All Tomorrows: “Trouble on Triton”

It was a time when society seemed both crumbling and poised for something new. Old barriers fell, including in the very writing invented to consider the future. To the new breed it was now a vehicle to explore endless possible societies, to consider and endless array of tomorrows: weird, wonderful or horrible.

During this period, lasting roughly from the mid-60s to the early ’80s, science fiction went through a sea change like no other. The resulting works tackled issues of culture, society, ethics and sex in ways that make them still fresh today. Some of the writers went on to fame (if rarely fortune), while others remain obscure. However, in this period sci-fi considered tomorrows that involved far more than just bigger machinery. Today, we face some eerily similar questions – and would do well to delve into their possible answers.

Thanks to an unusually well-stocked used bookstore in my hometown, this is the stuff I grew up on. Most of it was contained in dusty volumes, worth seeking out and taking home when you found them. All Tomorrows will be a weekly feature taking a look at one of these works and the possibilities it raises. Everything featured here isn’t just thought provoking, but damn fine reading as well.

This time, we have the legendary Samuel R. Delany’s 1976 “ambiguous heterotopia” Trouble on Triton (just Triton in my ragtag version). Delany and “groundbreaking” go hand in hand, as any perusal of the man’s formidable body of work will reveal. There’s an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, in the first issue of Coilhouse. You should read it.

Now, as for Triton, it struck me upon second glance that it describes a world that for many of us would be close to paradise. There are no such things as alternate cultures on the future society of Triton, ensconced in its domes, because there’s no such thing as a mainstream to begin with. Any lifestyle goes and all basic needs are provided. Dress how you want, live how you want. If you’re unhappy with your flesh, your sex, your body in any way, the technology exists to change it. Hell, it’s not even unusual (more like a surgical oil change). Want to see what attraction to a whole different spectrum of people feels like? There’s a machine for that too. If, after all this, you’re not satisfied with the few laws that do exist, each city has a sector where none of them apply (realizing such places develop anyway). Anything is possible.

Or is it? Look at the title.

He wondered suddenly: Is it just that I am, happily, reasonable?
And smiled, pushing through the crowd.
And wondered how different that made him from those around.
I can’t (he stepped from the curb) look at every one to check.
Five then? There: that woman, a handsome sixty–or older if she’d had regeneration treatments–walking with one blue, high-heeled boot in the street; she’s got blue lips, blue bangles on her breasts.
A young (fourteen? sixteen?) man pushed up beside her, seized her blue-nailed hand in his blue-nailed hand, grinned (bluely) at her.
Blinking blue lids in recognition, she smiled.
Really, breast-bangles on a man? (Even a very young man.) Just aesthetically: weren’t breast bangles more or less predicated on breasts that a) protruded and, b) bobbed . . .? But then hers didn’t.
And she had both blue heels on the sidewalk. The young man walked with both his in the street. They pushed into the parti-colored crowd.
And he had looked at two when he’d only meant to look at one.
There: by the transport-station kiosk, a tall man, in maroon coveralls, with a sort of cage on his head, shouldered out between several women. Apparent too as he neared were cages around his hands: through the wire you could see paint speckles; paint lined his nails; his knuckles were rough. Some powerful administrative executive, probably with spare time and credit enough to indulge some menial hobby, like plumbing or carpentry.
He humphed and stepped aside. A waste of wood and time.

The focused “he” of that whole kaleidoscopic sequence is Triton‘s viewpoint character, Bron Helstrom, a tall, blond strapping type with a solid gold eyebrow and a talent for metalogics, a future quasi-math that can analyze linguistic concepts, personalities, etc. (a recurring theme in Delany). With his Uber name, imposing looks and knowledge of a vague future super-social-science, Bron is a riff on the sort of character that, in the hands of older school sci-fi writers, would end up at the head of a space armada, woman breathily clinging to his leg, humorlessly announcing the next stage ™ in human evolution.

