Ambient Poetics in Delany’s Trouble on Triton

My dark ecology reading of Trouble on Triton continues with a response to the following question:

What poetics does Samuel Delany deploy to describe the environment in Trouble on Triton?

Timothy Morton uses the word ecomimesis to describe nature writing, implying mimicry and Plato’s idea of the poet’s divine madness. Ecomimesis evokes a pervasive quietness (like a hush) that authenticates an atmosphere. The result of ecomimesis is a shared ambience called nature ?. He provides six elements of ambient poetics that are vital to ecomimesis:

Instead of exclusive categories, these are intentionally vague and overlapping. As I went about identifying exemplars of these elements from Trouble on Triton, the ambivalence between categories revealed varying layers of significance and emphasized the foregrounding-backgrounding function.


The term is borrowed from cinematography and describes the technical process by which the appropriate atmosphere of a scene is invoked. This process pulls all the various elements together to simulate the moment portrayed in a scene.

Rendering attempts to simulate reality itself: to tear to pieces the aesthetic screen that separates the perceiving subject from the object. The idea is that we obtain an immediate world, a directly perceived reality beyond our understanding. ?

Delany uses free indirect speech riddled with parenthetical interjections for an overpowering sonic effect, like the soundtrack of a movie. Parenthesis are used so frequently throughout the novel that, like everything ubiquitous, they become part of the background. The parenthetical statements, though, extend the range of the text. Some of the interjections provide short background information, some more extensive background information, and some immediate description of events. The parenthetical voice is also in conversation with the rest of the text, responding to it and answering it. Page one introduces the complete range:

He had been living at the men’s co-op (Serpent’s House) six months now. This one had been working out well. So, at four o’clock, as he strolled from the hegemony lobby onto the crowded Plaza of Light (thirty-seventh day of the fifteenth paramonth of the second yearN, announced the lights around the Plaza-on Earth and Mars both they’d be calling it some day or other in Spring, 2112, as would a good number of official documents even out here, whatever the political nonsense said or read), he decided to walk home.

He thought: I am a reasonably happy man.

The sensory shield (he looked up:-Big as the city) swirled pink, orange, gold. Cut round, as if by a giant cookie-cutter, a preposterously turquoise Neptune was rising. Pleasant? Very. He ambled in the bolstered gravity, among ten thousand fellows. Tethys? (No, not Saturn’s tiny moon-a research station now these hundred twenty five years-but after which, yes, the city had been named.) Not a big one, when you thought about places that were; and he had lived in a couple.

The tension between a formal device of parenthesis and free indirect speech of the parenthetical voices seduces readers to switch off our aesthetic vigilance ?. They remind us that we are reading a story but trick us into thinking the story is being interrupted.

Interruptions are direct and immediate. As Morton points out, …even if we know very well that it is a special effect, we enjoy the deception. Despite inevitable failure, how well the narrator imparts a sense of immediacy! ? Parenthetical interruptions while reading a book (or a web page) are always happening right now.


The medial element refers to the phatic function of the text, after Jakobson’s functions of language. This is the microphone check that seeks to undermine the normal distinction between background and foreground. ?

Each chapter begins with an epigraph from a postmodern philosopher or linguist, reminding readers that this is a text of borrowed words ?, to use Bahktin‘s phrase, and is written in the early 1970s. Likewise the presence of appendices and a forward, establish the bookness of the book.

Medial devices in Trouble on Triton are more than just tags at the beginnings and endings; the structure of this novel emphasizes the medial. In the appendices, Delany writes that everything in an SF novel should be mentioned at least twice-he immediately restates the point parenthetically by commenting that the repetition must be in a different context.

Sure enough, scenes and confrontations are doubled throughout the novel, including the opening scene with Bron in the Plaza of Light; he returns there after his trip to Earth. Not only do the scenes take place in the same location but Delany uses a similar onomatopoetic description in both passages:

A truck chunkered, a hundred yards away. ? p.9

Inside, something chunked! reproachfully. ? p.190

The emphasis in the second sentence is Delany’s. The echo is not only changed from the original but is stronger. Morton quotes Thoreau’s writing on hearing distant bells ring through the forest:

The echo is, to some extent, an original sound, and therein is the magic and charm of it. It is not merely a repetition of what is worth repeating in the bell, but partly the voice of the wood; the same trivial words and notes sung by a wood-nymph. ?

An attack on Triton rocks Bron on his second visit to the Plaza of Light. Earth forces cut power to Tethys and disable the sensory shield. The moon’s real ? gravity is temporarily restored, causing structural damage and gale force winds as the atmosphere escapes into space:

Somewhere across the Plaza, someone screamed.

Then he felt the breeze on his neck that grew. And grew. And grew. And grew-Bron suddenly staggered erect. The war! he thought. It must be the !


Timbral is the physicality of the text itself. On the last page of the novel is a place date subscription:

-London, Nov. ’73/July ’74 ?

The effect of concluding with the time stamp, as Delany does with all his novels, is to jar readers out of the fictional world and into the socially constructed world of the book. Foreground and background shift. We know that the story, which we are reading, was not just now written, but if we are to read fiction at all we must forget that fact. Reading brings the story into our present, but the place date subscription sends the story back to the early seventies -when bomb blasts rocked central London- and stops us from reading at just the right moment: the end.

