron find a man, but Bron has no luck.  I think maybe Delany is using Bron-as-woman-with-traditional-values to show how our 20th-century values make (in Delany's opinion, at least) healthy and happy relationships almost impossible.  The chapter, and the novel proper, ends without Bron's sexual life being at all resolved, though we do see a number of ways that Bron's becoming a woman has changed his/her own psychology and altered how people around him/her feel about and interact with Bron.

German edition; check out
the typeface
After the novel proper we have the two appendices.  Appendix A consists of SF criticism, some in the mouths of characters from the novel, that mentions Heinlein, Gernsback and Bester and celebrates the possibilities of SF, its superiority to "mundane" fiction because of its "extended repertoire of sentences" and "consequent greater range of possible incident" and "more varied field of rhetorical and syntagmic organization."  (Delany really slings the academese here.)  Delany likens the relationship of SF to mundane fiction to the relationship of abstract art and atonal music to "conventional" art, something I had never considered.  (I just recently was talking to commentor and blogger Lawrence Burton about A. E. van Vogt's belief that what distinguishes SF from regular old fiction is the fact that the "good" reader of "good" SF has to bring something to the material, because the author has deliberately left something out, providing the reader and opportunity to use his imagination to build upon the material or presenting the reader an obligation to figure out the material--isn't this something like what people commonly say about abstract art?) 

It is nice to hear Delany championing SF after so often reading Malzberg bemoan the field's decline, imply it is a slum he had to resort to after literary markets were closed to him, and lament the way SF killed Henry Kuttner, Cyril Kornbluth and Mark Clifton (in his 1980 essay "Mark Clifton: 1906-1963.")

Appendix B is a brief biography of Ashima Slade, one of the most important intellectual founders of metalogics and an associate of The Spike's, and a person who had multiple sex changes.  Slade was born in 2051 and killed in the war on the day Bron had his own sex change operation.  In keeping with Delany's themes throughout the book, many facts about Slade's life are unknowable and in a footnote it is made clear that evidence presented in this biography is not trustworthy.  Also, Delany reveals to us something potentially very important that he has kept from us for 350 pages--the lingua franca of the year 2212, the language spoken by all people on the satellites and 80% of people on Earth, is "a Magyar-Cantonese dialect," suggesting a radical political and cultural change between our own time and Bron's that we didn't know about as we followed Bron's story.  This is comparable to the revelation late in Starship Troopers that Rico is non-white, one of the Heinlein passages Delany talks about in Appendix A.

A later British edition
In a recent blog post I compared Ted White's By Furies Possessed to Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, wondering to what extent White's novel was a response to or inspired by Heinlein's.  (In a 2016 talk that I highly recommend to SF, pulp, and comics fans, pointed out to us in a comment by Paul Chadwick, White talks about how important Heinlein was to him as a youth.)  I think it might also be useful to ponder how much Triton may have been influenced by Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress--both are about a colony on a moon where people have new innovative familial and sexual relationships, and both involve a war between the colonials and the Earth--and I Will Fear No Evil, in which a man's brain is implanted in a woman's body?  Delany has no doubt thought seriously about Heinlein's body of work--he wrote the intro to the edition of Glory Road I read some years ago and in his Appendix A here in Triton talks about important sentences in Starship Troopers and Beyond This Horizon, sentences which obliquely tell the reader about the imagined future world of the novel.

Four years and two states ago I read Delany's Empire Star and admired its structure and the evident hard work Delany put into it, but I didn't find it very fun.  My feelings about Triton are somewhat similar.  Delany is working ably in a literary tradition (I've already compared Triton to Proust) with a story that strongly pushes its themes and includes clever devices, like speaking in different voices and effective foreshadowing (the attack on Christianity on page 245, for example, is foreshadowed on page 2 in a way that is quite effective).  He also works masterfully in the SF tradition (I've already mentioned similarities to Heinlein), filling his book with hard science and social science, presenting speculations on what space travel and interplanetary war might be like, and giving us an inhabitant's eye view of a society radically different from our own, one with no marriage in which only 20% of women have children, people live communally, sex involving children is normal, there is a government that provides services to the unemployed and supports a diplomatic and defense apparatus but (somehow) collects no taxes, there is income inequality and social distinctions but (so they say) no money.  (Instead of money everyone has an amount of "credit" based on his or her job; Delany hints that in practice this "credit" is just like money but with the added "benefit" that it makes it easier for the government to keep tabs on you.  How the beggars and artsy fartsy recipients of government endowments we meet in Chapter 1 fit into Tethys's economy I do not understand.)

An early British edition--I'm afraid there are no dog fights in the novel
There are all these good things to say about Triton, but somehow the novel lacks excitement and fun despite all the war and espionage business, lacks feeling despite all the love and sex and death elements; Triton feels a little too cool and a little too intellectual.  Delany, to me, comes across as a skilled technician whose work is built on a strong foundation of thought and knowledge, who lacks some kind of (difficult for me to define) emotional fire or breath of human life.  Or maybe Delany and I are just on such different wavelengths that I can't receive the spark or passion he is transmitting?

Triton is well put together and thought-provoking, but it is easier to admire than to love, one of those books that I'm enjoying more now as I think back on it that than I did while actually in the process of reading it.  Mild to moderate recommendation from me, though it is easy to see that Triton is exactly the kind of SF book that will hold a powerful appeal for some but be prohibitively tedious and opaque to others.

1 comment:

  1. I had the same reaction to TRITON. And to Delaney's DHALGREN, too. I enjoyed his early SF, but the pretentiousness took over.