Science Fiction Studies

#52 = Volume17, Part 3 = November 1990


Samuel R. Delany

On Triton and Other Matters: An Interview with Samuel R. Delany


The following text did not originate as any kind of formal interview. Instead it grew out of an April 1986 session that Chip Delany had with me and my students in a course I was teaching at Concordia University on Utopian and Anti Utopian (Science) Fiction. By the time this particular class meeting took place, we had already considered Stanislaw Lem's Futurological Congress and Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed, and had turned our attention to Delany's Triton.

Two of the students, Diane Illing and Peta Kom, recorded that session; and perhaps a year thereafter, my former assistant, Donna McGee, made a valiant effort to "decipher" their tapes. Her transcription sat atop one of my file cabinets until April of this year, when I finally found (or rather, "made") time to verify and edit it. The resultant printout then went to Chip, who subjected it to substantial clarificatory revision.

Except for Chip (SRD), the participants are all designated by an anonymous "Q"; but for the record, the questions not from me come mostly from Renée Lallier (of John Abbott College) and Robert Copp (now a doctoral candidate at McGill). (RMP)

Q: In Futurological Congress, Lem seems to be suggesting that SF is generated from neologisms. How do you react to that proposition? Did Triton, for example, in any way arise from the term concept, "un-licensed sector," say?

SRD: Did it arise from the notion or from the term "un-licensed sector"? No.

As far as SF growing from neologisms, however, I do think there's a terribly important verbal side to SF. Often, in SF, the writer puts together two word roots, and the resultant term produces a new image for the reader. Take Cordwainer Smith's "ornithopters." To read the word is to know what an ornithopter is—if you recognize the roots: helicopter and ornithos—a helicopter is a helicopter, of course, and ornithos is the Classical Greek word for bird. (In modern Greek, by the bye, ornithos just means chicken.) An ornithopter must be a small plane that flaps its wings—like a bird. But even if you haven't seen one of Schoenherr's fine illustrations (that he produced for Dune when Herbert borrowed Smith's term), or had it explained to you, it still calls up the image. This verbal side to SF is very important. The range of SF images is governed entirely by the sayable—rather than by any soft edged concept like the scientifically believable or even the possible.

Consider: "And there, just before me, I could smell the weight of the note D flat!"

At this point, of course, the "image" (if we can call it that) is fantasy —or perhaps surrealism. Or simply speakable nonsense. But it's not yet SF. Once we've spoken an image, however, it becomes the SF job of the surrounding rhetoric—especially the pseudo scientific rhetoric—to make the image cognizable, believable:

It came from the alternate universe Dr Philmus's new invention had opened up when I'd pulled the lever—I could smell its weight, ringing out at me, through the glimmering circles of the iridium coil that had opened a portal to a dimension in which such notions, philosophically absurd in ours, nevertheless exist, are common, and make sense...!

At this point, the image has become acceptable (conventional, hackneyed, even parodic—but recognizable) SF. The image is cognized through a set of codes by which you entail the sayable among a further set of images and ideas that you can then visualize and/or conceptualize.

As I've said, the one I just came up with (above) is both parodic and parasitic (parasitic on both philosophy and SF—as well as on our actual situation here, with Dr Philmus standing right there), and thus brings up a whole further range of questions and considerations. But you get the general idea.

There's often a literal side to SF language. There are many strings of words that can appear both in an SF text and in an ordinary text of naturalistic fiction. But when they appear in a naturalistic text we interpret them one way, and when they appear in an SF text we interpret them another. Let me illustrate this by some examples I've used many times before. The phrase "her world exploded" in a naturalistic text will be a metaphor for a female character's emotional state; but in an SF text, if you had the same words— "her world exploded"—you'd have to maintain the possibility that they meant: a planet belonging to a woman blew up. Similarly the phrase, "he turned on his left side." In a naturalistic text, it would most probably refer to a man's insomniac tossings. But in an SF text the phrase might easily mean a male reached down and flipped the switch activating his sinestral flank. Or even that he attacked his left side. Often what happens with specifically S F language is that the most literal meaning is valorized.

Of course this doesn't happen with every sentence in an SF text. Le Guin is an SF writer who uses far less "science fictiony" language than most. But in most SF that most people mean when they speak of SF—i.e., the SF written and released since 1926 that appears in pulp, or pulp inspired, magazines and paperback or hardcover books—you have such language here and there all through it; it has a very literal quality to it that, even though we would be hard put to call it referential, is nevertheless quite the opposite of metaphor.

There's a fine novella by Vonda McIntyre, called Aztecs, which opens: "She gave up her heart quite willingly." It's about a woman who gives up her four chambered heart to have it replaced with a rotary blood pumping mechanism, in order to perform a certain job a person with a pumping heart can't.

Well, this sort of literalization runs all through SF, and is akin to the neologisms you were asking about. Sometimes, when this literalization happens within a single word (between two recognizable roots, say, as in helicopter and ornithos with "ornith/opter"—or "ray/gun," or "visa/phone"), it produces a neologism. But it works at the level of the sentence as well (when disparate words fall into the same SF sentence), and also at the level of plot (when disparate events join in a single diagetic line). If you want to pursue this argument and are interested in a more formal account of it, both in terms of its applications and its limitations, look at section 7 of an essay of mine, "To Read The Dispossessed," in The Jewel Hinged Jaw.

Q: Are there any other neologisms in Triton? I think there's "metalogic"; but I'm not sure...

SRD: The term occurs in the book, only it's not my neologism. Or rather, it's another case of philosophical parasitism. In the '60s, with the ascendency of terms like "metafiction" and "paracriticism," philosophers began to ask if there was perhaps a "metalogic"—i.e., a logic of logic. A number of philosophers reached the conclusion that logic was the logic of logic. But a few others still clung to the possibility that perhaps there was an extra logical structure, or "meta logic," to ordinary logic. Opposing their contention, Quine says somewhere that, really, if you believe you are talking about logic but you assume an extra logical structure to it, all you've really done is change the subject. I pretty much concur. In Triton, metalogic, with its mathematical superstructure (the Modular Calculus), is just general, inductive reasoning given a fictive mathematical expression. In Triton it "solves" problems I'm perfectly aware general reasoning can't solve.

Individual metalogics are designed for different situations. The kinds of problems they solve in Triton (always off stage and of a complexity that makes the solution really too hard to follow) are analogous to the following. You're in a room with a door leading to another room. Through the door, someone comes in from the other room, bringing a collection of four or five objects. From a consideration of those four or five objects alone, you now reason out—rigorously and with certainty—what all the remaining objects in the other room must be. Intuitively, we recognize there is no way to find a general solution for such a problem, rigorously and for all cases. The pseudo scientific rationale (in Triton), however, is simply that if we had a mathematical reduction whose mathematics was "strong" enough, we just might be able to come up with a general case solution.

The attraction to this bit of logical nonsense is, of course, that we reason our way through similar problems all the time. But precisely the part that can be done rigorously is logic. And the rest is hit or miss—and produces hit or miss results. That's what real experience tells us—if we're honest.

But a real neologism from Triton? Well, let's see...

Q: "Cybralogs"?

SRD: Cybralogs, yes. I have no idea what cybralogs are or what they could possibly be. But they have something to do with the control of words, obviously. From the context, they're probably some sort of sub program, either in ROM or RAM form.

Q: The "sensory shield"?

SRD: That would be another one. As would "un licensed sector." They both pull together two ideas and restructure them, by semantic intrusion. With "un licensed sector," the contextual fact that you know it's an area of the city pretty quickly gives you an idea of what must be going on there, what it must be basically like. The rest just enriches it with details.
Some others...?

Well, the book was written more than ten years ago, so you'll have to allow for my forgetfulness. But to go back to your original question: Did Triton arise out of one specific neologism? No. Did it arise out of several? No. Basically it arose out of some social ideas. The first thing actually written—before I was even sure I was going to write another SF novel— was, oddly, the kiss off letter that the Spike sends to Bron in chapter 5—or, at any rate, a version of it.

I was sitting in Heathrow Airport, with my then wife, Marilyn Hacker. A couple of things were devilling my memory, including a recent dinner at a French restaurant not far from our flat in London, where I'd watched some people behave with what had struck me as unthinkable insensitivity to someone else at their table. Marilyn and I were waiting for a plane to Paris, where she was going to purchase some books on textiles and printing for her rare book business. The conversation between us had fallen off. Suddenly and impulsively, I opened my notebook to a fresh page and began writing this fictive letter a woman might write to tell a truly unpleasant boyfriend it was all over.

