Volume 16, Number 2, Spring, 1998


By Samuel Delany

Reviewed by Jeff Riggenbach

“They’re always telling on the news about all those hundred of political parties you have on each satellite, out where you guys are from.

There’re not hundred,” Sam said, sipping his broth. Only about thirty to thirty seven, depending on which satellite you’re on.”

“And when you have an election, none of them ever wins?”

Bron watched Sam decide to laugh. “No. They all win. You’re governed for the term by the government of whichever party you vote for. They all serve office simultaneously. And you get the various benefits of the platform your party has been running on. It makes for competition between the parties, which, in our sort of system, is but individuating and stabilizing.”

This exchange is from Samuel R. Delany’s Triton, and if it isn’t sufficient to indicate the explicitly libertarian thrust of the novel, consider this:

Charo turned her chin on her fist:

“Well, we were brought up to think of taxes as simply a matter of extortion by the biggest crooks who happen to live nearest to you. Even if they turn around and say, all right, we’ll spend the money on things you can use, like an army or roads, that just turns it into glorified protection money, as far as we’re concerned.”

And this:

At the corner, he turned toward the unlicensed sector.

At founding, each Outer Satellite city had set aside a city sector where no law officially held—since, as the Mars sociologist who first advocated it had pointed out, most cities develop, of necessity, such neighborhoods, anyway. These sectors fulfilled a complex range of functions in the cities’ psychological, political, and economic ecology. Problems a few conservative, Earth-bound thinkers feared must come, didn’t: the interface between official law and official lawlessness produced some remarkably stable unofficial laws throughout the no-law sector. Minor criminals were not likely to retreat there: enforcement agents could enter the u-l sector as could anyone else; and in the u-l there were no legal curbs on apprehension methods, use of weapons, or technological battery. Those major criminals whose crimes—through the contractual freedom of the place—existed mainly on paper, found it convenient, while there, to keep life on the streets fairly safe and minor crimes at a minimum.

Actually, finding libertarian ideas in Delany’s fiction should come as little surprise. His 1975 novel, Dhalgren, though principally concerned with the transformative nature of human consciousness—the symbols and myths we live by—depicts a kind of functioning anarchist society and explores with considerable subtlety the social glue that holds it together. But it's unlikely that many libertarians have read Dhalgren: Delany is, after all, associated in the popular mind with the so-called New Wave in science fiction; and libertarians, most of them, have yet to discover that New Wave writing is, in its essence, more individualistic and more sympathetic to the ideal of freedom than is traditional science fiction.

Moreover, Delany’s approach to fictive social philosophy is unusual and therefore easy to overlook. He doesn’t stick to the obvious formula of Human Beings against the State and simply flesh it out with different characters and events—the method of composition that results in such monotonously predictable novels of individualism as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, This Perfect Day, and The Dispossessed. Delany works differently. He places his characters in social situations and then removes government or changes it radically, observing what remains and what vanishes of social cohesion—and why. He posits social systems that have never existed and in some cases probably couldn’t, because they rest on erroneous notions of economics or freak combinations of circumstances. But they are systems that cast into clear fictional relief certain important and not often discusses cultural and political issues. Delany, in brief, is less obviously and accessibly individualistic, less obviously and accessibly libertarian, than many; but he is more originally and more philosophically so.

Triton is one of Neptune’s two satellites, both in the real world and in the imaginary world of Delany’s novel. In the real world it is, as far as we know, uninhabited. In the imaginery world of Delany’s novel, it is inhabited by human beings and organized according to political principles drawn almost equally from welfare statism and individualist anarchism. Outside the u-l in every city, money is illegal and everything is provided by the government.

There’s a computer, you see, and terminals everywhere, and if you work, the wealth you produce is credited to your account; and if you claim food, shelter, clothing, or other goods or services, your “purchases” are charged to your account. You don’t have to work if you don’t want to, of course; you can’t, under law, be denied food and shelter; but you can be denied anything else you can’t “pay” for. The computer’s books balance more of the time than not, though, and only a tiny fraction of the population is perpetually on welfare.

Everyone lives in cooperative dormitories of the sort found nowadays near college campuses, which tends to limit accumulation of personal property. But this doesn’t mean everyone lives in equal austerity, as for example on Ursula LeGuin’s Anarres. Nor does it mean everyone participates under duress. There are rich and poor. Both choose their leaders democratically in the anarcho-capitalistic fashion described earlier. And both are always free to live in the u-l if they prefer, where everything is legal.

Everything is legal outside the u-l, too, of course, as long as it isn’t marriage or scrip, though the reasons for these prohibitions are never made clear. Whether they are violated in the unlicensed sector—and if so, with what consequences—is never specified. The economic elements of Delany’s imaginary society are the least fully presented. They are hardly sketched beyond my own discussion of them here. But if they are neglected, it is only to direct attention to a sort of personal freedom almost invariably neglected by self-confessed libertarian commentators—freedom of lifestyle, of personality, of self-expression.

This is, after all, the end in view of which the libertarian critique of the State is undertaken. It is not freedom from restraint that the libertarian seeks as an end in itself; it is the freedom to be the person he or she is. But one can no more be one’s self than one can be a philosopher while remainng ignorant of philosophy. And one can no more conceive one’s self, while forbidden to use the symbolic mode we call personality than one can conceive philosophical ideas while forbidden to use the symbolic mode we call language. An individual must be free to express and thus to know himself—else how can he know how he wishes to use his economic freedom, his freedom of social action?

