By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut
The good people of Triton live in a society where categories of identity like sex, race, religion, and sexual preference are all, unproblematically, seen as things that can be changed. Anytime. As the narrator states, Triton provides places that cater to tons of different—always consensual—erotic preferences and there are also “forty or fifty different sexes and twice as many religions.”
The main character in Delany’s novel, Bron Helstrom, is unreliable and unlikable. He just seems somewhere between clueless and self-centered, unable to see how much of a jerk he’s being most of the time. The fact that he’s so hard to relate to makes him the perfect point-of-view character for an ambiguous heterotopia since we’re never completely with him in his perspective.
There is also the possibility, of course, that Bron is just the kind of person you get in a society where everything seems possible. It’s not like the other people on Triton seem to have clear and reliable perspectives either.
This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Bron and Spike
Bron is a Martian who emigrated to Triton several years ago. He’s a tall, good-looking, 37-year-old blond guy who lives in a men’s co-op, works as a metalogician, and thinks to himself, “I am a reasonably happy man.” He walks along, checking out the scenery of Neptune’s moon and giving us some background information.
He falls in love with a girl, Spike, who does not return his affections. She sends him a rather nasty letter to that effect, which is when Bron decides to have a sex change.
Learn more about utopian thought and sexual politics.
He visits a sex change clinic to become a woman. 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. The technician tells him that it is a complicated request. But it’s what the man really wants. Can’t they do that?
Sure they can, the technician tells him. It will take more time. A sex change operation with neurological changes that complicated will take seventeen minutes instead of the standard three minutes and forty seconds.
An Ambiguous Heterotopia
The scene signals that the novel will not proceed as expected. As a reader we are aware that we are reading something in the general vicinity of utopia—the ambiguous heterotopia—so we have certain genre expectations. An introduction to a society that has different features from ours, that has worked out something in its governmental structures that’s of interest.
One that takes a certain perspective on whether humans are fundamentally good or evil, on how we can balance our concerns with individual freedom and the social good, on how we interact with each other.
Utopia or Dystopia?
So the reader has those expectations, but now they have a different expectation too. At any moment, we might move out of the narrative proper and into a theatrical fugue. All notions of reality—and of course, we’ve already agreed to participate in the reality of a science fictional utopia—but all notions of reality are up for grabs.
The question that follows is: Is Triton a utopia? A dystopia? Would one want to live somewhere that offered such easy changes to major categories of gender identity? And even regeneration treatments that leave people looking years younger. Or racial reassignment treatments. Do you think that faced with the option of choosing their own race, gender, and apparent age, most people would choose a change? Or would that option make people more committed to the identity they were born with?
Utopia in the Postmodern World
Here’s personal liberty—the great casualty of the early 20th century dystopias—being taken to an extreme most of us would never even have imagined. Shouldn’t that feel more utopic than Triton feels?
In a word, no. The reason being that what Delany is showing us with his ambiguous heterotopia is that a perfect place is impossible. It was probably always impossible, given the paradox inherent in the word utopia. But it’s definitely impossible in a postmodern world.
The Metanarrative of Utopia
It resonates with what cultural theorist Jean-Francois Lyotard says about postmodernism, “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodernism as an incredulity toward metanarrative.”
The metanarrative of utopia is that of progress. It’s the idea that through analysis and activism, we can imagine and perhaps one day create a better world. To this, clearly, Delany says no. In the permissive landscape of Triton, with the always ambiguous character of Bron Helstrom, Delany says no with incredulity.
Learn more about postmodernism, the current literary age.
Michel Foucault and Samuel Delany
And yet, Delany presents a world in which extreme liberty does not equate to utopia. But it doesn’t equate to dystopia either. What he gives the readers is what he embodies from Michel Foucault and Foucault’s discussion of heterotopia. It is the notion that although the other place is more achievable—or at least more imaginable—than the perfect place, that’s still a conversation worth having.
In Trouble on Triton, there’s no earnest hope for utopia. But there is a strong commitment to taking a wild, metalogical, postmodern ride through the complex corridors of utopian thought.
Common Questions about Samuel Delany’s Trouble on Triton : An Ambiguous Heterotopia
Bron Helstrom is the protagonist of Samuel Delany’s novel Trouble on Triton. Bron is a Martian who emigrated to Triton several years ago. He’s a tall, good-looking, 37-year-old blond guy who lives in a men’s co-op and works as a metalogician.
Jean-Francois Lyotard said about postmodernism, “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodernism as an incredulity toward metanarrative.”
Bron Helstrom, in the novel Trouble on Triton, asks the technician at the sex clinic to not just change his body from male to female. He also wants to change his sexual preference from female to male.