That was the start of the book.

From then on, I had to figure out a world—and the events taking place in it—in which this (or such) a letter could be sent. I say "figure out." Actually it all came rushing in on me, almost faster than I could put it down.

Q: Certain parts of Slade's philosophy carry with it radically skeptical implications about the difficulty, not to say the impossibility, of translating system A, the world of experience, into system B, the universe of discourse. Also of translating, or transferring, the universe imbedded in one discourse into the universe imbedded in another—which is to say, the difficulty of speaking about Triton, for example, and its universe of discourse.

SRD: I should have thought it carried great hope for our eventually understanding such a process—rather than radical skepticism about its possibility. After all, it happens in the real world. I hope it may even happen—at least in some small part—tonight.

How can one relational system model another?...What must pass from system A to system B for us (system C) to be able to say that system A now contains some model of system B?...Granted the proper passage, what must be the internal structure of system A for us (or it) to say it contains any model of system B (Triton, "Appendix B," p. 356 [of the 1976 Bantam edition])

The question encompasses the semiotic situation, since the answer to the second part of the question ("What must pass from system A to system B...?") is clearly some form of the answer, "signs"; and the answer to the third part of the question ("...what must the internal structure of system B be for us [or it] to say that it contains any model of system A?") is clearly: it must be of a structure able to interpret signs—i.e., its internal structure must be one that allows it to perform some sort of semiosis.

But the first part of the question sets it in an expanded context that demands an actual algebra of response.

Although we are certainly not going to answer thoroughly such a question here, it's still instructive to look at how the question arose. When I initially formulated it, there was no system C. And my image of system B was, of course, a living subject.

I (known to my friends as system B) look across the room and see the desk there, with the globe sitting on its corner, and two pieces of chalk, and several paperback SF novels piled there in the center—the whole complex better known as system A. Light waves pass from system A to system B; those waves are operated upon neurologically, and the brain of system B now contains a model of system A.
Or: a computer (called system B) phones up on a modem to another computer (named system A) and asks for a directory of all the programs system A has on file. System A sends a list of the program names in its directory back to system B, which then contains a model of (some of) the information available in system A.

But already the computer version has alerted us to things a bit hidden in the "live subject" version. There has to be an expectation of information, which could be broadened to include the general range of familiarity with the possibilities of things system A may exhibit. That's a basic part of the necessary structure of system B, for the modular transfer to take place.

But the computer version also raises another problem: Once the transfer has occurred, in what sense does the computer, system B, know it contains a model of system A? The easiest way to resolve the problem is for us to bring in system C. If somebody else can say she or he knows that the modular transfer has taken place, then it's okay. But what has happened, really, is that system B has split (or multiplied) into two necessary systems: sys tem B, which "knows"; and system C, which knows system B knows—the secondary system that can now take the quotation marks from around the "knowing" that system B was doing, and pin it down, fix it, and validate it.

This splitting of the subject recalls two things: one is the "split subject" that organizes Lacanian psychoanalysis. And the other is a famous fallacy that too often stymies progress in the philosophy of mind—the "homuncular fallacy." I'll assume you all have at least a passing familiarity with Lacan. The homuncular fallacy is, however, what too strict functionalists, or organicists, tend to fall into if they're not very careful when they try to explain consciousness. One assumes a brain, with all its neural sensors— eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin—is collecting information and sorting it, processing it, associating it with other data. Then, at the very center of the brain, sits this little transcendental human form who receives it all and actually is the consciousness that understands, perceives, knows...

And you have to start all over again: Well, how does this little homunculus perceive, understand, know...? You haven't really gotten anywhere at all.

What does this all mean? Does it mean that the Lacanian split subject is only another version of the homuncular fallacy? Or does it mean (and this is certainly the way I lean) that the homuncular fallacy is as seductive as it is because it is so close to a reality the Lacanian "split subject" explains without falling into homunculism? But this is to move away from Triton and to start exploring questions raised in the later "Informal Remarks Toward the Modular Calculus"—i.e., in the "Nevèrÿon" fantasy series to which Triton is the SF prologue.

Q: But the skepticism (perhaps it's all mine)—the impossibility of understanding thoroughly the process by which such transfers work—applies as a caveat to anything you are even now going to say in response to our questions about Triton—or anything else. Although, mind you, that skepticism perhaps applies least—that's a relative term here—to my next question. On its last page before the appendices begin, Triton is subscribed: "London, November 73—July '74." Now, it's subtitled "an ambiguous heterotopia." Before writing Triton, had you read Le Guin's Dispossessed—which carries the subtitle "an ambiguous utopia" and was published in the US in the Summer of '74?

SRD: Not before writing the first draft. I believe I read The Dispossessed somewhere either between the first draft of Triton and the second, or perhaps between the second and the third—so that Triton was basically finished before I became aware of Le Guin's novel. Having read The Dispossessed after I'd finished a first or second draft—was I halfway through the second when a copy of Le Guin's book from Harper & Row reached me in London by mail?—I thought I could probably make that dialogue more pointed by changing a few things here and there—or, better, by clarifying a few things here and there that Le Guin's book directed me to think about. When I first looked through The Dispossessed, it occurred to me that the two books generated an interesting dialogue with each other. My added subtitle was an attempt to put the two novels clearly into a dialogue I already felt was implied.

Q: You're saying, then, that to a large extent the dialogue was accidental?

SRD: It began accidentally, certainly.

Q: You're still sidestepping the question to some extent.

SRD: Right [laughter]. Some of H.G. Wells's novels were conceived and written as direct answers to other novels by other people, written and published earlier. Dostoyevsky wrote Crime and Punishment after reading Hugo's Les Misérables. It greatly impressed him; nevertheless he felt that Hugo, in pursuit of the social dimensions of delinquency, had overlooked some dark and unsettling factors in its psychological dimension that Dostoyevsky felt must be explored. There's a very direct dialogue going on between these books. Indeed, my trilogy "The Fall of the Towers" began— like so many other SF novels—as a direct answer to Heinlein's Starship Troopers. And that direct dialogue does exist between, say, the treatment of the Freddie and Flossie characters in the men's co-op in Triton and the treatment of the Leslie character in the cooperative marriage in Joanna Russ's anti-utopian short story, "Nobody's Home." But no, that's not the sort of direct engagement that happens between Triton and The Dispossessed.

Q: Had you written your article on The Dispossessed around the same time as you were working on Triton?

SRD: "To Read The Dispossessed" was written much later—a year or more after I finished writing Triton. That essay is dated April 1976. By the time I began it (and it only took me three weeks or so to write), I'd already returned to the US from London, taught for a term at SUNY Buffalo, then moved back to New York City. Triton was not only written but had already been published—two months before, in February.

Q: In the dialogue with The Dispossessed, if Bron were removed from the book, would the world of Triton still be a heterotopia? Bron seems to be a kind of anti hero in a critical stance towards the whole world he exists in. If he were removed, would Triton perhaps be a utopia? Compared to Bron, nobody else seems to have too many problems with that world.

SRD: No, certainly it would not be a utopia—though clearly I think its social system represents an improvement on our own. As she or he moves through the novel, I'd hoped Common Reader1 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.

The fact is, I don't think SF can be really utopian. I mean utopia presupposes a pretty static, unchanging, and rather tyrannical world. You know: "I know the best way to live, and I'm going to tell you how to do it, and if you dare do anything else..."

Q: Even an anarchistic utopia?

SRD: Even an anarchistic utopia.

Q: That becomes a contradiction in terms.

SRD: Not really. A problem Ursula makes all but vanish by setting her "anarchistic utopia" in an extreme scarcity environment (and I'm sure it was what she wanted) is the problem of surveillance et punir. When the landscape is as harsh and ungiving as Annares' and your laws are set up in ecological accord with it, you don't have to worry too much about individuals—or groups—deviating too far from these laws. Those who deviate, the landscape itself punishes—if not obliterates.

In scarcity societies, you just don't have the same sort—or frequency —of discipline problems as you do in an affluent society. In a scarcity society the landscape itself becomes your spy, your SS, and your jailer, all in one.

But if the Odonians had set up their "non propertarian" utopia on Urras (and Le Guin says as much in the novel), you'd simply have too many individuals—and groups—saying: "Look, since there's all this stuff, why can't I own some of it?" And the expulsions and disciplinary actions would bloom all around—no matter how anarchistic they started out!

