Form Models Function: Narrative Techniques in Trouble on Triton

Last month I explored a reading of Trouble on Triton focused on content, specifically the representations of sex in two of Delany’s novels. This month I turn my attention to another reading that analyzes form and structure in the series of books that constitute Sam Delany’s Modular Calculus. Trouble on Triton is the preface to this collection.

Kathleen Spence begins Neveryon Desconstructed ? by explaining her impetus for writing the essay: to understand the critical work of Jacques Derrida and novels by Sam Delany. Her motivation resembles my own as I write these blogs exploring the connection between Dark Ecology and Trouble on Triton.

While the genre of science-fiction is often defined in terms of content: stories that contain aliens, futuristic technology, or space travel; Delany argues that science-fiction also relies on a particular form, a metaphoric structure that allows a certain type of discourse to be read as a denotative description. (p. 284) For example, the phrase sensory shield ? in Trouble on Triton could be part of a discourse on the ideological machinery of a society based on the inviolability of the subjective, but in the novel, the phrase describes actual, physical machinery that surrounds the city of Tethys. This form simultaneously manifests an ideological concept and the evanescent awareness of ideology.

In addition to this intrinsic metaphoric structuring, Spence’s essay identifies two major techniques that Delany uses throughout the Modular Calculus. The first is to subvert reader expectations, especially those that relate to the science fiction genre but also expectations about novels and texts generally. The second is a process of contrasting and reversing values, a characteristic strategy of deconstruction. Both techniques serve what Spence identifies as Delany’s literary project: to explore, using narrative, the process of modeling and its implications.

Delany has said that the Modular Calculus began as a child’s garden of semiotics ?, and such is Trouble on Triton. (p.158) The question posed isn’t merely how we model our world, but how we choose between competing models: What makes one model useful? What makes another model useless or even harmful?

Spence deploys Paul de Man‘s description of allegory to give context to this task. Allegorical reading connects aspects of a narrative model with aspects of the thing being modeled. The difficulty, though, is that narrative is temporal (stories usually have beginnings, endings, and middles), and the thing being modeled is often an atemporal thesis: the virtues in The Faerie Queene, the nature of androgyny in The Left Hand of Darkness, and in Delany’s work: the process of constructing and interpreting cultural models ? (p. 131).

According to de Man, the complicated task of reading allegory is facilitated by presenting a transparent surface narrative. The reader of science fiction is presented with the challenge of identifying references in the narrative that point to aspects of an implied model for our world; allegorical references in the text relate to the author’s model of our world, not our actual world. Astute readers of Trouble on Triton, primed for an allegorical reading, would look through the surface narrative toward features of the text that resemble signs and that point toward other features that resemble parts of a model. It is quite a complicated task, and this is, in fact, one of the pleasures of reading science fiction.

Delany relies on this priming of the reader to explore how models are constructed by undermining genre specific expectations. In a discussion with students at Concordia University, Delany described his intention for readers of Trouble on Triton:

As she or he moves through the novel, I’d hoped Common Reader would progress, in his or her responses, through a series of stages. In the first chapter, when you see the Ego Booster Booths, predicated on the idea that the government is collecting information on everybody, and hear their history, I wanted Common Reader to feel that Bron is a pretty average Joe, but that the society must be hugely repressive. Then, as the book goes on, I wanted Common Reader slowly to shift that opinion: soon it should become clear that Bron is a despicable man–but the society around him is actually fairly good. Finally, however, with the second appendix, I wanted Common Reader to get still another take on the tale: since other people from Mars seem to be having problems very similar to Bron’s, I wanted to leave the suggestion that there is a political side to these problems that the rest of the narrative–at least as it’s been told from Bron’s point of view–has up till now repressed or been blind to.

In each of the stages, Delany provides language that primes the reader for certain expectations and then undermines those expectations. The Ego Booster Booths remind readers of dystopian novels, such as 1984, and imply Bron might be in contention with an oppressive regime. But in subsequent chapters, Bron makes a pass at a woman in his office and then causes her to be fired. His behavior, in the late 1970s particularly, induces readers to loathe him. I say in the 1970s particularly because in the context of the society modeled by the novel, Bron’s behavior is neither unique nor especially pernicious. But as a literary technique, the effect these chapters have on readers is significant, demonstrated by the almost ubiquitous opinion among critics of the novel that Bron is one of fiction’s sincerely, unlikable protagonists ?. (p.133)