The last page of the novel, though, is not the last page of the book. Two appendices comprise another thirty pages. The first appendix is titled, From the Triton Journal Work Notes and Omitted Pages ?. While it is made up of the same narrative as the story, the discarded fragments and notes are documents outside the story. The conflict between inside and outside is precisely what the timbral quality of ambient poetics evokes.

The timbral is about the sound in its physicality, rather than about its symbolic meaning… ? and is related to percussion. It describes the way the sound strikes our ears ?. The first appendix is divided into sections, the first and last sections being discarded fragments of the novel itself. The middle three sections expatiate on the nature of the science fiction genre. Like the various parenthetical voices in the novel, the sections in Appendix A also have a sonic effect, but the systematic organization suggests a musician tuning an instrument or playing scales.


Umberto Eco argues that the existence of fictional characters as cognitive objects is (epistemologically) completely determined:

…I know Leopold Bloom better than I know my own father. Who can say how many episodes of my father’s life are unknown to me…In contrast, I know everything about Leopold Bloom that I need to know-and each time I reread Ulysses I discover something more about him. ?

Fictional worlds exist beyond the confines of the book, and characters may seem to live on long after the end of the story. The aeolian is how ecomimesis establishes a sense of processes continuing without a subject or an author. ? Delany, in the first appendix, describes how this quality is active in the SF text, specifically:

In science fiction, science ?-i.e., sentences displaying verbal emblems of scientific discourse- is used to literalize the meanings of other sentences for use in the construction of the fictional foreground. Such sentences…leave the banality of the emotionally muzzy metaphor and…become possible images of the impossible. ?

The joining of two words such as sensory and shield, in an SF context, is not merely a metaphor describing how the society of Triton is incapable of direct experience, but the sensory shield is emblematic of the universe where such a society exists. Delany further explains:

…sign, symbol, image, and discourse collapse into one, nonverbal experience, catapulted …via the text… at the peculiarly powerful trajectory only s-f can provide.

The fundamental quality of SF being described is aeolian; this particular explication, written into the text itself, is closer to medial.


Tone is tension, a penultimate moment sustained, disco. Ambient tone utilizes familiarity with a pattern to affect a stasis of the space-time continuum in an artwork ?. Ecology Without Nature provides an example of ekphrasis from Homer’s Iliad, the lengthy and detailed description of Achilles’ shield amid the final battle scene. This is a literary version of the slow-motion bullets in The Matrix, achieved on film by zooming in, slowing down, and adding the detail air turbulence. Time stops, and space reifies.

Trouble on Triton is a war story, among other things. The first battle scene occurs in the second chapter. Sam, the agent for the government, calls it a nonbelligerent defensive action ?. The sensory shield is down for the first time and briefly so is the artificial gravity. Most of that early chapter is devoted to vlet, a complicated board game played by several characters. The chapter opens with this description:

He gazed over the board: within the teak rim, in three dimensions, the landscape spread, mountains to the left, ocean to the right. The jungle between was cut here by a narrow, double-rutted road, there by a mazy river. A tongue of desert wound from behind the steeper crags, alongside the ragged quarry. Drifting in from the border, small waves inched the glassy sea till, near shore, they broke, foaming. Along the beach, wrinkling spume slid up and out, up and out… The river’s silvers leaving the mountains, poured over a little waterfall, bright as falling mica. A darker green blush crossed the jungle: a micro-breeze, disturbing the tops of micro-trees. ?

The passage is slow and pastoral, holding readers attention in stasis with minute detail: a double-rutted road, the rhythmic crashing of waves, and even the tops of trees swaying in the breeze. The ekphrastic description of the vlet landscape-so vivid and lifelike- is in lieu of a panoramic description of the cityscape of Tethys. Any description of the environment would be a description of artifact (until the moon’s artificial gravity is turned off).


Morton describes this quality by explaining what it does: A re-mark differentiates between space and place. ? The term comes from Derrida, and Morton identifies it as fundamental to ambiance.

To identify the re-mark is to answer the question: how little does the text need to differentiate between foreground and background, or between space and place? ?

The final twenty-two pages of the book (not including the About the Author and the Library of Congress cataloging data) are comprised of a research paper on Ashima Slade, identified in the novel as the founder of the metalogics, the discipline which is Bron’s profession. The complete title is:

Appendix B

Ashima Slade and the Harbin-Y Lectures:

Some Informal Remarks Toward the Modular Calculus,

Part Two

A Critical Fiction for Carol Jacobs & Henry Sussman

Carol Jacobs and Henry Sussman are two actual scholars, professors at Yale. The subtitle, Some Informal Remarks Toward the Modular Calculus Part Two, ? connects this book with the actual Neveryona series that provides the other three parts of the Modular Calculus. Ashima Slade is an eccentric intellectual mentioned several times in the novel. The dedication is to real people; the subtitle is shared with real books; Ashima Slade and the Harbin-Y Lectures, though, are pure fiction.

Appendix B is set inside the fictional world of the novel -one year after the war- and registers as a particularly dry species of nonfiction, the academic essay. This final section of the novel renders the world of Triton as historical and is more palpable with its timbre of nonfiction than the most visceral passages of fiction. Bron, the main character of the novel is pushed beyond significance as the intellectual work of Ashima Slade becomes the focus. Once again, flip the background and foreground.

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