But Delany, blessedly, is not them, as shown by densely addictive style in the excerpt above. At its heart, Triton is a huge inversion: of our own subconsciously expected norms, of the traditional space opera — give the title an exclamation point and it’d make a great serial — and of the utopias that were cropping up like mayflies in the mid-70s. Specifically it comes off as a riposte to Ursula LeGuin’s vastly overrated “ambiguous utopia” The Dispossessed.

His own mental reassurances aside, Bron is neither happy nor reasonable. Despite its many solutions to our own vexing problems, society on Triton still has office politics, personal troubles and (as Bron aptly demonstrates more than once) clueless men believing the universe owes them a good lay. Furthermore, the solar system’s on the brink of total war, with all the attendant cloak and dagger.

But that’s mostly looming in the background (as wars tend to be for most people, until, as Delany demonstrates in harrowing fashion, they come home) and the majority of the book is taken up with Bron’s tumultuous relationship with The Spike, a wandering artist who’s far better suited to the brave new world than he.

In the first of many reversals, Bron ends up fawning over her (and a damsel himself before it’s all done). The wars don’t involve space armadas, but massive sabotage. The tall white guy ends up being at the periphery of ye grand struggle, while the dirty work’s done by Bron’s (much more capable) black roommate Sam and some very strategic women. Without revealing too much, there is not a single sci-fi trope that Delany doesn’t delight in breaking.

The result is a magnificently written but not always easy look at a future. The first time I read it I was drawn by Delany’s innovative ideas, but Bron is such a self-absorbed little shit that he’s hard to sympathize with. I had much more appreciation for Triton the second time through, when it’s easier to see the razor-sharp cuts at our own time, like this bit of toxic nostalgia from a female Bron:

Bron sighed: “It’s so strange, the way we picture the past as a place full of injustice, inequity, disease and confusion, yet, still, somehow, things were … simpler. Sometimes I wish we did live in the past. Sometimes I wish men were all strong and women were all weak, even if you did it by not picking up and cuddling them enough when they were babies, or not giving them strong female figures to identify with psychologically and socially; because, somehow, it would be a simpler way to justify…” But she could not say what it would justify.


Utopia novels, even well-written ones, invariably feel sterile (perfection is damnably boring), Triton is anything but. Like the utopias, it starkly contrasts a possible world with our own, but the result of Delany’s deep characterization and refusal to play by the rules is a book that, 32 years later, is still far ahead of its time.

Question: Coilhouse is proudly devoted to alternative cultures in a time where they no longer exist (at least not like before). But the diagnosis for the fracturing mainstream isn’t great either. Would a society like Triton‘s, without any mainstream, be an improvement? Would we still get those, like Bron, who feel alienated? Would it be worth it anyway?

21 Responses to “All Tomorrows: “Trouble on Triton””

  1. Ignotus Says:

    Give me Iain M Banks’ Culture over Triton any day (and Banks as a writer over Delany, but that’s an unrelated point).

  2. Jami Says:

    I think that having a society where no mainstream culture exists whatsoever would take a bit of the spice and comfort from being able to dress and act how you want.
    Personally I love the idea of dystopian environments in the future, if only for the spice of rebellion against whatever overzealous leader or government is in power. I think we as humans thrive on conflict in most forms, whether we like to admit it or not.

    I am going to love this new All Tomorrows feature. I’m already quite jazzed about it, thank you.

  3. Mer Says:

    Ignotus, yes, in spite of common ground shared by Banks and Delany, that would appear to be an unrelated point. It’s also a half-assed point.

    If you feel proprietary and opinionated enough to dismiss someone’s body of work (not to mention a thoughtful essay on said work), you might as well, ya know, engage, rather than lazily piss on the wall and leave.

  4. Nadya Says:

    What Mer said. I happen to be the one who approved Ignotus’ comment, and I was kind of iffy about doing that. I was like, “OK… does this have any merit?”

    But I think I’ll leave it up as an example of the kind of comments we could do without. It’s totally OK to disagree and make strong points – we love debate! – but don’t be lazy and half-assed, like Ignotus above. It’s totally disrespectful.

  5. Colin Says:

    I’m looking forward to reading this article (bookmarked on my phone). I’m a fan of Delany, sometimes I find myself in Dhalgren in my dreams.

