Thursday, January 13, 2011
Trouble on Triton
by Samuel R. Delany
With a new foreword by Kathy Acker
Desire doesn't follow compatibility, and no, the reverse isn't true either. But the two do collide, even in their respective deficiencies, and that is where difficulty arises. In his 1984 novel, 'Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand,' Samuel R. Delany writes about the collision of two men, one an illiterate worker with state-administered brain damage, the other an intellectual and cosmopolitan, a diplomat by trade - they are each other's perfect erotic objects to "point nine-nine-nine and several nine percent." This engenders consequence, not just for themselves or their immediate acquaintances, but for all of the galactic empire they live within. Such an alignment is a rare and perplexing thing, as desire usually runs afoul of the tenacity and conditions of reality. Delany's novel is very much a romance of the text. Yes, the reader is the one seduced. The romance of 'Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand,' of the book itself, ends abruptly and painfully, as romances sometimes do. The book was intended as a diptych, but its second half, 'The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, Of Cities,' was never to be. The relationship of which the diptych was a love letter to ended before the second half could be completed, and the gay NYC community which the book celebrated was also ending with the onset in the eighties of the AIDS epidemic. The conclusion of the diptych remains unpublished; it remains unwritten.
The first half is one of my favorite novels, my memory of it is a romance - one that never quite got off its feet and is all the more treasured because of that. The work of Samuel R Delany is, in a ways, the perfect literary match for me. I've always had difficulties synchronizing my interests - how do I reconcile my passion for reading and writing poetry, with my love of comic books, my affection with european sex and horror films, and my obsession with industrial and experimental music. How does it all fit together? Is it supposed to? Delany is a peculiar writer - his idiosyncrasies are his own. Delany is a difficult writer because of the bizarre nexus of his disparate predilections and tendencies. His contemporary, J.G. Ballard, also wears his obsessions on his sleeve, but Ballard was always good at giving them a sexy sheen. Either Ballard was such a keen observer of our word that he was able to first notice some recurrent cultural trend and subsequently have it dubbed 'Ballardian,' or by some force of will Ballard has been able to manifest his eccentricities into the flesh. And Ballard is an artist's writer. Delany is a writer's writer, or to make things even more knotty, he is a poet's novelist. Not an easy thing to be. I wonder if any one ever asked Kathy Acker, who wrote the introduction to the Wesleyan edition to 'Trouble on Triton' just what she thought of that. Reading Delany is the only time I can expect Fritz Leiber, Joanna Russ, Ron Silliman, Robin Blaser, Dick Giordano and Howard Chaykin to all signify.
And that means something to.
Claire E. Evans, at her exceptional blog, Urban Honking, ( http://urbanhonking.com/spacecanon/ ), puts Delany in his proper perspective. She writes "it’s kind of a Catch-22: to understand Delany, you have to be at least somewhat fannish, willing to let down your guard and accept that genre-specific content isn’t a sign of weakness. At the same time, you can’t be so committed to the genre that you would sell someone like Delany down the river for getting liberal with the rules." But, that's why I love Delany. That is why I love 'Trouble on Triton.' I have never encountered an author who manages to cogently articulate so many of obsessions and interests as Delany is, whether through his early pure SF period, his later more academically-oriented writing, or novels like 'Trouble on Triton' and 'Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand.'
'Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand,' 2004 Wesleyan Edition.
The protagonist of 'Trouble on Triton' is the unlikable Bron Helstrom, a former Martian prostitute who is now living on the small moon of Triton as a metalogicist. He resides in a co-op for males of unspecified sexual orientation, a place which in his society is often the dumping ground for people who don't fit in anywhere else. His neighbor is the elderly Lawrence. Lawrence is one of the few people who can stand Bron, let alone consider him a friend. He exlains to Bron that his alienation is because Bron is "...a logical pervert, looking for a woman with a mutually compatible logical perversion. The fact is, the mutual perversion you are looking for is very, very rare - if not nonexistent. [Bron is] looking for someone who can enjoy a certain sort of logical masochism." I've encountered some negative criticism of the novel which takes issue with Bron's unsavory character. But as Delany explained during a lecture on the book, some novels require you to identify with the protagonist, other novels invite you to approach them as a case study. Bron isn't a heroic figure, but neither is he a villain. He possesses the ambiguities of character which mark us all. But yes, he is selfish. And yes, he is a bit of a prig. Delany shows us that this isn't just a personal problem, but a cultural, or perhaps the right word is political, problem.
Bron comes from Mars. Mars is a world, which owing to its size and perhaps its date of colonization, is much more conservative and uptight than the more libertine and permissive satellites. Owing to their further distance from our point of origin, Earth, it is safe to assume their colonization comes at a much later date. In fact, Bron is shocked by the age of everything during his short trip to Earth. He passes "...buildings that might have been eighty, a hundred eighty, or eight hundred years old... [while] the oldest extant structure in Bellona was a hundred and ten years old; in Tethys, no more than seventy-five..." Bron comes from a relatively new world, Mars, but he comes from one still tethered to history and to an accumulated social convention. The satellites, owing to their recent inception, their lack of space and their distance from the mother hub of Earth, have fostered the privilege of subjective reality. it is because of this schism that Bron is unable to escape his neuroses on Triton. This is why the Outer Satellites are engaged in a protracted cold war with the Worlds.
Ursula Le Guin's 'The Dispossessed, An Ambiguous Utopia.'
