Samuel Delany is one of those wonderful personages who defies categories in about a million different ways. Primarily known as a science fiction writer, he has also written erotica, fantasy, two issues of the Wonder Woman comic book in 1972, and a graphic novel with drawings by artist Mia Wolff chronicling his courtship with then homeless bookseller and now long-time life partner, Dennis Rickett.
Identifying as a gay man since his teen years, Delany was nonetheless married to a woman for 19 years. Even without an undergraduate degree, Delany has been a visiting professor at several prestigious universities, and a full-time faculty member for eleven years at UMass Amherst and fourteen years at Temple University.
He has published tons of fiction and tons of literary criticism. He’s equally acclaimed as a thinker and a writer. He’s won all of science fiction’s major awards at one time or another, and he’s won a Stonewall Book Award—the American Library Association’s award for best novels addressing LGBTQ themes. His influence goes beyond marginalized worlds like science fiction and LGBTQ literature, though. In 2010, he was one of five judges for the National Book Award for fiction.
Trouble on Triton
A man goes into a sex change clinic and says he wants to become a woman. He hands over his identity card and is happy to hear they can do the procedure that very day. But wait, he says, he doesn’t just want to change his body from male to female. He also wants to change his sexual preference from female to male. That’s more complicated, the technician tells him. But it’s what the man really wants. He wants to go from being a bisexual male who prefers women to a bisexual female who prefers men. Can’t they do that?
Sure they can, the technician says soothingly. It’s just that it’ll take a lot longer than the usual procedure. And what she means by that is that a sex change operation with neurological changes that complicated will take seventeen minutes instead of the standard three minutes and forty seconds.
This is the world of Samuel Delany’s brilliant and difficult novel, Trouble on Triton. Delany’s twelfth novel, published in 1976 was initially published as Triton but was republished in 1996 as Trouble on Triton. It also has a very interesting subtitle, An Ambiguous Heterotopia. This is clearly a response to Le Guin’s subtitling of The Dispossessed as An Ambiguous Utopia just a few years earlier. But, one might wonder, what in the world is a heterotopia?
Learn more about the ways Orwell uses language to shape his dystopic vision.
Heterotopia is a medical term. In fact, Delany himself has pointed scholars to the OED for a definition. In standard dictionary definitions, we get misplacement or displacement, as of an organ or misplaced tissue. A skin graft, as Delany has said, is a heterotopy. As is a sex-change.
But that’s not all. Following writers like Orwell and Burgess, who give us appendices about how they’re using language in their dystopian worlds, Delany includes two rather perplexing appendices in Trouble on Triton.
Appendix B opens with an epigraph from philosopher Michel Foucault, who wrote at length about heterotopia. This is a bit amusing as most people are not going to know an esoteric term like heterotopia when they open Delany’s novel. Some people might be able to figure out the Greek compound, hetero “other” and topia “place,” so other place. But what does that mean as a subtitle?
Unusual Vocabulary in Science Fiction
For most science fiction readers, they’ll just read on, relatively unperturbed. After all, there’s lots of unusual vocabulary in science fiction, and we’re used to just going with it in the hopes that all will eventually be explained.
But to explain the novel’s subtitle in the second appendix? That’s funny. Especially because it isn’t exactly an easy explanation. The quotation from Foucault is about a dozen lines, and it’s full of very dense theoretical language.
According to Foucault,
Utopias afford consolation, although they have no real locality there is nevertheless a fantastic, untroubled region in which they are able to unfold. Heterotopias are disturbing, probably because they make it impossible to name this and that because they shatter or tangle common names because they destroy syntax in advance.
Language and Utopia
As the Foucault quotation goes on to explain, utopias exist within language—“they run with the very grain of language,” as he puts it, while heterotopias challenge our linguistic structures, or “stop words in their tracks, contest the very possibility of grammar at its source.”
Delany doesn’t just subtitle this novel as a heterotopia—a novel that, we learn after we’ve finished reading it, contests the very possibility of grammar at its source. He subtitles it as An Ambiguous Heterotopia.
Learn more about negotiation between utopian and dystopian impulses.
Identity and Gender
The novel also grapples with identity trouble, the kind of identity trouble that Delany has thought about long and hard throughout his distinguished career. It also, perhaps, reminds us a bit of the narrative strategies used in Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, which came out the same year.
Why would Russ and Delany both push our notions of logical narrative strategy so far? It all goes back to how gender works—how gender can work. It pushes us into an unfamiliar cognitive space where we sort of know what’s going on, but many of our familiar bearings are unavailable.
Common Questions about Samuel Delany’s ‘Heterotopia’
Heterotopia is a medical term. In standard dictionary it is defined as a misplacement or displacement, as of an organ or misplaced tissue.
Samuel Delany’s twelfth novel was published in 1976. It was initially published as Triton but was republished in 1996 as Trouble on Triton.
According to Michel Foucault, utopias do afford consolation. He feels that although they have no real locality there is nevertheless a fantastic, untroubled region in which they are able to unfold.