The "ambiguities" Le Guin wanted to examine in her ambiguous utopia are not, I believe, the internal contradictions of a foundering utopia. Rather, she wanted to explore the bilateral contradictions highlighted between two very different societies, one harsh and spiritual, one rich and decadent, but each of which considers itself the best of all possible worlds.

I've always seen SF thinking as fundamentally different from utopian thinking; I feel that to force SF into utopian templates is a largely unproductive strategy.

Further, I think that possibility is what Le Guin is raising by calling The Dispossessed "an ambiguous utopia." It's only by problematizing the utopian notion, by rendering its hard, hard perimeters somehow permeable, even undecidable, that you can make it yield anything interesting.

R.A. Lafferty began the process with his satirical reading of Thomas More in Past Master. Ursula and I shared a publisher with him, and we were both sent readers' galleys. In our turns, we simply followed suit.

In a couple of essays and the odd poem, W.H. Auden makes the point that you have four modernist world views: one Auden called New Jerusalem. New Jerusalem is the technological super city where everything is bright and shiny and clean, and all problems have been solved by the beneficent application of science. The underside of New Jerusalem is Brave New World. That's the city where everything is regimented and standardized and we all wear the same uniform. The two may just be the same thing, looked at from different angles. It's not so much a real difference in the cities themselves as it is a temperamental difference in the observers. In the same way, Auden pointed out, you have a rural counterpart to this pairing. There are people who see rural life as what Auden called Arcadia. Arcadia is that wonderful place where everyone eats natural foods and no machine larger than one person can fix in an hour is allowed in. Throughout Arcadia the breezes blow, the rains are gentle, the birds sing, and the brooks gurgle. But the underside of Arcadia is the Land of the Flies. In the Land of the Flies, fire and flood and earthquake—as well as famine and disease—are always shattering the quality of life. And if they don't shatter it, then the horrors of war are always in wait just over the hill to transform the village into a cess ridden, crowded, pestilential medieval fortress town under siege.

But once again, Auden points out, fundamentally we have a temperamental split here. Those people who are attracted to New Jerusalem will always see rural life as the Land of the Flies, at least potentially. Those people who are attracted to Arcadia will always see urban life as some form of Brave New World.

For some years, I thought SF could generally be looked at in terms of a concert of these four images: all four, either through their presence or absence, always spoke from every SF text. That interplay is what kept SF from being utopian—or dystopian, for that matter. You'll find the argument, at least as it progresses up to this point, detailed in an early essay of mine, "Critical Methods/Speculative Fiction," finished in March of 1969, the second year in which (after fanzines like The Australian SF Review and Lighthouse convinced me that the enterprise was worthwhile) I was seriously writing SF criticism.

To take the argument a bit beyond that essay, however, I think the post modern condition has added at least two more images to this galaxy —if it hasn't just broken down the whole thing entirely.

One of these is the urban image of Junk City—a very different image from Brave New World. Junk City begins, of course, as a working class suburban phenomenon: think of the car with half its motor and three wheels gone which has been sitting out in the yard beside that doorless refrigerator for the last four years. As I kid I encountered the first signs of Junk City in the cartons of discarded military electronic components, selling for a quarter or 75 cents, all along Canal Street's Radio Row. But Junk City really comes into its own at the high tech moment, when all this invades the home or your own neighborhood: the coffee table with the missing leg propped up by the stack of video game cartridges, or the drawer full of miscellaneous walkman earphones, or the burned out building of the inner city, outside of which last year's $5,000 computer units are set out on the street corner for the garbage man (or whoever gets there first), because the office struggling on here for the cheap rent is replacing them with this year's model that does five times more and costs a third as much: here we have an image of techno chaos entirely different from the regimentation of Brave New World—and one that neither Huxley in the early '30s nor Orwell in the late '40s could have envisioned.

Junk City has its positive side: it's the Lo Teks living in the geodesic superstructure above Nighttown in Gibson's "Johnny Mnemonic." You can even see it presaged a bit among those who enjoy the urban chaos in my own Dhalgren—or the unlicensed sectors in the satellite cities of Triton.

The country landscape polluted with technological detritus is perhaps the corresponding rural image. And there is even a positive tradition growing up within this essentially horrific 'scape; I mean such haunting works as M. John Harrison's "Viriconium" series, in which the polluted, poisonous landscape becomes a place of extraordinarily delicate and decadent beauty, among the "culture of the afternoon."
But no matter how we cognize and contrast them, the range of these dispositions is what keeps SF from rigidifying into the idealism (in the Marxist sense) and the large scale social engineering fallacies that characterize utopian thinking—and which, in practical terms, lie in wait to turn utopian applications into oppression.

The problem with this extension of the argument is the problem with all thematics: themes always multiply, if only to compensate for the reductionism that first formed them. The argument began as a Cartesian space of two coordinates, at which point it was fairly wieldy. For most people, however, a Cartesian space of four coordinates (which is where the expanded argument now leaves us) is just too complicated really to see. I suppose, at this point, I'd have to junk the whole thing—however illuminating it was for a while. Finally I have to stick it out on the sidewalk in the Junk City of our own endlessly abandoned critical detritus.

It's always possible someone will come along and find some odd and interesting use for it—or a piece of it.

Q: When you call Triton a heterotopia, do you mean it has all four—or all eight—of those images?

SRD: I suppose so. It's certainly one thing I meant.

Q: "Heterotopia" gave me the idea that Triton is meant to challenge Le Guin because there's obviously a much greater diversity of choice in the way one lives in Triton than in The Dispossessed.

SRD: On Urras? I doubt it. But the variety of choices means that novelistically the book can also deal with a variety of problems—can show how they interrelate.

By making her spiritual utopia a society based on scarcity and her decadent society one based on unequal distribution of riches in a very rich world, Le Guin swallows up several problems in The Dispossessed—and, while that doesn't hurt it as a story of a physicist torn between two cultures, perhaps it somewhat limits the book as a novel of ideas.

Let me state, by the bye, that though I've criticized it at great (even excessive) length, The Dispossessed is a rich and wondrous tale. It's a boy's book: a book to make boys begin to think and think seriously about a whole range of questions, from the structure of society to the workings of their own sexuality. Our society is often described as patriarchal—a society ruled by aging fathers concerned first and foremost with passing on the patrimony. At the risk of being glib, however, I'd suggest that it might be more accurate to say that we have a filiarchal society—a society ruled almost entirely by sons—by very young men. Certainly boys—especially white heterosexual boys—are the most privileged creatures in the Western social hierarchy. They are forgiven almost everything in life—and are forgiven everything in art. Indeed, if the society were a bit more patriarchal instead of being so overwhelmingly filiarchal, it might function just a bit more sanely. But since it doesn't, there's still a great deal to be said for a good boy's book. And for a woman's writing it. And nothing stops women and girls from reading boys' books and learning from them. I mean The Dispossessed is a boy's book the way Huckleberry Finn is a boy's book; and, unlike Huckleberry Finn, the boy in The Dispossessed is held up to the man he will become again and again, chapter by chapter, beginning to end. (The real tragedy of Huckleberry is that the best he can hope to grow up into, personally and historically, is the sociopathic narrator of Springstein's "Born in the U.S.A.") Huckleberry Finn and The Dispossessed are both flawed. (What is it Randall Jarrell said? "A novel is a prose work of a certain length that has something wrong with it.") But all through both, greatness flows, surges, sings. Quite apart from any criticisms I've made of it, The Dispossessed is beautifully and brilliantly rich.

Q: I find it curious that the utopian possibilities of Triton's social dimension, or the whole dimension of the book that goes along with utopia, seem to be decentered, to be in the background. One of the things that genuinely surprised me was the passage where Sam gets into a dialogue with some Earthling on the respective merits of their two systems. There one gets the longest and most exclusive passage in the book on the Tritonian social set up. But what one doesn't get is the sense of Triton's dystopian possibilities.

Because, after all, what we're allowed to know is that this perhaps "utopian" social system depends upon something called the "computer hegemony." That term seems, again, to figure as a kind of neologism; but unlike some others, its full meaning is not immediately intelligible. It has to be thought about. And even after one thinks about it, there's a certain vague area, at least in the utopian dimension, for certainly "hegemony" means something more than a trust or a cartel—is something more awful and powerful than that...