The second major technique Spence identifies is Delany’s application of deconstruction, explicitly derived from the work of Jacques Derrida. ? First, the Modular Calculus establishes binary opposites (world/satellite, man/woman, individual/society), and then proceeds to reverse the values within each. ? (p.144) In true Delany style, he not only deconstructs the binary opposites but has the text remark on the process of deconstruction. Spencer refers to the symbolism of the mirror that pervades the Neveryona tales as an example of this remark on deconstruction. While she does not identify a similar motif in Trouble on Triton, I find similarities between the mirror motif and the Ego Booster Booths. The mirrors do not just reflect images, as old Venn explains in Tales of Neveryon, but they distort the image to produce something altogether new. In Trouble on Triton, we are initially told that the surveillance video collected is randomly shown to those who use the booths (randomization being one kind of distortion), but later we find out the footage is not always random: images of Bron before her sex change are censored. As with the sensory shields, the government manipulates access to information to protect the inviolability of the subjective.

Perhaps the most interesting binary oppositions deconstructed in Trouble on Triton directly concern language: spoken versus written and literature versus criticism. In the sixth section of Spenser’s essay, she explicates several Derridean terms relevant to Delany’s writing: trace, dissemination, and diffĂ©rance to introduce these oppositions. She also provides background on the linguistic theory underpinning much of the Modular Calculus.

The primacy of speech is a generally accepted principle among linguists, but due to lack of empirical evidence competing theories abound. In another fictional essay that is part of the Modular Calculus, Delany, writing as S. L. Kermit, utilizes a theory of anthropologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat to posit a written language the could have preceded speech. The contrast between spoken and written narrative was also a topic of a lecture Delany gave at Naropa’s Summer Writing Program while I was a student there. During this talk, he emphasized the difference between a reader, who is empowered to re-read and skim ahead at her leisure, and a listener, who relies on the speaker to set the pace of the flow of words. This description explains why the oral tradition of storytelling uses certain devices, such as repetition and simple narrative structures, that are less effective in literary fiction.

According to Delany, speech was his inspiration for writing Trouble on Triton. He first had the idea for the novel after overhearing a dinner conversation of unthinkable insensitivity ? (Concordia University). He wrote the scene where the Spike tells off Bron as a letter she dictated into a “voice-scripter”. Bron first reads this caustic rejection as a government facsimile before receiving the actual transcript.

What do I want to explain?
That I don’t like the type of person you are. Or that the type of person I am won’t like you. Or just: I italics don’t. Do I have the colon in there? Yes. ?

Spence explains this as an example of the Derridean trace at work in the text: Bron reads a facsimile, but when he gets the actual letter it is also a copy of what Spike has said. The transcript includes the Spike’s editorial directives, as well as her intended communication to Bron, and so profiles the translation from speech to writing.

The distinction between literature and criticism throughout the Modular Calculus is explored by Delany’s inclusion of appendices that conflate these binary opposites. As a supplemental text, an appendix is both less than and more than the text. It is less than the whole of the text because it does not stand on its own. But the appendix is more than the text because it adds something that improves or enhances the text. To understand this logic, I think of Paul Fry’s explanation involving supplemental vitamins: A vitamin is less than food because it doesn’t have calories to sustain us, but a vitamin is more than food because it provides many more nutrients.

Appendix A ? of Trouble on Triton is a collection of notes and fragments, excluded from the novel. Appendix B ? is an essay about a series of unfinished lectures by the fictional character Ashima Slade. Incomplete in themselves, the appendices also imply the novel is insufficient on its own, or a more positive way of putting it is that the appendices suggest Delany is saying more than what is conveyed by the novel alone. Indeed, in the author’s own words quoted above, Appendix B ? offers the final turn on twists he intended for the reader. What is significant for the deconstruction of literature versus criticism, is that the final twist comes in the guise of criticism that is actually fiction: not only reversing the binary values but also undermining the opposition itself.

The content of Trouble on Triton concerns itself explicitly with sexual and racial issues, and Delany uses postmodern forms to investigate the social implications of our language systems around these issues. In my next blog, I will consider the subject positions engendered by the novel: not only the shifting positions Delany outlined, but also the consumerist attitude entailed by the ideological principle of inviolability of the subjective. In particular, I will argue that Timothy Morton’s Beautiful Soul Syndrome describes the novel’s main characters: Bron and the Spike.

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