Saturday, 27 February 2010

TROUBLE ON TRITON BY SAMUEL R DELANY

In some ways, Triton (as this novel was titled on its initial publication, in 1976) is as much about science fiction as it is about social and political models.

The infodump or exposition is a vital part of the SF genre; it helps ground us in the imagined world of the story at hand and to contextualise those uniquely science-fictional sentences Delany is so fond of, formations like Heinlein's 'the door dilated' or a statement like 'her world exploded', which could have a much more literal meaning in a science fiction novel than in a mundane novel.

Infodumps give us the necessary context to understand things that do not gel with our everyday experience, they help understand social, political, cultural and technological elements of a story's background that are taken for granted when reading a book about our own times and our own people.

But an infodump is not necessarily informative in the strict sense; there are endless examples of SF infodumps that offer an explanation for things that we know cannot be explained because they have not happened; furthermore, the explanation probably does not have much practical value, because except in very rare cases no one has gone and done those things in the manner suggested therein (although the device or technique described may since have been developed in some different way). Instead, it is a sort of gesture, a string of words with enough familiar terms to reassure the average SF reader (defined by Delany as having the equivalent of a bright 13-year old's knowledge of science) that this is 'proper science' mixed in with enough plausible-sounding esoterica to convince that reader that something fairly authoritative has been said.

One of the first proper infodumps in this book happens when an attack has just been made on Triton, and a government official is trying to tell his companions in a men's cooperative housing building that the brief gravity failure that took place is nothing to worry about. He gives an explanation that starts by referring to things that seem to relate to 'real' science, and rapidly becomes esoteric. Them he is asked to tone it down so that a mentally-deficient person present can understand. He gives a simpler explanation that his person can understand - and even this version makes no sense on our terms if looked at closely. Just as the government agent does not really know quite what has happened, but is asserting his authority by seeming knowledgeable, Delany is giving his made-up explanation more authority by showing how even a mentally-deficient member of his future society can understand what flied over our own head. This is a very clever device, and a way to both demonstrate and practice one of the chief uses of the SF infodump.

But there are many other infodumps in this book. Some relate to a made-up discipline of metalogics - something which again has no relation to any real system of logic we might be able to conceive of, some are in the form of descriptions of dramatic pieces couched in the jargon of academic cultural studies, some relate to genetics and medicine. Others are more personal.

All the infodumps that relate to disciplines of this future world start in terms that seem to make sense, then move into more or less incomprehensible realms for a very long time - most of the mental context of these people is way, way ahead of our own, Delany seems to be implying.

And then there are the personal infodumps. These are much more comprehensible, even as they tell us things about society and politics on the different planets and sattelites of the solar system that are quite fantastic by today's standards. But on the human level, once we adjust a little, they are perfectly comprehensible.

Except that the main character of this novel, Bron Hellstrom, seems to see very different things in these personal revelations than we do. We begin by trying to empathise with what seems to be the main character and hence hero of this story. And yet, we slowly find that the people he resents are among the most integral, self-actualised and compassionate individuals he encounters, and the society he hates is a sort of libertarian utopia that in many ways seems to superior to any current earth society. This brings us to the more commonly discussed aspects of this novel - how it belongs to a dialogue on ambiguous utopias with novels like Ursula K. Le Guin's The Disposessed, how different societies offer different kinds of liberties and privileges, how much of this is governed by factors like resources and space and may not be possible or even desirable in other circumstances, and what means are justifiable to preserve a desirable way of life. There's also a commentary on gender relations and roles that is worth investigating.

Just as interestingly, Triton is a fascinating study of a completely dysfunctional individual, but one that is told almost entirely via a closely focused third person narrative that gives us this individual's thoughts and perspectives rather than anyone else's. It's easy to fall into subjectivity here, like the people who are seduced by the prose in Lolita and forget that the narrator is a deeply sick sexual predator. Delany's achievement is that Bron's anomie is made clear to us despite immersion in his viewpoint.

I haven't even begun to scratch the surface of what there is to enjoy and think about in this novel; there is a passage in one of the appendices where Delany offers a comparison of the difficulty of understanding SF versus its potential range of expression as compared to mundane fiction that evokes similar dichotomies between tonal and atonal music, representational and abstract art. This alone is a point that deserves being engaged with in detail; that odd second appendix opens up even more ideas. The whole narrative is a mine-field seeded with explosive ideas and concepts. This is a science fiction novel that does it all - engages in a dialogue with its genre, offers deep, thought-provoking world-building and gives us total character-immersion. It isn't so much that they don't write them like this anymore as that they hardly ever did, or do.

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