On Triton, technology has made freedom of self-expression as complete in practice as it can be in principle. If you don’t like being a man, for example, you can become a woman. And if you don’t find that satisfactory after a while, you can become a man again. You can be homosexual or heterosexual or bisexual at will. You can be black, or white—any color at all. You can wear anything you like—or nothing if you wish. You can replace parts of yourself with decorative contrivances—a golden arc, say, set in the skin where an eyebrow grew. You can sell your body—do it professionally, openly—and “society” won’t care, as it won’t care if you join a fanatic religious cult and wander through the streets, blind, naked, mumbling, mutilating yourself. On Triton, “the subjective reality of each citizen is made as politically inviolable as possible.”

The conventional novel of social philosophy, if it had gone this far, would proceed from here to investigate how satisfactory such an arrangement might prove—how successfully it might facilitate each individual’s reaping of the benefits of social living (information and trade) while escaping the mal-effects (chiefly predation). But the conventional novel of social philosophy would go no farther. It would not, as Delany’s Triton triumphantly does, elaborate its ideas upon a framework of parody.

Parody, like libertarianism, has turned up in Delany’s work before. His award-winning short story, “Aye, and Gomorrah” (written at the annual science fiction writers’ conference at Milford, PA), is an exquisite parody of the science fiction world, in which perverts called “frelks” (science fiction fans) fawn disgustingly over disreputable sensationalists called “spacers” (science fiction writers), and occasional “straight” interlopers who impersonate spacers in order to pick up frelks (“mainstream” writers who try science fiction—Michael Crichton, for example, in The Andromeda Strain) are beaten in alleys (subjected to verbal abuse by the critics and reviewers of science fictiondom). Parody in “Aye, and Gomorrah” is only implicit, though, and often missed. In Triton it is explicit by the time one reads the subtitle: “An Ambiguous Heterotopia.”

Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, published in 1974, is subtitled, “An Ambiguous Utopia.” It treats of Shevek, a physicist, who lives on a moon called Anarres, where a communist anarchist experiment has survived, albeit austerely, for a century and a half. Shevek pays a visit to his moon’s planet, where a corporate State holds sway and State policy toward Anarres stops just short of war. He becomes, unwittingly and unwillingly, involved in the mother planet’s political intrigues, then returns home to uncertain reception.

Triton treats of Bron Helstrom, a mathematician, who pays a visit to his moon-world’s State-dominated mother planet (Earth, not Neptune, the latter being uninhabitable, the former being the world from which Triton’s people—or their ancestors—emigrated). He becomes unwittingly and unwillingly involved in political intrigues, then returns home to an atmosphere of anxiety and a devastating few minutes of war with Earth.

But read past Triton’s subtitle and past its plot, into its world; Ursula LeGuin fades, and Alfred Bester comes gradually to mind. Delany’s economic division of the solar system into inner planets and outer satellites is right out of Bester’s Tiger! Tiger!, as is the war between those blocs, and a whole narrative flavor made up in part of exotic settings (like Outer Mongolia and Canberra and Shanghai), violent events (like kidnappings and explosions and tortures and wars and prison breaks), and outer decadent cultures (both Triton and Tiger! Tiger! are set in them, as are Bester’s The Demolished Man and Delany’s Dhlagren). There’s even an outright reference to Tiger! Tiger! in the selections “from the Triton journal” appended to the novel, and Delany has suggested (in his essay “About Five Thousand One Hundred and Seventy-Five Words,” Extrapolation, May 1969) that Tiger! Tiger! is the finest science fiction novel ever written.

But if Bron Helstrom moves through a world mockingly reminiscent of The Dispossessed and Tiger! Tiger!, if in his actions he is mockingly reminiscent of Shevek, in his character he is different entirely from either the Anarresti physicist or Gully Foyle of Tiger! Tiger! It is precisely by placing a radically different sort of character at the center of a more or less familiar fictive context that Delany at once underscores his parody of LeGuin and Bester and makes his own more fundamental point about social organization.

Unlike Shevek the dispassionate scientist and Foyle the impassioned proto-Superman, Bron Helstrom suffers from the narrow self-absorption that is the lot of the discontented. He is unable to see importance in anything outside himself and so he diminishes the important events that befall him. He dines at Outer Mongolia at a restaurant whose tables dot the sides of a green, rocky hill, sharing his meal with a beautiful woman who happens also to be one of the greatest artists of her era—and spends the entire evening worrying over the impression he makes on the servants who attend him. He travels across the solar system, enjoys the full range of individual freedom available to him (including, after his return from Earth, an operation to become a woman)—and spends the whole time feeling picked on. When he wants something, it’s the only thing in the world that’ll put him out of his misery; when he gets it, he doesn’t want it anymore.

“I’d take a look at myself in the mirror,” says Chief Broom in Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, “and wonder how it was possible that anyone could manage such an enormous thing as being what he was.” When Bron Helstrom stops off in an “Ego booster” booth to look at three minutes of the latest official video tapes made of his self, the booth is out of order.

Bron Helstrom cannot be himself, cannot even see himself, because—and this is the point toward which the parody in Triton is gesturing so determinedly—no social system, no amount of personal freedom, can guarantee self-realization. Through The Dispossessed, through Tiger! Tiger!, through much libertarian writing, runs an implicit faith that humans, given free will, can do whatever circumstances demand—create workable anarchistic societies, for example, or bend inanimate matter to direct control of the human mind. But what, Delany wonders, when no preference informs the will? When an individual does not know what he or she wants? What is the anatomy of a purposive, or a passive, personality? It is this intellectually perilous, language-defying religion of thought that Delany makes—bringing greater virtuosity to his work than any of his contemporaries on either side of the Atlantic—the material of fiction.

This review originally appeared in Reason, September 1977. Reprinted with permission from the author.

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