Trouble on Triton by Samuel R. Delany

in reviews

Friends, I am a woman of simple literary tastes. I read books because they are fun and they make me feel good. Well, sometimes I really like to read books that make me cry, but in a satisfying way, you know? I don’t know how to explain this, but the existence of an entire genre of movies known as “tear-jerkers” assures me that I am not alone. Basically, I am not good at reading Important books, especially ones that take Work to appreciate. I read some now and then, because some important writers are easier for me to engage with and can actually feel like entertainment, but mostly I don’t bother. I don’t need to torture myself with boring books in order to foster my sense of intellectual superiority; being smarter than most people does that for me just fine.

Trouble on Triton, though, is a difficult book. It was work for me to read. I probably would not have finished it if I weren’t determined to review it on the blog (and I’d meant to finish it last weekend so I’d have a blog post ready on Monday. You can see how that worked out). I picked it out of all the Delany books at the library, knowing nothing else about it, because the subtitle, “An Ambiguous Heterotopia,” seemed to be a reference to The Dispossessed, by my beloved Le Guin. Perhaps that should have been a warning. The Dispossessed is also a bit of a difficult book, and while I thought it was excellent and thought-provoking, I don’t intend to re-read it.

The main character of Trouble On Triton is a man named Brom Helstrom. Bron Helstrom was my biggest problem with the book. He is a jerk. As far as I can tell he has no redeeming qualities at all. He’s not even an entertaining jerk like, say, Holden Caulfield, or the characters in a good sitcom, he is just insufferable. The back copy of the book says it’s supposed to be funny, and the information I looked up on it after I finished it said it’s supposed to be satire, but I think I missed most of that. I mean, I guess I can see some of the satirical edge, but I just don’t think I have the cultural background to appreciate it. The setting, Neptune’s moon Triton, is the “heterotopia” in question. Delany gets the term from Foucault, because his day job is English professor, and I avoided things like English classes in college so I wouldn’t have to read stuff like Foucault, so I am not going to try and pretend I understand what Delany means by “heterotopia,” but I did learn from some very helpful Amazon reviews that the culture of the moon colonies (quite a few of the larger moons in the outer solar system are inhabited, in this future) is meant to evoke New York’s 60s counterculture. Fashion and theater are pretty wild, and whatever your sexual/relationship preferences, you can find a commune or a co-op to accommodate them. Or if you don’t like them, you can get a procedure or a surgery to change to them to whatever you would like them to be.

Unless, of course, you are Bron Helstrom, and your sexualization preference is for men to be Real Men and women to submit to their natural superiority, in which case you are SOL in a liberal sexual revolution paradise. Which is, as far as I can tell, the plot and the point of the book.

There is a bunch of other stuff about a war with Earth and Mars that I think was supposed to mean more than I understood, and many digressions into things like meta-logic and, philosophy of theater you might call it, and some genetics, and other long explanations of nerdy things that I tended to skim pretty quickly. Delany introduces and plays with quite a few ideas in this book, some more successfully than others, but the only one that gets consistent attention is how terrible Bron is, and a main character that is both unlikeable and boring is just the death of a book for me.

I didn’t want to turn this review into how much I don’t like this book, but I can’t seem to help it. It really is a good book in many ways. I mean, Delany’s writing is excellent, and I quite liked the parts where other characters get mad at Bron and try to explain to him why he sucks. Laurence, an old gay man who only tolerates Bron because he wants to sleep with him, is the best, and if the story had been told from his point of view I think I would have loved it.

But between a main character I didn’t care about at all, and the cultural stuff being mainly over my head - I did not live through the 60s, and in addition to having low tastes in literature, I have a very boring lifestyle and am pretty happy that way - I just didn’t get much out of this book. Here is a quote from the most helpful Amazon review: “This is a very, very intellectual book–not at all an easy read. But if you can enjoy a satire on white male piggishness written by a gay black genius, you’ll enjoy this book.”

Y’all, I have had more than my fill of white male piggishness. I already know that it sucks, I don’t need a whole book reminding me of all the worst of it, you know? But I think there are people out there who are better at laughing at assholes than I am, and you are welcome to Trouble on Triton.

I’m not giving up on Delany, but I think I’ll choose my next book by him more carefully.