  6. Ben Morris Says:

    I love Delany’s books but Triton is one I haven’t read. I should fix that.

    I have no idea if mainstream culture will ever disappear as completely as in this book but the rise of the internet (among other things) seems to have given it a firm push down the road to marginalization.

    I doubt there will ever be a society where no one feels alienated (people being people and all) but imagine it would be much rarer in a society that is a healthy eco-system of micro-cultures rather than a dominant mainstream.

  7. alumiere Says:

    haven’t read triton either…

    but i think that a world without a dominant mainstream would have just as many unhappy people as ours – especially if the rest of the conditions are the same (ie: power struggles at work, some people having more than others, etc), although i’m sure they’d be unhappy for slightly different reasons

    unless you get a world where enforced happiness (with drugs, etc) is the norm i think that humans will always be unhappy with some level of their lives – it’s the way our minds are wired – happy really only exists as a contrast to another state

    although it would be nice to have the happy/unhappy dichotomy be over a much smaller set of issues because all the basics are provided and culture a is not trying to prevent culture b from existing; the live and let live attitude of the world sounds very good to me

    an interesting contrast to look at might be kim stanley robinson’s mars trilogy – at times mars feels much like what you describe on triton but still has many problems to overcome, and even the young “martians” are unhappy even when they’re living in what many of us would consider to be mini-utopias

  8. R. Says:

    I have never read Delany’s work until the excerpt in Coilhouse Issue 1 and I like his writing style. I’m going to have to check this book out.

    A society without the mainstream could probably be akin to having light without dark. You have to have one on the other. The mainstream is the thing that a few like-minded (or not) individuals decide to move away from and so they go off to form an alternative to that.

    I think also in any society there is always going to be someone who feels left out, who feels like they’re getting the short end of the stick. It’s pretty much encoded into human DNA that we could be in a paradise yet still feel left out (I know I’ve had my moments of alienation even though I was somewhere I wanted to be). Now I wonder if that even made any sense. -_-

  9. What's in a name anyways? Says:

    I feel an end to the mainstream would be an improvement. People would be influenced from smaller streams. And could influence others from these smaller streams. Some people avoid mainstream music/film/art…. Some people float
    down the mainstream so far they end up mesmerized in the sea of repetition.
    Unfortunately cash is always such a huge factor… I enjoyed reading everyone’s
    comments as much as the article. Reese’s.

  10. Jerem Morrow Says:

    @ R.

    Makes perfect sense.

    Even in a world such as Triton suggests, where the alternative isn’t, we’d cycle out certain aspects until mass homogenization occured. We’re definitely hard-wired to adore misery. Or at least *need* it to exist, in order to continue on. We’d strive to be the architects of a new mainstream, in our fight against it.

    Heh…if that makes any sense.

    p.s. D, looking forward to more All Tomorrows!

  11. cappy Says:

    I beg to differ. There was definitely both a mainstream and an alternative in Triton — the mainstream was Earth and Mars (to a lesser degree), the alternative was the outer colonies. Remember — the population on Earth and Mars was huge compared to that of the colonies; definitely sounds like a mainstream.

  12. Terra Trouvé Says:

    (I feel slightly ignorant giving my two cents without having read the book, but…) Isn’t it part of the human condition to band together in clusters with other people with similar ideas, ideals, likes, dislikes, appearances etc. Surely a world without some kind of (not necessarily main)stream is innevitable. the only thing better than wearing your new clothes is admiring them while wearing them. this works much better with a source for comparison; instantly creating two conflicting parties.

    Hypothetically though, I think that a world without any mainstream would not be as perfect as all that. without any mainstream culture, there could be no other cultures to lean against or away from it. Alienation is innevitable. Every person would be living in a constantly shifting alien world with no anchor apart from themselves. which we all know never goes well in these future cities. Doubt comes in and no one knows real from dream.