SRD: I think it's reasonable to suggest that "the computer hegemony" states articulately and clearly—complete with unsettlingly negative implications —the function that computers will play, more or less hidden, more or less off stage, in Le Guin's next book, Always Coming Home.

The dialogue, of course, must go on.

Still, you may have hit upon one of the things that makes SF, or this SF novel, recalcitrant—I mean, why you have to squeeze it to fit under a utopian rubric. To have a term such as "hegemony"—not to mention the surveillance implications behind the Ego Booster Booths—right in the midst of such a "utopian" society, for me, at any rate, leaves the very notion of utopia pretty much shattered. These—and many other—linguistic turns are used in the book precisely for their negative implications.

This is very different—I hope—from the rhetorical strategy shared by Heinlein and the Stalinists: "These curtailments of freedoms, these moments of oppression, are justified, purified, decontaminated by the greater good they serve." (Either: "The end justifies the means" or "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs"—it doesn't matter how you articulate the principle.) You asked where the "dystopian" implications were: well, that's certainly where they start.

You're not going to get the dystopian implications in the discussion from a high placed political functionary arguing for the superiority of his welfare system. You'll find them, rather, in details, dropped here and there, in suggestions and discrete rhetorical moments scattered about. And I've already talked about the political dimensions to his own problems that Bron himself is blind to and that only emerge in the second appendix. But, again, to look for any critique in the book in utopian/dystopian terms will, I suspect, doom you to disappointment and/or distortion.

I simply couldn't tell you how Triton, as a detailed political system, functions. But its functioning can be thought about. Its functioning can be interrogated by interrogating—and by manipulating—the text. (Eric Rabkin has pointed out that a fundamental difference between SF and literature is that SF is always inviting the reader to manipulate the text: "Suppose it was different? Suppose it didn't happen that way but this? What if..." Whereas literature—especially Great Literature—all but demands to be left inviolate. Well, I want readers to play with my text in that way.) Even more than the

Brave New World/New Jerusalem interplay, what basically sets SF apart from utopian thinking is a fundamental fictive approach.
By and large, utopian thinking starts with a general political idea, in the service of some large and overarching notion such as "freedom," "happiness," or "equality"; the writer of a utopia then works down and in, to determine what the texture of life might be for the individual in a world run according to such ideas. But what practice often reveals is that, when we start from full scale politics, the resultant life texture ends up as far away from the ideal as it can possibly get.

By and large today, in SF, you start with the texture of life around some character. Nor is that texture necessarily conceived of as "the good life." Rather, you say, what would be an interesting life texture. If you have to have bad things, what bad things might you be able to stand? You look at the specific texture of the character's everyday world—not the greater political structure his or her bit of life is enmeshed in. Then, in the course of the fictive interrogation of the material that makes up the rest of the book or story, you move—fundamentally—up and out...towards the political.

What larger structures, you begin asking as you move outward, might produce such a life texture? But the wise SF writer doesn't try to answer those rigorously. Rather, she or he decides: What ballpark would those structures lie in?

Speaking of Triton, personally I know perfectly well I can't detail the government that would produce that collection of communes and co ops, with family units at the outer rim and singles in the inner city, with the social interplay between a licensed and an unlicensed sector....But the book makes some guesses. And one guess is that the governmental structure will have to be at least as rich and imaginative and plural as the life structure of the citizens. But I can't—nor would I try to—specify that political structure in a novel, down to every governmental office and how it relates to every other.

To find such a political structure, we'd have to try things out—and, far more important, be ready to revise our political structure when it didn't work out the way we wanted.

And that, more than anything else, is what makes the enterprise fundamentally anti utopian/dystopian. Because a utopia (or dystopia) starts with a political structure that is self evidently—at least to the architect—superior (or inferior) to the existing one.

What I start from is the fictive element, considered in terms of a series of questions. What would you like the effects of the government to be? What would you like the world to look like as you walk down the street? What unpleasant things could you tolerate in that world? What others do you simply not want to be there at all? What kind of things would you like to spend your time doing?

Well, the SF writer sets these up and then goes as far outward into the political as she or he can. I can probably extrapolate two or three layers beyond what I've directly described—frankly, I'd hope any reader really interested in the novel would do some extrapolating on her or his own as a matter of course. People often criticize the book by saying, "Well, you haven't told us how the government actually works!"True! I wouldn't presume to tell you such a thing. But I hope I've suggested a lot about the ways in which it has to function.

No, you're not going to learn which office is on what floor of City Hall and what its official relation is with the offices either side of it—the way you would in a utopia. I don't know that; more important, I know the practical political principles that mean I can't know that. And if I were setting up the real place, that's precisely why I'd have to keep certain governmental areas open, flexible, and revisable, until we hit on an administrative structure that functioned reasonably in terms of the life of the people on the street.
That's what makes SF different from utopian thinking.

Q: Thirty seven politicians reside in a madhouse?

SRD: Certainly Triton is run by sets of committees and individual administrators—somehow. Many of them are elected. But, again, you start from the effects you want. I think that's the politically wisest thing to do. We know that what's wrong with utopian thinking in general is that large scale social engineering just doesn't work. Everybody who tries it botches it royally.

If you take a group of even 25,000 people (much less millions) and you set up an administration system for them—with offices, housing, various jobs for them and work spaces in which to perform them, all planned out from A to Z before you implement any of it—you can be sure that, once the whole structure has been running a year, a third of your administrative system will be useless and there will be a whole set of new offices, new jobs, and new structures that will have to be set up in their place for the system to function efficiently—or at all.
The new and unforeseen needs will be created by conjoined factors like the frequency of east winds combined with the existing height of the buildings in the Physical Ed complex and the number of people in the population who have hayfever—and the next thing you know, you will (or won't, as the case may be) need a special detail of 12 maintenance men whose full time job it is to keep the trees to the west of the infirmary buildings regularly pruned.

And the difference between having and not having such a group of maintenance men may make a difference of 10 to 15 per cent in the overall productivity of the community.

There's no way to predict all such needs that will arise. There's no way to make sure similar factors working together won't render some preconceived administrator, committee, or functional group unnecessary.

That can only be learned trial and error—along with careful, analytical observation of the real workings of the realized community.
Those needs are going to be different in every case, even when the basic designs and organizational structures have been tried out a dozen times successfully in a dozen other locations.

We now know this is how human social systems function—which is why the "good life" simply cannot be mapped out wholly within the range traditionally prescribed as "the political." Indeed, the post modern notion of the range of the political has probably changed as much as anything else since 1968.

We've got here, of course, the old bricolage/engineering dichotomy, first raised in the early days of structuralist criticism. (Critically too, as I've already suggested, we live in Junk City—and it's a very rich town.) The difference between the bricoleur and the engineer is not just a difference in scale and style. There's also a difference in the movement of the thinking. The bricoleur starts with a local problem, then looks around among existing materials for things to fix it with, moving on to more complex solutions only when the simplest ones are clearly not working as well as they should.

The engineer doesn't really feel she's started to work, however, until she's got an overarching principle to apply to the solution of the problem, which she then implements as carefully and accurately as possible by precise technical means, moving in to take care of finer and finer problematic details—until, hopefully, principle wholly absorbs problem. As each moves towards her or his separate solution, the bricoleur and the engineer are both looking, here, forward, there, backward. There's always some conceptual movement in both directions with each. But the fundamental movements are, overall, different. And that difference in movement is very much the difference I've noted between the way the SF writer works and the way the utopianist works.

Someone once said: "A politics that doesn't address itself to your particular problems and my particular problems is just not a politics for you and me."

And I think this is not a bad place to start a critique of the political aspect of the situation around us. But it's in Junk City that bricoleurs flourish at their happiest and most efficient—though it's often the engineers who provide the junk the gomi no sensei works with.

Q: It seems to me that in Dhalgren you were after a completely different effect on the reader.

SRD: That's true. Dhalgren and Triton are two very different books.

Q: Speaking about effects, I'm an average reader. I don't know too much about scientific terminology—about how the sensory shield works, for example, or how to interpret the mathematics of the game scoring system that we get in chapter 2. What kind of impact do you think such sections in the book have on the average reader—who definitely does not understand any of it. Like me.

SRD: Well, I think it's fair to assume that the average SF reader is going to have some kind of popular science background. And if you don't, then— while you may be an average reader—you're not an average SF reader. Now, nobody expects the reader to be an expert in any branch of science. The science in SF is mostly doubletalk anyway—like the "metalogics" and the "modular calculus" I spoke of before.

