A writer sits at his desk and gnaws at an idea. Hours and piles of scratched-up notepads later, he shapes the outline of a narrative. “I shall write,” he thinks, “of now-extinct races of beings who join with humans to battle evil, led by a king who struggles with the evil lord to possess a magical ring.” Check. The easy part is done: now what remains is to flesh out the story and to create the spaces in which those beings live, what science-fiction writers call “worldbuilding.”
If you are a white man of academic bent writing in the late 1930s, then the world you build will look different from the one the same sort of person would build 80 years later. But what if you are a young, gay African-American man of leftist tendencies writing in a time when almost no black writers—or gay writers—had stormed the castle of science fiction?
Samuel R. Delany faced that challenge four decades ago, when he began to sketch out the world he depicted in the novel Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia, published in 1976 and since reissued under the more manageable title Triton. Ever bookish—the subtitle borrows from the French philosopher Michel Foucault, then not well known outside his own country—Delany had it in mind to work out a story in the same vein as Ursula Le Guin’s utopian vision of an anarchosyndicalist society arising from the ashes of an authoritarian one.
But he took it a step further: in the far future, he imagined, humans would calve off from Earth and settle on the Jovian moon of Jupiter. They would develop a society in which government was more or less optional and in which identity was fluid: one could be a man one day and a woman the next, gay or straight or blonde or ginger, liberal or conservative or between or beyond.
Moreover, introducing topics he would elaborate in later books, Delany plays with the Foucault-ian idea of “metalogic,” which, as he once remarked, “is just general, inductive reasoning given a fictive mathematical expression.” By means of the “modular calculus” this reasoning enfolds, Tritonians are able to figure things out that resist solving by means of ordinary thinking—a useful tool but not easy to grok: “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?”
Alas, that doesn’t keep an authoritarian Earth from deciding that things are too good on Triton and declaring war. That seems fitting given the blood-soaked nature of the decade in which the book was written, but in the end, Trouble on Triton does other work besides chronicling conflict. For one thing, it’s a love story—if a different kind of love story, given the ability of lovers to morph into just about whatever they wish. It’s also a vision of a kind of freedom in which we are who we say we are: we decide, and no one else. And that’s a world worth aspiring to.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.