  13. January Says:

    In the same note as the above comment- What would subcultures be without a mainstream? If there was no social ‘norm’ to rebel against, or to turn away from in favour of a different set of ideals/interests/styles/etc- I wonder if free expression would simply be an expression of one’s vanity? I wonder, too, if the whole world were trying to be as unique as possible, if we wouldn’t run into the exact same issues as we have now when it came to judging one another, competitiveness and covetiveness (might not be a word, but you know what I mean), or if we would be so involved with ourselves that we would barely notice what those around us were trying to express?
    Great comment thread!

  14. Nancy Says:

    I read a lot of Delaney at one time. What always stays with me are not the plots or ideas, but images – of the dirty fingernails of Dahlgren; the implants, style statements, games, and so on. Triton was one of his best. In that, I think of Bron as the dull mainstream salaryman, and the Spike as the artist who is too cool for him (I love the first time he sees her theatrical group doing street theatre) — it was like a kid’s fantasy of wanting to be allowed to hang out with the cool kids, who ultimately reject one. Maybe there were many small mainstreams, insiders and outsiders — they certainly weren’t all happy individualists … I wanted to possess the chess-like game board, too.

  15. karenth Says:

    @January, I think subcultures without a mainstream would simply be…cultures. Micro-cultures. Some of them would be commentary on other micro-cultures (perhaps a fair number of them), but I do not believe the majority of them would be. Not every choice can be reduced to “for” or “against.”

  16. Tristan Says:

    Cappy is right – in Triton the mainstream is very much alive on Earth, so much so that…


    … the colonies end up destroying Earth. As Delany writes after the deed is done, the freedom to define one’s own reality is the most precious thing the outer colonies have. It’s worth doing anything to protect, even killing off 80% of the human species.

    My take on Triton is that the colonies do have a single, though very splintered, culture based on the core principle of diversity. A similar theme shows up in Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand, where the two political factions in the universe again embody this tension between diversity and standardization. The latter book is even more relevant and thought-provoking in the present context of globalization.

  17. David Forbes Says:

    So many excellent responses. Thank you, everyone. This is exactly the sort of discussion I hoped to provoke. My regrets in advance if my replies ramble a bit: there’s a lot of ground to cover here.

    Nadya, Mer: Well done. Thank you.

    Jami: A little of the spice, perhaps, but it could be argued that it would allow a much greater degree of cultural freedom, and people would in all likelihood find a way to push off cultures whether they’re mainstream or not (as most alt cultures have pushed off their alt predecessors).

    I see the appeal: dystopian societies make a great target for envisioned rebellion. Like using Nazis for movie villains, they make an erstwhile hero’s choices a whole lot cleaner and easier: nothing feels quite so sweet as a righteous fight. Classics like 1984 offer a good counterpoint, I think, and a reminder that in dealing with actual dystopias, dying in a gutter or being broken in an interrogation chamber is a lot more likely than glamorous uprising.

    I’m glad you like the column. Much more to come, including plenty of dystopia wrangling. ;-)

    Ben Morris: Agreed on all counts. Increased social fracturing has been taking place since the industrial revolution and the more I look at history, I think the degree of homogeneity within past cultures has been greatly exaggerated by academics looking for big trends to write books about.

    alumiere: interesting points all. Closer in time one can see grandparents, etc. that went through the Depression who no doubt think our own lives are mini-utopias.

    One reason I like Triton as a work, especially as a counter to utopia novels, is exactly how it clarifies that greater freedom won’t necessarily make everyone happy. I think it’s a matter of goals, as all societies are tradeoffs (some of the trades monumentally better than others). As you point out, total “happiness” is unlikely without massive intrusions or medical “correction.” Some tendencies in that direction are underway now, with increased medication to “fix” unhappy people. Now, fortunately, many are realizing that some unhappiness and dissatisfaction are necessary. Still, it does bring the possibility of a Somatopia a little closer.

    R: Great, that’s what I like to hear.

    Possibly, but keep in mind that a lot of alternative cultures aren’t just reactions to the mainstream, but people who just naturally want to embrace a style, outlook, lifestyle and have to do it in the teeth of massive opposition, even though it’s their own lives. I tend to believe that norms are those things everyone’s supposed to live by, but few people obey 100%.