There's a passage in The Dispossessed where Shevek solves his problem of reconciling the sequency and simultaneity theories of time by assuming that the problems have already been resolved, then proceeding as if there were contradiction between them....You just can't read the passage too closely. If you do, it falls apart into the circular argument that it is. But for better or worse, all the science in SF is ultimately like that. On the one hand, SF presumes an audience who can at least catch the jokes—when they go by. But in general I don't think the science per se should go too far beyond what you'd get in most popular science books—most of them by Isaac Asimov and written for bright 14 year olds.

It's the pseudo-science that keeps going much further—not the science. But the pseudo science goes further precisely because it is always assuming that large patches of the unknown are, in fact, knowable.

Q: Does the joke also apply to the math for scoring vlet?

SRD: The scoring modulus is complete gobbledygook. The irony is that the book calls it "rather difficult." The reader is supposed to find it daunting. In fact, it's so daunting, you should laugh. And say something to the effect of: "Yeah. Right. 'Rather difficult.' Sure!" Then you will have appreciated the irony. Now if the reader happens to be mathematically literate enough to realize, after trying to untangle it (for someone familiar with advanced calculus, it takes about ten seconds), that not only is it daunting, it's also meaningless, all well and good. Then there should be a second laugh. But that level is, indeed, secondary—and really just an extension of the first.

Q: Your style of parentheses in parentheses almost has the same effect. Very daunting. What were you trying to do here?

SRD: That's a different matter. Probably I was trying to say too much at once.

Q: I liked the parentheses. I found that the device really helped me understand the way someone like Bron would think, because he's so defensive and he rationalizes everything. He works a thought through before he thinks of some defensive way of worming his way out of the situation. Or justifying the way he thinks or perceives...

SRD: That's kind of what I was trying for. But I know—simply because I've talked to enough people—that for some readers it doesn't work. The parentheses only get in the way. Well, they do ask a lot of you. Perhaps too much. I write with far fewer parentheses today. But it was my choice at the time—and it may have been the wrong one. Still, some people seem to be able to get with it. When you make a stylistic choice like that, this is the chance you take: some people are just going to find it tedious and balk. Well, they have every right to.
There are two kinds of characters, I think, in most modern fiction: one is the character you're supposed to identify with. That character is like a suit of clothes you put on in order to have the experiences the character goes through.

The other character is, rather, a case study. Though you can feel sorry for—or be amused by—this character (and even recognize aspects of yourself in the character), if you identify with her or him beyond a certain point, you're misreading the book.

Q: In Dhalgren, which would be the suit of clothes, would you say? Not Kid?

SRD: No. As in Triton, in Dhalgren you're not supposed to identify. There too, you're supposed to look at the protagonist from the outside. It's amazing, of course, how many such books backfire. Flaubert thought Emma was a pretty, immoral fool—and wrote Madame Bovary to expose her. And Tolstoy did not want his readers to identify with Natasha or Anna: he felt they were charming, but fundamentally immoral women, who destroyed the people around them until they destroyed, or all but destroyed, themselves; once his books were published, he was horrified when people were "taken in" by that charm and fell in love with his leading ladies! Well, a few people—both men and women, incidentally—have come up to me and confided: "Bron Helstromc'est moi" [shrugs].

Q: Dhalgren is very detached. It's all from Kid's point of view. But it would be hard to put yourself in his place.

SRD: Right. Although I think it's easier to identify with Kid than it is with Bron, I suspect [laughing] it depends on who you are.
When a character is looked at constantly from the outside—when even his or her most subjective responses are analyzed objectively—things tend to go more slowly. In some ways the parentheses were also an attempt to slow down the real reading time of the novel. It's a pacing thing. If you can let a parenthesis slow you down and not lose the first half of the previous clause before you come out the other side, then the parenthesis will probably work for you. If your attention is such that you can't quite do that—and there's no particular reason why you should be able to—then it's probably not going to work. The reading experience becomes annoying, and you'll spend all your time running back and forth from the beginning to the end of the sentence, mildly confused. It's no fun.

Q: The war which goes on in the book is always in the background. At one point, I think, it's mentioned—twice—that there are no soldiers. It seems to be the pretext for lots of goings on and restrictions. Is that in any way connected with the perpetual war that goes on in 1984? Or is that a coincidence? Because it seems there is a parallel there.

SRD: In 1984, it's rather different—and in 1984 there are soldiers.

Q: Well, you're told there are soldiers, but you never really know.

SRD: The war in Triton, however, is a purely technological war: a war that consists of years of diplomacy—followed by 45 unthinkable minutes. During those minutes, technicians merely push buttons. That doesn't involve soldiers.

Q: In Triton's final vision, I still can't understand why Bron lied to Audrey. That seems very important in the book.

SRD: Yes, that was very important. But I'd have to go back and look at the text again to explain to you just why.

Q: He concocted the whole story about—

Q: He totally reverses the situation.

Q: He finally realizes he's thinking like a male.

Q: You have to realize that this is a kind of protective reaction on Bron's part.

SRD: Yes. The story he tells is what he wished had happened. You have to remember, what Bron usually does to justify his behaving in the selfish and hateful ways that make him such a hateful man is manufacture perfectly fanciful motivations for what everyone else is doing—motivations which, if they were the case, would make his actions acceptable. (In that way, he can ignore the fact that his own motivations are simply and wholly selfish.) Of course, he'd only have to listen to what people were actually saying around him to realize that the motivations he ascribes to them are impossible. But he forgets—or represses—the parts of their conversation that would inform him of that. Or he assumes the people were simply lying when they said those parts.

Well, Freud and Lacan both have borne in on us the unhappy news that this is, in effect, the way we all move through our lives. We hear about a tenth of what is said to us; we repress the rest; and in the resultant silences, we write our own scenarios about what the other person is thinking about us, feeling about us, judging us to be. It has a venerable name in psychoanalysis: transference. And on the strength of our fancied reconstruction of other people's inner feelings about us, we respond to them and the world.

Remember that "expectation of information"? One computer calls up the other to get a list of programs...? But that means the information that comes over from system A is all going to be read as program names. If what system A actually sends (either by accident or design) is telephone numbers or the opening lines of "Jabberwocky," system B is still going to treat them like program names—due to the programming it received somewhere in its computational childhood.

Transference, again.

Unless, of course, it gets something that's just so far from a program name it simply can't handle it at all.

That's what happens to Bron in the final Audrey situation. Bron honestly likes Audrey. And Audrey loves Bron. But in order to maintain his facade, it's not just a matter of repressing things the Spike said and remotivating others; Bron must actually say that the Spike did things that Bron did, and that Bron did things the Spike did. This sort of direct and overt lie is not the kind Bron has told in the past. Till now, a more subtle sort of lie has passed for the truth with him. But his prior programming—the facade —has really been in control. If that facade can only survive by a direct lie, it will make Bron lie directly—even while he tries to speak honestly to someone he likes and values. Well, this lie he finally hears himself speak. And it's too much for him. He can't surround this one with pseudo psychological rhetoric about what other people are really thinking and feeling and doing that renders it into Truth for him. The system can't handle it. The whole mechanism starts to break down. And when it does, it isn't fun.

Q: The other thing that goes along with that is that it's not so much that he's lying to Audrey as that he's lying to himself.

SRD: Certainly that's so when he keeps insisting that he never lied before. Because he's suddenly blurting this to someone he actually has feelings for, he's brought up sharp before the fact: "Hey, wait a minute! The machine is coming to pieces...!"

In one sense, it's the triviality—more than the directness—of this lie that even allows him to obsess over it as much as he does. We know he's told much worse lies, lies that have produced much more hurt—all through the book and without his ever noticing. He lied to Audrey because that was what he would really liked to have happened—or, perhaps more accurately, because that is what would have had to have happened in order to justify what he actually did.

Q: Except that, of course, he never realizes even that much.

SRD: No. But he's still brought up short.

I think I should say, you know, that encouraging a writer to speak this much about his own book is a very odd and awkward situation. I should probably be the last person to talk about Triton at all. I'm only one reader of the book—and, in this case, a reader who last read it quite a while ago. What I say about it really is not privileged—as they say in Comp. Lit. jargon.

Q: Or in law courts.

SRD: Yes. I'm only giving one very, very subjective view of the book. And in a way, here, before you, I'm just a bit like Bron: what I'm much more likely to do here, under the local pressure of your questions, is to speak of the book I wish I'd written rather than the text you—or you, or you—just read.

