#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
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
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,
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...
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 Helstrom—c'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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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 , 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
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
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
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
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 à 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 . 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
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.
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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