- Paperback: 326 pages
- Publisher: Wesleyan; 1st edition (May 15, 1996)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 081956298X
- ISBN-13: 978-0819562982
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 21 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #721,496 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia Paperback – May 15, 1996
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From Library Journal
Published back-to-back in 1975 and 1976, respectively, these works involve an apocalyptic society on the verge of collapse and a utopian society at war with Earth. LJ's reviewer dubbed Dhalgren an "important novel" (LJ 3/15/75).
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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But the author has a kind of unspoken contract with the reader in that they can use the story as an avenue for whatever ideas they feel necessary to work out and the reader will go along with them, at least initially, but at the very least they can't forget to write an actual story to go along with those ideas. Otherwise, it should properly be called an essay and there's an entire other section of the bookstore for that kind of thing. Even the best writers are guilty of it now and again, as monumental as Robert Heinlein was to SF, there are a few of his novels late in his life that consist of vaguely drawn characters acting as mouthpieces for his ideas, which is great if you're in tune with them, but if you're not you'll be crying for mercy fairly quickly.
Delany can generally strike a nice balance between ideas and plot . . . his early novels like "The Einstein Intersection" and "Babel-17" were quite capable of giving us rather exciting SF plots while dazzling us with the weight of his ideas. Later on the balance started to shift slightly as he began more obviously interested in exploring questions of gender and sexuality in the context of science-fiction. When it worked ("Dhalgren", which is both wearying and exhilarating in equal measure and is so massive that it probably defies any attempt to break it down) the results were like nothing else in the genre, or American literature in general. When it didn't entirely work ("Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand", in my opinion) you felt that he was consumed with working out whatever literary theory he had become fascinated with that the plot was kind of secondary.
"Trouble on Triton" (altered on republication from its original name of simply "Triton") skews a bit more toward plot than ceaselessly communicating ideas but there are moments when it comes perilously close to falling over the edge onto the wrong side of storytelling. In this future, we visit the utopian society on Triton, one of the moons of Neptune and thus decently far away from Earth, which works out nicely because we're apparently in the midst of or about to go to war with them. Into this we follow recent resident Brom Helstrom, who does not front for the galaxy's greatest metal band as you might assume but is a former prostitute from Mars that now works in the field of metalogics but seems to work mostly at pissing off everyone around him by being completely self-absorbed and not having the slightest bit of self-awareness of why he ticks off nearly everyone he comes into contact with, assuming its everyone else's fault or just not even realizing how much he's making them angry, even when they go and say things to him like, "You make me so angry that I never want to speak to you again."
Delany seems to be using Brom to dissect assumptions about gender and sexuality in his future utopia (apparently the whole novel is a sort of response to Ursula Le Guin's "The Dispossessed", which is also highly recommended but really nothing like this at all), mostly by having Brom make the wrong assumption about everyone and thus have to be corrected, whether it's his coworkers or the theatre lady he met recently that should be totally into him and for some reason isn't, even when he's made it clear he's totally into her. But in Delany's Triton sexuality is somewhat fluid, with people changing genders at the drop of a hat (which made this more like a response to "The Left Hand of Darkness" for me, but that's neither here nor there) and able to change their preferences for gender whenever they want if they're willing to spend the money for an operation . . . you have essentially a very libertarian society where pretty much anything goes and the government really doesn't get to have much say in anything (in an early scene, it's clear you can check at a booth exactly what information the government has on you at any time you want).
To that end, Delany has clearly thought out the intricacies of the society and part of the fun of the novel is that going along with Brom as he not only explores the structure of the society but the culture of it as well, so that we get to see the mindset of the people that would live in this kind of place . . . it's a welcome contrast to Brom getting everything wrong pretty much all the time and he's able to construct his future world with such detail that even when it doesn't seem much is happening he's introducing a new concept that has you pondering exactly how it all fits together. It's a society of moving parts, not just socially but politically as well, and if nothing else the driving force of the book is the slow escalation and then breakdown of the situation with Earth, a constantly lurking background presence that looms to the forefront in sometimes surprising ways (a sudden gravity reversal, a trip to Earth that Brom tags along for and doesn't go well at all), proving that no utopia is perfect if there's someone who can come around and wreck it at any moment. The changes of scenery are useful as well, with the aforementioned sidetrip to Earth being a highlight (despite it also featuring Brom failing to score again, and failing to understand why he fails to score) and all of it is so interesting that you almost really don't need Brom around at all. Amusingly, he seems to write himself into the novel, unless a bisexual black character named Sam is somehow a strange coincidence. He also gets a bunch of the good lines, but then that's what I would do, too.
Alas, as the book goes on you do get the underlying sense that Delany is constructing an argument toward a theory that isn't entirely clear and while it never threatens to overwhelm the book it acts like an anchor around certain parts of it, weighing the plot down until it becomes nearly inert, so much that the scenes that are supposed to be the driving intellectual focus of the book don't ever catch fire like the best exchange of ideas can (and the mock essays at the back "Informal Remarks Toward the Modular Calculus" don't exactly clear matters up) though part of that is the delivery system, which Brom too busy acting as the Charlie Brown of the future to really convey his fundamental flaw (which appears to be that he's just dense) . . . it's telling that the best parts of the novel are the scenes dealing with the war with Earth, conveying an exotic menace and mundane danger that is recognizable even today, with the destruction being senseless and the toll as random as any war. These sections have a momentum to them that the rest of the novel sometimes lacks, where scenes float in and out without it ever really being clear what the point is. We're supposed to take Brom's eventual decision (described in the cover copy of my edition but I suppose I won't spoil it here) as the ultimate in misunderstanding, he so fundamentally fails to grasp what the problem that he goes for the wrong solution entirely and then can't figure out why it doesn't actually work. And then after briefly exploring the ramifications of that decision, the book pretty much just ends, as if Delany had reached the end of his essay and didn't care if he had more plot.
It doesn't quite qualify as a failed experiment (and as a reading experience it's several lengths more entertaining than "Stars in My Pocket") since the richness of the ideas still shines through the at times less than exciting story. But then when the story gets exciting it starts to mask the intensity of the ideas, resulting in an uneasy see-saw balance that the novel isn't quite able to resolve by the end. What we're left with is fascinating enough but considering how bold some of its ideas are (especially in the 1970s, where literature was only just starting to face this stuff head-on) it's clear that it doesn't have the impact that it should, and it's not for lack of trying. What we have is a story that isn't quite plot-stuffed enough to act as a story and an essay that isn't structured well enough to get its ideas across clearly so that even people who are thinking about this stuff hard may not be able to decipher it. It definitely has its merits, especially in a world where questions of gender and sexuality and where the lines are drawn (if indeed there need to be lines at all) are more relevant than ever, but it seems at times that the work is intent on speaking its own language, and not completely concerned if it's a language we're fluent in, or showing us how to learn it.
If you've ever read anything by Samuel Delany, this book will be no surprise, rather a teasing piece of future fiction filled with fascinating social commentary. The art by which Delany leads his audience through his erotic veiled landscapes, filled with subtile reaction and thought provoking situations, distinguishes itself in not banging the reader over the head, rather building a natural seeming series of events and interactions which lead the reader deep into logical extrapolations of a possible human future. Sounds heady, and it is at times, but, if you just let yourself surf on these gentle waves, you'll never wish to come ashore again.
A very fine piece of literature, not to be missed. I still love it!
A disappointing read if you loved Dahlgren.