Triton by Samuel R. Delany


/r/Fantasy Bingo Squares: Slice of Life (Hard Mode), Cyberpunk (Hard Mode), Afrofuturism, Retelling (Hard Mode)

Execution: ⭐⭐⭐⭐💫
Enjoyment: ⭐⭐⭐💫


The door opened; she slipped out; the door clicked to behind.

She wore white gloves.

She wore white boots.

Her long skirt and high-necked bodice were white. Full white sleeves draped her wrists. She reached up and pulled the white cloak around her shoulders. Its paler than ivory folds swept around.

Over her head was a full-head mask: white veils hung below the eyes; the icy globe was a-glitter with white sequins. White plumes rose above it, as from some albino peacock.

“Now—” The veil fluttered with her breath—“we can roam the labyrinths of honesty and deceit, searching out the illusive centers of our being by a detailed examination of the shift and glitter of our own, protean surfaces—”

She turned back to the door and called:

“Don’t worry, I’ll be back in time for the performance.”

Triton, also published under Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia, by Samuel R. Delany is one hell of a trip and surprisingly relevant to modern day discourse on gender and sex. Originally written as a response to Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, Delany explores what it might be like to experience a progressive, open society as a very traditional, masculine male with conservative ideas about the roles and capabilities of men and women. Where Le Guin explored life as someone who is LGBT+ in a predominantly straight “utopia,” Delany explores the inverse.

Written in Delany’s always stellar prose, Triton takes on uncomfortable perspectives designed to discomfit readers. The narrator, Bron, has much in common with the incels of today. He believes that he’s a good guy who deserves a chance… and becomes quite angry when he is denied it. He is the epitome of white male entitlement. Although he lives in a world that is founded on everyone’s basic needs being met, including those of sexual nature, he finds that the women who he wants to love him are not the ones who love him in return. He pursues women who are not interested in him, projecting his ideal, submissive woman onto them despite it being at odds with their actual personalities. He is, ultimately, one of the most self-centered narrators I’ve come across. His truth is the truth, and he can and will misrepresent actual occurrences in order to support it. 

Bron meets a theatrical artist, known publicly as The Spike. I would have loved to read a book from her perspective. She is, in fact, more interesting than Bron in every single way – and it’s quite a shame that Bron himself is entirely oblivious to this fact. He views himself as better than her, wanting her to give up her lifestyle and dreams to come live with him and… do what? He never stops to think about that, because her life after it wouldn’t matter to him. His happiness and his ability to possess her is the only thing important to him, and he is aggressively jealous towards anyone and anything that stands between him and his prize. In Bron, Delany personifies the nightmare of every woman who has ever had a man place her on a pedestal with an uncanny degree of understanding – almost certainly drawing on his own experiences as a queer black man in the 70s. Delany understands what power, entitlement, and discrimination looks like. Bron is terrifying. 

No (he narrowed his eyes at Miriamne, who was a step ahead), she said the Spike was just her friend: Like me and Lawrence, he thought. Then, the sudden questioning: Does she feel about the Spike the way Lawrence is always saying he feels about . . .? His eyes narrowed further at the gray-caped shoulders ahead. I’ll kill her! he thought. I’ll make her sorry she ever heard of metalogics! Miriamne, staggering, drunk, in the co-op corridor, grasping at the Spike, caught in her arms, falling down soused on the corridor floor . . . He thought: I’ll—Miriamne glanced back. “You’re looking preoccupied again.” 

“Huh?” he said. “Oh. I guess I am.” He smiled: I will kill her. I’ll kill her in some slow and lingering way that will hurt amazingly and unbelievably and continuously and will seem to have no source and take years.

In his journey to find fulfillment and satisfaction, Bron has passed through many different social sects, organizations, and living situations. On Triton, many of these groups can become quite interesting, and their creeds may involve self-mutilation, self-imposed restraints, or deal with ceremonies or mannerisms that someone today would find horrifying. Bron at one point joined a group called the Mumblers, who panhandle in the street with their eyes blinded (either with a blindfold or by keeping them shut – no mutilation for these folks, at least) while chanting “mumbles.” He was hoping to find a group he could meld himself into – but failed to make that connection. 

Men like Bron are the ones who are easiest prey for the alt-right groups of our current political ecosystem. Men who are aimless, educated, but self-centered and entitled. They don’t have a support network that fulfills their need to be better than others, and so they find themselves drawn into a group that tells them that they are better because of their gender or race. If Triton had not so assiduously stamped out such groups, Bron almost certainly would have been a part of one. As it is, he is fortunate enough to have a support group… even if he doesn’t listen to them or appreciate them. It’s not enough for him to have peers and friends. He needs to have someone who he can feel is beneath him and under his power and control. And more than that, he wants it to be a woman who will be both submissive while also being motherly. He expects a woman to sacrifice their own wants and dreams, their own emotional needs, in favor of his own. When he tries to force The Spike into this role, she pushes back because she understands its futility and his fundamental inability to become a fully independent human being. 

What’s the difference between that and emotionally injured? Emotionally crippled? Emotionally atrophied? Maybe it isn’t your fault. Maybe you weren’t cuddled enough as a baby. Maybe you simply never had people around to set an example of how to care. Maybe because you quote feel you love me unquote you feel I should take you on as a case. I’m not going to. Because there are other people, some of whom I love and some of whom I don’t, who need help too and, when I give it, it seems to accomplish something the results of which I can see.

Disclaimer: obviously not all men. I hate that I have to add this, but I know that I do. If you’re a considerate and kind individual, you’re obviously not the person this book is addressed at. This book is aimed at the subset of white men who are like Bron and think it’s okay to only ever talk about themselves and lecture about logic at young, highly educated black women. Although entitlement and privilege affect more people than just white men, they are a particularly privileged group wherein these issues are pervasive and encouraged in a way that is much less common in other demographics. Historically, they are the ones who have held power in Western civilization… and this has lasting consequences. If you’re aware of your privilege and do your best to use it well and to help others who face roadblocks you don’t, congrats, you’re not Bron. 

“Let me tell you a secret. There is a difference between men and women, a little, tiny one that, I’m afraid, has probably made most of your adult life miserable and will probably continue to make it so till you die. The difference is simply that women have only really been treated, by that bizarre, Durkheimian abstraction, ‘society,’ as human beings for the last—oh, say sixty-five years; and then, really, only on the moons; whereas men have had the luxury of such treatment for the last four thousand. The result of this historical anomaly is simply that, on a statistical basis, women are just a little less willing to put up with certain kinds of shit than men—simply because the concept of a certain kind of shit-free Universe is, in that equally bizarre Jungian abstraction, the female ‘collective unconscious,’ too new and too precious.”

This book has grown on me more and more as I’ve thought about it. When I first set it down, my initial impression was that I’d wanted more of the world and more of the characters I found interesting, despite understand that the point of the book was that Bron himself was too wrapped up in his own onanistic worldview to ever look outwards. I felt a little dissatisfied. I still do wish we’d gotten to see more of Triton, its various political maneuverings, and the war that sat as a backdrop to the book; yet… the social aspects hit closer and closer to home the more I think about them. Although some portions of the novel most certainly did not age well, including some of the language surrounding race (be prepared for slurs), the underlying horror of white male entitlement remains a part of the fabric of our culture and is more relevant than ever before. 


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Have you read this book? What did you think? Do you have any questions about it?

Let me know in the comments below!


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