The novel is subtitled "An Ambiguous Heterotopia," in deference to Ursula Le Guin's 'The Dispossessed,' Le Guin's novel is subtitled "An Ambiguous Utopia." Delany read Le Guin in the course of his revisions and added the subtitle to encourage a discourse between the two books. So what is he trying to say about utopias, or heterotopias as it is? Delany quotes Foucault, who says utopias "...afford consolation; although they have no real locality there is nevertheless a fantastic, untroubled region in which they are able to unfold; they open up cities with vast avenues, superbly planted gardens, countries where life is easy, even though the roads to them is chimerical." But Delany sees utopias as limiting lens for a novel of ideas. A utopian novel, though founded upon some chimera, resolve matters into this and that. The novel's imaginary science of metalogics has two goals, "...one) the delimitation of the problem and, two) an exploration of the interpenetration among the problem elements in significance space." Metalogics is founded upon the permeability of ideas. Bron explains "Language is parametal, not perimetal. 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." Utopias are built of just such hard-edged bricks. "What makes 'logical' bounding so risky is that the assertion by 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." Bron may have made a career parsing significance as parametal, not perimetal, but his cultural upbringing comes from a place, Mars, which positions itself into just such 'utopian' strictures. Bron's world view is constructed out of some pretty hard-edged bricks.
The Outer Satellites are not a utopia, but a heterotopia. These can be seen as disturbing, threatening even, "... because they make it impossible to name this and that, because they shatter or tangle common names, because they destroy 'syntax' in advance, and not only the syntax with which we construct sentences but also that less apparent syntax which causes words and things (next to and opposite one another) to 'hold together." But a heterotopia is also simply a technical word for a sex change. Bron undergoes just such a procedure in the closing chapter of the novel. She believes this operation will be an elementally transformative one, but Bron remains Bron. Other than the obvious physical ones, the most conclusive changes are the shifts in character which Bron initiates. Bron changes in these small ways, such as in her word productivity, because that is how Bron thinks a woman should behave. The values Bron assigns gender are fixed, even if Bron's gender may fluctuate.
The original 1976 Bantam edition, simply titled 'Triton.'
Bron's conflicted desire for the Spike, a brilliant director of micro-theaters, spurns on many of his decisions throughout the novel. The micro-theater performance she leads him into, and their brief sexual exchange a day afterward, offers Bron an opportunity to step outside his fixed reality. The Outer Satellites encourage their citizens to foster subjective realities, but Bron's fabrication is ultimately dehabilitating because he insists upon its immobility. He returns to his fixture, and in turn alienates the Spike, just like he does everyone else. He tells her, upon their first encounter that "...to meet a new person here in Tethys is always like entering a new city?' He said that before." Bron forgoes the vitality of the new for a simulation of novelty.
Delany visualizes 'Trouble on Triton' as a sort of SF prologue to his 'Return to Neveryon' Tetralogy. Both works engage the concept of a Modular Calculus, Delany's conceit of a logical system by which, essentially, any problem can be solved. Let us look at the book's publishing history for some context here. 'Trouble on Triton' follows close on the heels of 'Dhalgren,' perhaps the greatest success of Delany's career, both commercially and critically. The sheer ambition of the work of this period, 'Trouble on Triton,' 'Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand,' and the Neveryon books, provide us with some of the most stunning work done in the SF and Fantasy modes. But the promise of these brilliant novels was cut short due to circumstances. Bantam, Delany's publisher, refused to publish the last of the Neveryon books, and prompted a withdrawal on Delany's part into academia. Delany has never turned his back on SF, but these novels are the last time he worked within the boundaries of the industry. Delany came into SF as a prodigy - a dangerous entry if there is one.
An omnibus pairing 'Trouble on Triton' with Joanna Russ' 'The Female Man,' which was also selected by writer and editor Frederick Pohl for the Bantam SF series, along with Suzy McKee Charnas' 'Walk to the End of the World.'
SF grandmaster, Isaac Asimov, in an introduction to the Hugo Award-winning short story, 'Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones,' provides an excellent summation of Delany's liminality. Asimov, while granting the brilliance of Delany's writing, can't seem to shake a certain distress. Delany, as anyone who has read his excellent essays would know, is a voracious polymath. This is in direct opposition to the more codified convention of SF. The Science Fiction industry is a room, it is the enclosed area of the convention space - there are no windows. Mind you, I am speaking of industry here, not genre. Asimov writes that "...for years, we science fiction writers; we warm band of brothers and sisters; have entered this field as our specialty. It was 'our thing,' it was what we did. Often, if we were driven enough, we graduated to broader fields, but even then (as in my own case) we had lingered long enough to know that science fiction was our home, our only true literary home." But Delany, of course, best fits in with Delany.
Though he was not a member of the social circle constituting the New Wave of Science Fiction, Delany could be said to share many of their tendencies. And Asimov, as the old guard grandmaster, if a generous and diplomatic one, has his careful reservations about this new wave. Asimov, as astute as ever, writes "...the day has come when writers, without necessarily feeling a tight identification with the field, choose to write science fiction because of the liberty it gives them; the opportunity to speculate and experiment beyond anything possible in any other genre." Why, that sounds like Delany, who has often stated that SF is "... richer through its extended repertoire of sentences, its consequent greater range of possible incident, and through its more varied field of rhetorical and syntagmatic organization. [He] feels it is richer in much the same way atonal music is richer than tonal, or abstract painting is richer than realistic."
Delany never abandoned that richness of genre, nor has he ever wished to, at least not like his peer Philip K. Dick apparently desired to 'get outside of the ghetto' with his mainstream novels like 'Confessions of a Crap Artist.' Samuel R. Delany's work remains SF, whether or not it retains genre signifiers, much as is the case with JG Ballard, or in the fashion that the writing of Jean Baudrillard can be called science fiction. Asimov wonders if writers like Delany "think of themselves as a science fiction writer. Is this their home - or just another hotel room?... he reached the top so easily that he may have had no sensation of passing through." Delany never abandoned science fiction, but perhaps the SF industry abandoned him.