Q: Are you saying you can't really explain some of the motives behind what the characters do and stuff like that—but you could still defend your fiction?

Q: No, what he's saying is that, contrary to what we might ordinarily suppose, when a writer talks about her or his own work, he or she is talking as a critic.

SRD: More to the point, perhaps, talking as a critic who is not necessarily identical with the writer.

I usually tell people that I live in a world where Samuel R. Delany the writer doesn't exist. I've never really read anything he's written. I know a lot about him. I've even looked over his shoulder while he was working. But there's a veil lying between me and his actual texts—it lets me see the letters he puts down, but completely blocks the words. All I finally get to do is listen to him sub vocalize about a text he hopes he's writing—and, when I try to reread it later, again I only hear his subvocal version of the text he wished he'd penned.
When you're inside the balloon, trying to pull it into shape from within, you just can't see it from the outside. All you have is other people's reports —that, yes, you're succeeding in making it look like a camel, or you've got a panda now, or, no, you haven't quite yet made a kangaroo. And those reports, most of them, are pretty inarticulate at that. But it's all the novelist ever knows of his or her own work. Finally, you know, you must take any and every thing I say here with many, many grains of salt.

Q: Granted your caveat, what's your subjective opinion of Triton's whole emphasis on "subjective inviolability"?

SRD: I think it's rather a nice notion. I wonder how far you could take it as the major political tenet per se of a whole society. But I'd like to see a society try it. But, no, I'm not sure how, in the long run, it would work.

Q: Are we meant to give Bron some credit at the end when he—or she— has the thought that five out of six of the population of Earth have been killed in the name of Triton's subjective inviolability?

SRD: What I'd hoped at that point—again, a subjective reaction—is that the reader would have twigged by now to the fact that Bron is just not a nice man. But in terms of whether he is redeemable or not, whether he might someday be able to pass muster as a human being, I wanted to have all the elements on a balance—and I wanted to maintain that balance up to the novel's last sentence. With the last sentence of the novel proper, with the last phrase of that sentence (the one before the place date subscription), I'd hoped finally to upset that balance, one way or the other—though just which way, I wanted to leave moot. I won't tell you which direction I wanted it to fall. But I think some people may figure it out.

What's happening at his recall of subjective inviolability is that that political tenet is being problematized. Bron, for a few moments (37 seconds) has slipped over the wide and muzzy border between ordinary self deceiving neurosis and real psychosis. And it's possible that he will continue slipping. At the point you mention, the surface question raised is fairly simple: How inviolable should the subjectivity of the truly mad be—the subjectivity of those who really believe, as Bron does for that long half minute, that "the dawn will never come"; of those who've taken a simple cliché and let themselves accept it as fundamental and revealed truth (which an astonishing amount of madness actually is)?

The world of Triton is very different from our world today. I don't know about here in Canada, but I do know about the US. And the fact is, a good percentage—even a majority—of the people really don't live in what you and I would consider the last quarter of the 20th century.

There are many, many overweight people who believe, down to the bottom of their souls, that if you eat two or three teaspoons of sugar, you will put on two or three pounds in the next couple of hours to days. And they believe that the weight will generate from the sugar itself. And that it has nothing to do with retaining liquid later drunk, or with the sugar making you eat more of other foods. They believe that "sweets put on weight"; and they believe it not in the metabolic terms that you or I might understand it, but rather in defiance of the laws of the conservation of matter and energy—of which they've never heard. And if you tell them how those laws set an upper limit on their weight gaining process (so that you can't gain more weight than the weight of the food you actually ingest), they will argue that you are just wrong. It's happened to them, they will tell you, too many times.

There are many, many people who believe that the electricity running along the powerlines is at its highest at the pylons, and that that explains why the grass and shrubbery tend to be thin or die under and around the pylon legs: it's the concentration of electricity at the pylons that kills the grass below it. And they will argue with you for an hour that they know what they're talking about—and you don't!

And there are people who believe that lighting a cigarette at the bus stop really initiates a process (a process not in the least mystical, but nevertheless unexplainable) that, often, will make the bus come—and not that starting a pleasurable process makes you more aware of a process that interrupts that pleasure, so that you remember those situations and not the ones where the pleasure continued to its natural completion.

And when it comes to nuclear power, we might as well be dealing with medieval magic. But that's not even to broach topics like astrology, fundamentalism, various forms of spiritualism, and UFOs.

These beliefs are not neuroses.

They are ignorance.

But they are ignorances tenaciously held to, and supported by consensus belief.

These ignorances place these people outside—not the majority, but rather—the minority consensus reality of some educated people, who happen to include you and me, here in the 20th century. (You are deluded if you think the majority of the North American population shares what, in many college classrooms, I am probably safe in calling "the consensus scientific world view." In fact, I suspect, that "consensus scientific world view" is finally a hypostatization that no one fully possesses.) But these are ignorances that are held to the way you and I might hold to the science that contravenes them. And the people who believe them do so because there's a vast amount of folklore that tells them they are right—the same folklore that tells them to bathe in baking soda baths when they get sunburn, or to put Calamine lotion on a mosquito bite that itches: folklore that, in those cases, happens to be correct.

Perhaps an example closer to home: up until my late 20s, I had a real fear of nuclear war. It wasn't obsessive. But it was constant, and it was annoying. I was not afraid of a political decision to start the ultimate war. That didn't make sense. But what if, I used to wonder, something went wrong with the very complex defense system itself: Suppose somebody pushed the wrong switch and started the War by accident? It might even involve somebody going bonkers to boot—as had been dramatized in any number of movies and books. Eventually, when I was talking quite jokingly about my worry to a friend in the US Air Force, he explained to me the difference between a "systems off" system and a "systems on" system.

A systems on system means that you have a vast number of processes, all of them functioning all the time, and you only have to flip one switch, say, to bring them all together to make the greater system function. In such a system, an accident mitigates in favor of the whole system's starting to work. Today, for example, human reproduction is a systems on system. It's terribly complicated. But thoughtlessness and accident are likely to lead to pregnancy, not prevent it.

A systems off system is one in which you have a lot of complex systems, most of them currently not functioning. All sorts of guards and checks are built in against their turning on accidentally: subsystem D can only be turned on if subsystem A and subsystem B and subsystem C, all in different buildings, have all been turned on previously—and what's more, they have to have all been turned on in the proper order. If they weren't, then subsystem D simply won't start up. And without subsystem D, as well as a whole lot of others, the defense system will not start. The nuclear defense systems of both the US and the USSR are a pair of vast and complex systems off systems. (On Triton, the universal birth control system effectively makes human reproduction a systems off system. Two people—any man and woman who want to—can decide to have a child by taking anti birth control pills at the same time. When they then have sex, pregnancy will ensue. But in such a situation, accident, laziness, or thoughtlessness mitigates against pregnancy's occurring—not for its occurring, as such flukes do in our current systems on human reproductive situation. Changing human reproduction from a systems on to a systems off system, Triton suggests, is enough to reverse the current runaway population growth. Is that correct? I don't know. But I'd like to give it a try.) Also, there is simply no place in the nuclear defense system that is so critical that an accident there would make the whole thing go off. If, for instance, the President of the US went batty and suddenly pressed "The Button," a couple of bells and lights would go on in another several buildings, some screening devices would probably check to see what was happening; and not finding what they were programmed to find in case of attack, the rest of the system would shut down —and that's about it. Only when the whole system is operating can it perform its intended job: delivering a nuclear warhead to Russia—or the US. In such a system, an accident mitigates for the system's not performing, for its shutting down. For the nation's defense system to go on accidentally, you'd have to have 500 to 1,000 very specific accidents, all happening in the right order in hundreds of buildings at hundreds of levels. And any one of those "accidents" happening at the wrong time or in the wrong order would bring the whole system to a halt. Which is to say, the system controlling the bomb's going off is a systems off system, not a systems on system.

There's far more statistical reason to fear the defense system won't work when it's called on than that it'll go off accidentally of its own accord.

Once I learned this, my fear of a technological accident vanished (though I still don't think the threat of nuclear war is any less serious a political problem). That is to say, the fear was not neurotic. It was ignorance. And knowledge cured it.

