A's Reviews > Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia

Trouble on Triton by Samuel R. Delany
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Jun 17, 13

bookshelves: speculative-fantastic-magical, 2013
Read from June 04 to 13, 2013

A somewhat cautious and tentative 4 for a very unique and interesting book. As with all things, interesting does not always mean "good," but in this case it leans more in that direction.

I must admit that some of my trepidation early on was due to not having built sufficient trust yet in the author, being uncertain what sort of ride I had agreed to and how it would come together. It is an often rambling book, with a more internalized, character-oriented focus than much SF. The events that would be primary in so much SF are treated almost as background, though they are an important and intrinsic aspect of the plot. We tend to think of inter-planetary wars as the "main event" so to speak in these sorts of novels, not on par with the kinds of skirmishes we can ignore while other people (or drones) fight them for us. That would almost be like real life, one supposes, and we should like to see cool spaceships.

Instead, we have Bron, former Martian native, trying to adapt to life on Triton after many years of living there, thinking maybe he is happy and then not being so sure of it. Oddly, this world is a sort of libertarian/anarchist utopia--or what Delany calls a heterotopia--where very few restrictions are placed on ones dress or sexuality, but where marriage is illegal and money does not exist. Delany calls this a heterotopia, because his goal isn't to depict some ideal, perfectly functioning society; rather, he problematizes (his words) his world by showing how surveillance is done openly and also by the fact that it fails to provide happiness for all its citizens. Such as Bron and others from Earth or Mars, where a more restrictive value system is in place.

It's worth noting here that the novel is titled "An Ambiguous Heterotopia," in blatant reference to the subtitle of La Guinn's classic The Dispossessed. But the bulk of this novel was written prior to Delaney having read that novel. The story here is not set up as a direct analogy, and the subtitle is meant more to position it in dialogue with La Guinn's utopia.

Delaney here is not so interested in the minutia of how the government on Tritan functions (though he does sketch in the parts that are necessary) and instead focuses his concern on Bron's experience of the place--moreover, his development as a character within it. Bron is initially likable, has the qualities we would deem intrinsic to a more heroic protagonist--good-looking, seemingly principled, even spontaneous (also male, white). As the story progresses, it doesn't take long to see that he is not really so principled, that he is willing to bend the truth to suit him, that he's egotistical and defensive, that he's resentful of others' success. This will all come to a head in his relationship with The Spike, who he will come to resent as his feelings are unrequited.

It's really rare (at least in my experience) to find a SF novel that invests this kind of concern in the characters and uses the SF context as a means to develop and push them further. This aspect surprised me, and by the middle of the book, when I understood that this would be the primary thrust of the story, I settled in and waited for everything to unfold. It wasn't because I cared deeply about Bron (I doubt I could even stand someone so blatantly dysfunctional), but because he was an interesting personality and I wanted to watch him develop. I wanted to understand why he would eventually change his sex and gender identity and what that would mean for him. The resolution does not bode well, but leaves an opening for some turn...perhaps.

All this is quite wonderful, but the novel is still rambling at times and could potentially throw off the reader unable to get into the rhythm of the thing. I am reminded somewhat of Gormenghast novels, which also take a more character-oriented approach within a fantasy context and are similarly rambling. It is an exploratory, immersive approach, like a child being given a box of crayons and marveling at the marks they're making as a form begins to take shape. Delany is not the same caliber of writer as Peake, at least not in this novel (he's simply not so masterfully lyrical or even as expansive), but he does have a similar willingness to freely explore his self-created world, always bringing it back to the themes that concern him most.

Along with the tendencies to wander, there are the numerous infodumps, whose purpose was initially lost on me. After reading the appendix and an interview with Delany, however, it all began to make sense and what I had confusedly read as a nonsensical explanation of the shields and what-not…turned out to be, well, nonsense. As another reader aptly points out, these thematically fit well with Bron's efforts to explain his own reasoning and collection of lies and half-truths about himself and others. They also comment on the nature of science fiction and its tendency toward truthiness.

Whether the novel fully gels into a whole, whether it ever fully justifies its ramble is a tough question, and that is why my rating here is tentative. This is the sort of novel that improves the more I think about it, the more I think about Bron and the world of Triton, and the world around it, the more I consider the mix of playfulness and seriousness of the parts. But I'd be lying if I said there were not parts where I wondering where it was getting to and how soon. Or whether the writer's skills was always up to the challenge of his aims. A writer can have all the brilliant ideas in the world, but if the parts don't add up to a whole experience, what does it matter? Nonetheless, in this case the author *does* bring the story to a unified conclusion for its troubled antagonist, and that is why when I finished it was easy to cast my doubts aside. I am looking forward to reading more of Delaney's work.
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Reading Progress

06/04/2013 marked as: currently-reading
06/13/2013 marked as: read

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