Review of Triton by Samuel R. Delany
by Samuel R. Delany
It’s been almost five weeks since I did this, so let’s hope my skills haven’t atrophied too much! My student teaching practicum was awesome, but it left me little time for reading and no time for reviewing. Now I need to catch up. So please forgive me if the details in this review are sparser than ordinary; there is a very good reason why I write reviews as soon as possible after finishing a book!
Fortunately, Triton is a very memorable book, which one might have expected coming from Samuel R. Delany. I love the edition I have, another Bantam 1976 yellowing reprint, similar to my edition of Dhalgren, that I picked up at a used bookstore for $1.05. The cover alone makes me feel much more connected to the zeitgeist in which Delany was immersed when he wrote this, and that’s crucial to an understanding of this book. If you allow me to get reader-response on you for a moment, Triton is a book that will affect you differently depending on your generation. I know I say this a lot—you can call it a recurring theme of my reviews, if you like—but it’s true in this case. Politics runs through Triton like its lifeblood. Sexual politics, gender politics, even military politics all play a role. The characters themselves are more like puppets in an intricate stage play of the human psyche, in which they are battling for the one, best way to express themselves to the outside world. Hence the generational meanings—someone raised in the 1960s is going to interpret the politics and Delany’s themes differently than I do in 2011. However, that doesn’t depreciate the book’s relevance.
Triton is the story of Bron Helstrom’s struggle to redefine his identity in order to make his life less miserable. After running into a travelling actor known as the Spike and sparking up a brief affair, Bron’s own checkered and conflicted views on sexuality take front and centre. Bron was once a prostitute on Mars, where, unlike Earth, male prostitution is legal. He had sex with both men and women for business. Now he lives on Triton, where people live in communes or co-ops that are often divided by sex or sexuality. He has chosen to live in an all-male commune. His next-door neighbour is a homosexual man whom Bron views alternatively with respect and derision, for Lawrence refuses the rejuvenation treatments that keep most people healthy and youthful. Bron is much less comfortable with homosexuality, with unconventional gender performance in general, now that this is no longer his profession.
Bron is also selfish. He wants and wants and will often do things to get what he wants that he only perceives as harmful in hindsight—mildly sociopathic would be a good term, perhaps. This proves, ultimately, to be detrimental to his relationship with the Spike, a fact that becomes apparent when they run into each other while Bron is part of a political delegation to the antagonistic Earth. The Spike leaves Bron with a heartfelt, dictated letter that tells him in detail why she cannot like him, and this acts as the catalyst for the decision that offsets the last part of Triton from everything that comes before.
I would probably have to provide a play-by-play summary of the entire book to describe in detail the episodes that cause Bron to make his final decision. Suffice it to say, Triton is an intricate book. Delany really does manage to create this amazing microcosm of a possible future society, one where advances in technology make it practical to alter one’s sexual orientation and sexual and gender identities on fundamental biological and genetic levels. Many science-fiction authors create such societies in order to explore the implications of those technologies—and there is nothing wrong with that—but Delany elevates this exploration to another level, creating the technologies to explore the issues they uncover. These issues are already present, simmering beneath the surface of society and occasionally bursting forth. The technology of Triton makes them more accessible for discussion—and the quality of that discussion is what makes Triton so memorable.
The subtitle of this book is An Ambiguous Heterotopia, alluding to The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin. I can see the similarities, and this does make a good companion read. Both books present competing governments whose politics are in flux, with individuals undergoing moments of intense personal crisis against the backdrop of this larger conflict. I admit to preferring The Dispossessed though, and that might entirely be due to the portrayals of Bron versus Shevek. Bron is a jerk. There. I said it!
I am even more intrigued, however, by the connection to Foucault’s ideas of a heterotopia as a type of privileged “other” space. I suppose Delany sets up Triton itself as a heterotopia separate from the warring planets of Earth and Mars. Triton is physically distant from the other two planets, and the inhabitants of Triton consider people from “worlds” laughably different. Our view of life on Earth and Mars is heavily biased, of course, but it seems like the moons are refuges from more authoritarian regimes on the worlds. For all its advantages, however, life on Triton is not without its hardships and its disadvantages—hence the ambiguity. Bron confronts this at the same time that he confronts his dissatisfaction with his own life.
I confess I didn’t see the ending coming, and it altered my opinion of the entire book. It creates this very distinct division between what came before and what comes after. I suppose the question, which Delany of necessity leaves unanswered, is whether Bron’s decision will actually have the desired effect. Will this dramatic alteration to his life and lifestyle change him for the better? I think it was very drastic (hence why I found it unexpected), but it also makes a kind of odd sense.
Like Dhalgren, Triton is another difficult book. I didn’t find it nearly so difficult as Dhalgren to read, but it raises difficult issues and stretches the mould of the conventional plot-driven narrative. I’m coming to see this as “typical Delany”, and while not every writer can get away with that kind of intense devotion to themes, he can. Because Delany doesn’t back down, and the result are books that are still relevant thirty-five years later. He raises questions about sex and sexuality, gender identity and performance. And while Triton is without question a science-fiction novel, Delany makes that seem unimportant compared to the story he’s telling through his characters. He makes offhand references to technology and science we don’t have, and sometimes it doesn’t always seem plausible—but it’S always to a purpose. Triton is a well-constructed, thoughtful, thought-provoking piece of literature.