In contrast to this, I have an occasionally recurrent fear of flying. It manifests itself as a simple and vague anxiety about crashing. The engine might fail and the plane might fall. It's likely to come on when I've had to fly a lot, in a brief time, and—as a result—have gotten tired and had my general life schedule highly disrupted by all the flying I've recently done. This anxiety is neurotic; I acknowledge that. And the proof that it's neurotic is simply that (1) it's intermittent, and (2) it isn't relieved by knowing the very reassuring statistics on plane flights or the very simple and almost unstoppable working of the turbojet. Knowledge—and knowledge that I'm quite ready to believe—has no effect on it.

Now this intermittent anxiety has not been particularly debilitating. Never has it prevented me from taking a really necessary flight.

So what has this all got to do with Triton?

On Triton, the first sort of ignorance has been all but abolished. Thanks to childhood education in the communes, the public channel education of adults, and the curtailment of the population explosion, the entire populace by and large really lives in the consensus scientific present—and a consensus scientific present somewhat ahead of ours.

Now, on Triton they have not gotten rid of the second sort of anxiety. But because they don't have to worry about the first sort, they can let the people who say, "I'm sorry, but today I just don't feel like flying; I'm worried about crashes," have their way. Or, as the case may be, they can let them have a drug that will banish the anxiety if the person wants it—because most of the populace will be able to recognize a neurotic anxiety for what it is. They can respect the subjective reality of their populace because they've solved so many other problems already. In that sense (like the privileging of freedom of speech), subjective inviolability is an index to the general health of the society.
But the real question about Bron is: Are his problems just a complex and remediable form of ignorance? Or are they something much deeper and less accessible to ordinary social measures of correction?

Q: One understanding I had of heterotopia you not only haven't mentioned but seem to discourage by your remarks about utopia. It seems to me that one meaning the word takes on in Triton is something like: "Designer Utopia." Everyone on Triton decides on her or his personal utopia.

SRD: To the extent that—say—there are several sets of laws and restraints, and you can choose, by vote, which set you want to be bound by, yes, I suppose that's accurate. But the presumed irony was that these variations are probably very slight. The people who vote for tax system P, administered by candidate Joey, pay three quarters of a per cent more taxes, but work a quarter of an hour less per day than the people who voted for tax system Q, administered by candidate Suzy. Things like that. My assumption was that all these systems came out more or less even in the end. And it was a matter of which was more important to you personally, according to your own temperament: in terms of the choice I just outlined, say, it would be time versus money.

But it could just as easily come down to time versus the amount of greenery in the neighborhood where you live. Or the amount of greenery versus the variety of food shipped to your co op under ordinary circumstances, when you weren't going out for a special meal. That sort of stuff.

But though such differences might be quite important to various individuals, I'm not ready to designate them as utopian. It's merely a set of social options and minor improvements we haven't as yet been able to institute. I can only call that "utopian" in the most metaphorical way. Any social meaning "heterotopia" has I meant to contrast to the idea of "utopia," not to absorb that idea.

"Heterotopia" is, after all, a real English word. It's got several meanings. You can find it in the OED. If you do, you'll find it has some meanings that, I'd hope, apply quite directly to the book. Would you like me to tell you one?

Q: Tell us one meaning not evident from the etymology.

SRD: Well, a major definition of "heterotopia" is its medical meaning. It's the removal of one part or organ from the body and affixing it at another place in or on the body. That's called a heterotopia. A skin graft is a heterotopia. But so is a sex change—one of the meanings of the word. So there.

Q: In regard to vlet, I feel as if I'm in something of the situation described in one of Triton's epigraphs from—who is it? Not Quine—Wittgenstein, I think: the quotation about the spectator who doesn't know the rules of chess, watching a chess game. Is that the way it's supposed to be, or is this game already on the market—on the basis, say, of someone's having read the book?

SRD: The name comes from a story by Joanna Russ, "A Game of Vlet." It's part—or almost a part—of her "Alyx" series. The game in her story is not quite so complicated as mine; but in Russ's tale, at one point, you realize that the world of the story is actually controlled by the game: you can't really tell where the game ends and the world takes up. The three books I've written since Triton, set in ancient Nevèrÿon, are basically the game of vlet writ large. Vlet is a game of sword and sorcery. In some ideal future world, with ideal readers, the books might all be considered part of a larger amorphous work, "Some Informal Remarks Toward the Modular Calculus," to which Triton is the SF prologue.

Q: Did you intend that business about metalogics to be part of the scientific gobbledygook? I sense that's very important.

SRD: Well, you can go with it as far as you want. During the explanation that Bron gives to Miriamne [pp. 360ff], I really felt I had a point to make about the relation between logic and language. I wanted it to be followable —again, at the popular science level.

Someone once asked me, "What is the Modular Calculus"? Well, if you think about what it does in the novel (we're really going back, here, to some of what we discussed earlier), you realize that the Modular Calculus is basically a set of equations that will take any description of an event, however partial, and elaborate it into a reasonable, accurate, and complete explanation of that event.
This means it will take a sentence like "I saw a plane fall out of the sky and burst into flames on the runway," and by arcane deep grammatical transformations, transform it into a full report of weather conditions, mechanical problems, and the pilot's responses that interacted to produce the particular and specific air crash the speaker mentioned. (That is, it can see the objects in the other room.)

This is, of course, magic—another way of saying it's impossible.

Still, that's what the Modular Calculus would be if there were such a thing. (In the Appendix to Flight from Nevèrÿon [1985], I have a rather detailed discussion of the Modular Calculus.2) It turns any description into an explanation by extrapolating from it. The point, of course, is that some descriptions really do have explanatory force. Others, as you extend them in one direction rather than in another, gain explanatory force. This raises the question: What is the difference between a description and an explanation. And it asks what sort of elements they might have in common.

Q: Going back to the chronological geographical subscription to Triton: "London, November '73 July '74." This is a constant practice of yours— giving the time and place of composition. I'm wondering whether that has some organic significance?

SRD: Well, it's been my contention for some time that SF is not about the future. SF is in dialogue with the present. It works by setting up a dialogue with the here and now, a dialogue as intricate and rich as the writer can make it.

The detail you're referring to, at least as it sits at the end of a far future SF novel, such as The Fall of the Towers, Babel 17, The Einstein Intersection, Nova, or Triton (or, indeed, at the end of a tale set in the distant past, such as those in the "Nevèrÿon" series) is also a way to jar the reader. It's a way of saying: "Look, this fiction is a product of a specific place, a specific time." For quite a while I've been a great respecter of history. And I don't think such a historical nudge hurts a story in any way. A published piece of mine that omits the terminal subscription, you can be sure, is suffering from an editorial decision carried out over my objection.

On a less grandiose level, I subscribe my manuscripts so that, ten later, I have some idea where I was, when. But the reason I leave those dates and places on for publication—and put them back in galleys (when editors have deleted them in the copy editing)—is because I think they serve a real function, not only for the writer but for the serious reader. It's a writerly tradition, after all.

Q: I was wondering whether there was anything from your experience of London that figured in Triton. I can't imagine the book's being written by someone who hadn't lived someplace like London or New York.

SRD: When all is said and done, Tethys is pretty much modelled on New York. (Although it's certainly not as large as New York. The population is really closer, at least in my mind, to San Francisco's.) At a certain point, you notice that most large cities do develop areas kind of like the "un licensed sector": London's Soho, San Francisco's North Beach, New York's Village (East and West), New Orleans's French Quarter (which began at Storyville and more recently has shifted away to Fat City), Paris's Quartier Latin (or cinquième), or the Freemont in Seattle.

But I was wondering what would happen if urban planners formalized this, even carrying it a few steps further. The paradox about these areas is, of course, that people who do not live there frequently assume, "Oh, my gosh! It must be dangerous there," when there's so much pressure on the place not to be dangerous, if only because the areas are such tourist attractions. If the real dangers were more than nominal, tourists would stop coming. So constraints on the "dangerous" street life finally grow up automatically.

A successful red light district simply can't tolerate too many street muggings, night or day, because then the prostitution on which the economy of the area is based would be fundamentally endangered. So, while you may lose your money to an over enthusiastic hooker, you're probably not going to be mugged in an area of the city with a high number of street walkers.

Such, or similar, principles, operationalized by the city builders (it's a Jane Jacobs kind of thing), were the basic notions behind the "u l."

Q: When I was last in London, I noticed that a "micro theater" phenomenon —particularly in the entrances to the Underground (strolling minstrels, violin players, and so forth)—was more conspicuous than the first time I was there or than it is in New York. Was that a source of inspiration for Triton?