    Jerem: I don’t know if we would. While I didn’t have the time to go into it, Delany makes it clear in Triton that there are plenty of groups that embrace total homogeneity and conformity, as well as all those strapping hot individualists running around. He seems to suggest that without a mainstream, things will just keep splintering further. Of course, this could just end up in endless internecine warfare, but if a society can make it work…

    Nancy: Good point. That’s a perspective I hadn’t thought of before, but it makes sense. Even if there’s no overriding mainstream culture, people still form their clusters, there’s still social cluelessness, exclusion and all the other little demons.

    And yes, I want that strategy game.

    January: What would subcultures be without a mainstream?

    To be devil’s advocate for a second: themselves.

    An interesting question, if one that’s not entirely new: is there more to alternative subcultures than opposition to the status quo?

    Karenth: Agreed.

    Tristan, Cappy: A good way to bring up the contrasts Triton draws between the heterotopia and its neighbors.

    I define things differently, however. When we talk about cultures, we usually draw the border somewhere: alt cultures are considered alternatives to the societies they emerge or exist in. Globalized as the world is, when we say “mainstream” we don’t include every dominant culture from the US to Russia to China in one big lump, we’d speak of mainstream culture(s) within American, French, Japanese society, etc. Similarly, within Triton, there’s no mainstream.

    Since you brought up the ending, it’s one of the things that I really enjoyed about the book, not just for its contrast to traditional utopias/space operas, but also for its sheer gutsiness: “Yes, our society believes in complete cultural freedom and universal human rights. Screw with us and we will butcher you by the billions.” Coming on top of the war scenes in Triton itself, it’s bracing stuff. Delany plays for keeps.

    Again, a great comment thread. I hope the rest of the discussions for future All Tomorrows columns end up as interesting. Thank you!

  18. Indentured Mind » Blog Archive » What I’m Reading 1 Says:

    […] read more, so I went off to the local used bookstore looking for Trouble on Triton, as it was also mentioned on Coilhouse. Unfortunately, they didn’t have it, but they did have […]

  19. Rob Says:

    I own that version of Triton. Strangely disturbing to see a resident of my bookshelf staring back at me from the screen of my blackbook.
    It’s a joy to read and reread, as Delaney’s work often is. I must go back to “Time reconsidered as a helix of semi-precious stones” on an annual basis.

    Thinking about freedom of expression/speech/everything: I always thought of it as a given that if you’re free to do whatever you want, with no constraints, then life will eventually become desperately boring. Mainstream, surely, is just shorthand for “that which must be rebelled against.” Without rebellion, there’s nothing but empty experimentation. Which is why Triton is ultimately, such a depressing place.

    And it’s telling that the extract you chose to put up featured a man with cages on his head and hands. A telling image. If you can’t find the cage in your own life, you’ll create them for yourself.

    And you’re right about Bron, David. He really is an insufferable prick.

  20. Delany « Barbarianchick's Blog Says:

    […] people are better at writing about literature than I am — let me link to Coilhouse’spiece on Trouble on […]

  21. devin-- Ippolytos Says:

    (I have not read the book). … . Um,
    During an earlier era, the mainstream gave a huge reason for the counterculture to rebel. However the utopian-ideas or often they were stated as “ideals” (which goes handinhand with Utopia, in the “classic” sense….)
    Wait…what the heck was my point? Um… Yes that Utopia is boring. I think that in this current era where it seems the counter-culture that evolved, devolved away from counterculturalism and became “mainstream” such as are called “hipsters” are a reaction in someway to “counterculturalism’s” seak to rebel. They rebel by being superficial. So they are not rebels(?) …However that is an aside, and this, comment that is, is becoming a mess. : To conclude my viewpoint is that rebelion is NOT definitely the “enjoyable” factor of the diversity that the counter-culture introduced. IN FACT I see the rebellion aspect as merely the result of the mainstream being ridiculously homogenious. It was and is a modern descendent of the noble sriotocratic system that, because of modernity has been taken out of context and at a very early period became stereoptyped, (I think) yet still its not my main point. But Im sure all ah-ya’s Get my drift……..”puff” Hes gone., like a genie in a bottle.