SRD: I'm not sure of everything that went into the micro theater notion. Where we SF writers get our crazy ideas from, we don't really know. Someone once told me there was a good idea shop down on Fourteenth Street....A number of SF writers, in response to the question, "Where do you get your ideas from?," have taken to answering, "Schenectady." [Laughter.]

Q: One of these days, someone may open a store there. Your response reminds me of Margaret Atwood's answer to repeated queries about why she became a poet: "I had an uncle in the poetry business." [Laughter.]

Q: I want to ask you about the Bruce Cockburn lyrics in Triton.

SRD: Well, when I was in England, somebody brought me Cockburn's then new album, Night Vision. And it was dedicated to me; it read something like: "To the author of Driftglass."

"Well," I thought, "what a surprise! That's very generous of him." I like Cockburn's music. So I decided, "I'll surprise him back," and took some of the lyrics off the album and used them for Charo's songs. I thought: "If he comes across it, he might be tickled by the idea of his lyrics surviving a hundred or so years on."

Cockburn and I have still never met, though we spoke on the phone once. We've had trouble getting together because whenever he's in New York I'm usually out of town, off teaching.

Do you have any questions about SF in general? I can be much more illuminating about other things than my own work. The fact is, talking about my work this much in a public setting makes me rather uncomfortable. So I'd like to open up the discussion a bit if I can.

Q: I've read somewhere that you don't refer to your work as science fiction.

SRD: On the contrary. With the exception of a period about six months long, starting at the end of 1968, I've always referred to my work as SF. Unfortunately, that was the six months when the manuscript of my story collection Driftglass went to press—so that it bears the egregious subtitle, "Ten Tales of Speculative Fiction." (And there was that essay I mentioned earlier, "Critical Methods/Speculative Fiction," dating from the same period.) But on both sides of that six month anomaly, I've used the terms "science fiction" or "SF" and been content with them.

Q: Why not "speculative fiction"?

SRD: "Speculative fiction" was a term that had a currency for about three years—from 1966 through 1969.

Q: You didn't coin it?

SRD: Goodness, no! Robert H. Heinlein first used it in a Guest of Honor Speech he gave at a World Science Fiction Convention in 1951: he said that "speculative fiction" was the term he felt best fit what he was doing as a writer: whereupon everyone immediately forgot it for the next 15 years —until 1965 or '66, when a group of writers centered around the British SF magazine New Worlds resurrected it and began to use it for a very specific kind of thing. Basically, as these writers—the New Wave—first used the term, it meant anything that was experimental, anything that was science fictional, or anything that was fantastic. It was a conjunctive, inclusive term that encompassed everything in all three areas.

I used it for the subtitle of Driftglass because that collection grouped a couple of fantasy tales in with the SF stories—the third relevant category, experimental writing, wasn't represented in the book at all. But the only thing the term meant in the subtitle of Driftglass was that the book contains both SF and fantasy. That's a simply what "speculative fiction" meant back then.

By the end of 1969, in the world of practicing SF writers, editors, and fans, speculative fiction (like most conjunctive terms) had degenerated into a disjunctive, exclusive term (rather like the honorific "Ms," which began as a conjunctive term meaning any woman, married or single, but which today, through use, has degenerated into a disjunctive term used [almost] exclusively to mean an unmarried woman who's also a feminist): by the end of '69, "speculative fiction" meant "any piece that is experimental and uses SF imagery in the course of it." (By that definition, the only piece of speculative fiction I've written is a story called "Among the Blobs," which, to date, has only seen publication in a fanzine. Oh, yes—and possibly Dhalgren.) A year later, the term simply dropped out of the vocabulary of working SF writers—except to refer to pieces written within that '66 '69 period, to which (usually) it had already been applied.

At about the same time, various academics began to take it up. Most of them had no idea either of its history or of its successive uses; they employed it to mean something like "high class SF," or "SF I approve of and wish to see legitimated." Now that's a vulgar and ignorant usage of the worst sort. The way to legitimate fine quality SF is by fine quality criticism of it—not by being historically obtuse and rhetorically slipshod. I deplore that particular use of the term—and though I support your right to use any terms you want, including "fuck," "shit," and "scumbag," I simply won't use the term in that way. It's uninformed, anti historical, and promotes only mystification —all three of which I feel are fine reasons to let this misused term die the natural death it actually came to 15 years ago.

Q: Where do you see SF going now? I see a present trend toward Sword and Sorcery, a new sort of classicism la Asimov, and what's left of the New Wave.

SRD: I think that any group of writers who could reasonably be called the New Wave had more or less dispersed—as a group—within a year of speculative fiction's ceasing to be a meaningful term for current SF production.

I don't like to use the term New Wave for anything, however metaphysical or material, that might be present in the world of SF today because it obscures the very real, hard edged, and extremely influential historical movement, called the New Wave, that existed through the late '60s—a movement that included a number of very real writers (as it excluded a number of others, me among them), who wrote real stories and novels that we can still enjoy today, who maintained real relations with one another, and who functioned within a galaxy of real ideas, which have had a lasting influence on the SF field.

But if you use the term to indicate a fuzzy edged notion suggesting some sort of undefined opposition to a set of equally undefined "conservative" notions, what you lose is any possibility of retrieving—or researching —that so important historical specificity (of writers, texts, readers, and events) actually behind the term. It's particularly deplorable when academics use language that subverts research, that cuts off the possibility for our thinking our own SF history—which is always so in danger of being forgotten anyway.

Certainly one of the most exciting islands of current production in the sea of SF production is what has been termed the cyberpunk movement, or the Mirrorshades group. It includes writers like William Gibson, whose Neuromancer won the Hugo and Nebula Awards last year [1985]. It's really quite a performance. Gibson has recently published a second book, Count Zero, and a very exciting collection of short stories, Burning Chrome.

Other writers associated with this group include Bruce Stirling, the author of Schismatrix and several other novels and the editor of the group's chief critical organ, the fanzine Cheap Truth; also Rudy Rucker, John Shirley, Pat Cadegan, and Mark Laidlaw. But just as (and sometimes more) interesting are some of the writers the cyberpunks often see themselves in opposition to: Kim Stanley Robinson, Michael Bishop, John Kessel, Connie Willis, and Terry Bisson.

The cyberpunks—they don't use a capital c, incidentally—were named by Gardner Dozois, the editor of Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine.3 They've been grumbling and growling under it ever since: "We're not a group. We're each just doing our own thing." But if one may hypostatize them as a group a moment longer, theirs is a very intense sort of writing; it's very pro technology; at the same time, it's very street wise, very cynical. The writing itself tends to be highly polished—at its best. Which makes it very different from punk music, where the surface is—well—not polished.

Q: You've dealt a lot in your writing with the questions of sexual identity generally, and also with image of women. Obviously there are many women SF writers who are doing the same thing. But what about other male SF writers?

SRD: Well, John Varley is at least as obsessively concerned with the subject as I am. He's done several novels, but I don't find his full length works as strong as his short stories. His short works are tremendous, though; and there are three collections of them. One is called The Persistence of Vision; a second was published under the awful title, The Barbie Murders (after the Barbie dolls), but was republished a few years later as Picnic on Nearside— which is not much of an improvement! (I'm going to be teaching a seminar on Varley's work and Gibson's—Gibson has his own interesting relation to women, which seems, to me at least, highly influenced by Russ, as well as in reaction to much in Le Guin—this coming September at Cornell University's Society for the Humanities.) Varley also has a third collection, as yet available only in hardcover, called Blue Champagne.

Q: What are you working on now?

SRD: Another novel, another novel...

Q: That makes two?

SRD: Only one, alas. But sometimes it feels like two.

NOTES

1. In speaking of "Common Reader" rather than "the Common Reader," I have in mind not Virginia Woolf's two volumes of collected essays, but Dorothy Parker's book-review column from the early days of Esquire.
2. This discussion of Modular Calculus has since been reprinted, in minimally revised form, as Section 15 of "Appendix A" in the UK edition of Return to Nevèryon (London: Grafton Books, 1989).
3. I now believe that the coming of "cyberpunk" is to be credited to Bruce Bethke, who used the term as the title of a story written in 1980 and published in George Scither's Amazing Stories in 1983 (the same year that Dozois first applied the term to Gibson, et al.). [This and the preceding notes come from SRD's recent letters regarding the above interview.]
Montréal, '86/New York City '90


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