Book Reviews · 03/14/2016

Cuban Science Fiction

A Legend of the Future by Augustin de Rojas

Translated by Nick Caistor

A Planet for Rent by Yoss

Translated by David Frye


Restless Books, 2015
Raul Castro and Barack Obama’s “Cuban Thaw” wasn’t the only historic milestone between Cuba and the United States in 2015. Thanks to new translations from Restless Books, American readers were also introduced to two of Cuba’s finest writers of science fiction. Like Obi-wan Kenobi and Han Solo, one author is a wizened grandfatherly figure, the other a young rogue. Though both authors project Cuban culture and politics onto future, spacefaring civilizations, their views — and their novels — couldn’t be more different.

First, the grandfather. Augustin de Rojas is widely considered the Asimov of Cuban science fiction thanks to his award-winning trilogy in the 1980s. The first and final volumes, Espiral (Spiral) and El año 200 (The Year 200), are still forthcoming from Restless Books, but Nick Caistor’s translation of the second novel, Una leyenda del futuro (A Legend of the Future, 1985) is a brisk, fascinating piece of social science fiction and a sharp indictment of capitalist greed.


Restless Books, 2015
While A Legend of the Future is often compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey, de Rojas trades Clarke’s sense of adventure for a deeper exploration of the human mind and group dynamics. Like Fidel Castro, de Rojas styled himself after Communist leaders in the Soviet Union, in this case authors like Arkady and Boris Strugatsky who imbued their science fiction with social realism and political critiques. As a result, A Legend of the Future lends itself to a Marxist interpretation as it celebrates collaboration and self-sacrifice among a group of working-class cosmonauts faced with an impossible task.

In 2038, the Earth is split between a socialist Federation and a capitalist Empire. As New Year’s Eve approaches, a meteoroid strikes the Federation spacecraft Sviatagor on its way home from an expedition to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Three cosmonauts are killed. The other three are slowly dying. The ship’s autopilot is destroyed, but Sviatagor must still return to Earth armed with data to fuel future expeditions. Since none of the remaining crew will survive long enough to steer the ship home, they hatch a plan that allows de Rojas to explore hypothetical advances in cognitive science.

Federation psychologists, studying failed missions in the past, discovered most were “due to our deep-seated inability to witness and assimilate with the proper indifference the agonizing deaths of our colleagues.” So the “weakest” members of each space mission are conditioned to carry a second, Spock-like personality in their subconscious that the team “psychosociologist” can activate immediately — like a stage hypnotist — if a psychological trauma occurs that could threaten the team’s ability to complete their mission. But controlling the group’s emotions still isn’t enough to bring Sviatagor home. A perilous trip through the solar system requires all three cosmonauts push their minds and bodies to some imaginative extremes.

It’s a talky novel. Like the script for a black box play, it’s almost entirely composed of dialogue and action lines with zero description. Of course, there’s not much to describe: 90% of the novel is set aboard the Sviatagor. Constant shifts in time, place, and point of view — not just between chapters, but sometimes between sentences — can be jarring, and there’s too much interior dialogue. But the translation is smooth, and once you get a feel for de Rojas’ rhythm, it’s a wild, unpredictable ride.

And now for the rogue. He goes by the penname Yoss, and in addition to being Cuba’s most prolific contemporary sci-fi writer, he’s also the frontman for a heavy metal band called Tenaz. A Planet for Rent, a novel-in-stories and the first of several planned translations, was originally published in Spain in 2001 as Se alquila un planeta. Written nearly two decades later than A Legend of the Future, Yoss’s take on Cuban politics is vastly different from de Rojas’s. As Fidel Castro’s failed promises and colonial influences continued to erode national pride and prosperity, a bitter cynicism entered the country’s prose.

Thus, Earth in A Planet for Rent is a transparent stand-in for Cuba in the 1990s. In a galaxy full of powerful alien species and planet-spanning empires, Earth is the backwater island nation scoured by poverty, stripped of resources, and valued by the intergalactic community only for its tacky tourism. In the first vignette, a human “social worker” (read: prostitute) making her escape through an Earth spaceport is distracted by a holographic tourism advertisement:

It didn’t matter that New Paris was just a plastometal reconstruction of the old, authentic city which had been leveled by a nuclear blast in the days following Contact. Like all terrestrials, Buca felt great pride in the Earth’s past glory.

lt isn’t the first or last time “Earth” can be allegorically substituted with “Cuba,” or the imperialistic “xenoid” races of the galaxy with the Soviet Union and the United States. The Cuban sense of helplessness and loss of control under colonialism is even rendered physically, via the sci-fi concept of Body Spares, where human bodies act as rentable vehicles for superior extraterrestrial minds who’d like to spend some risk-free (for the alien) time on another planet without having to travel. “Some tourists pushed them to exhaustion, then simply paid the resulting fine. It was so cheap…Many humans lost their minds after being treated that way for five or six weeks.”

Each vignette follows a different character, usually on a different planet. But Yoss’s heroes in A Planet for Rent aren’t noble cosmonauts dedicated to a nationalist ideal. They’re prostitutes, starving artists, and slaves, all humans desperate to escape their circumstances on Earth or in diaspora by any means necessary. I could regale you with descriptions of the aliens — feline, insectoid, polyp-like — but they are merely background forces in a story of human survival.

Yoss spends more time worldbuilding than he does dramatizing. He tells more than he shows. While A Legend of the Future soars by in a single sitting thanks to de Rojas’s minimalism, A Planet for Rent is a more demanding read, describing multiple species, cultures, cities, planets, technologies, and sociopolitical issues in great detail. Though it’s marketed as a novel, the vignettes don’t intersect very often beyond their shared setting, and we don’t spend much time with any memorable characters.

If A Legend of the Future is a black box play, A Planet for Rent is an HBO series. If de Rojas celebrates the spirit of socialist collectivism on display in Cuban and Soviet propaganda during the Cold War, Yoss decries the colonial devastation of a once-proud country. Though they reward different kinds of readers, both novels are equally fascinating, equally representative snapshots of Cuba in two different eras through the lens of science fiction. In a genre measured by centuries and light years, it’s amazing what a difference two decades on the same island can make.

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Agustín de Rojas (1949-2011) is the patron saint of Cuban science fiction. A professor of the history of theater at the Escuela de Instructores de Arte in Villa Clara, he authored a canonical trilogy of novels consisting of Espiral (Spiral, 1982), for which he was awarded the David Prize; Una leyenda del futuro (A Legend of the Future, 1985); and El año 200 (The Year 200, 1990), all of which are scheduled for publication in English translation by Restless Books. While he was heavily influenced by Ray Bradbury and translated Isaac Asimov into Spanish, de Rojas aligned himself mostly with Soviet writers such as Ivan Yefremov and the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. After the fall of the Soviet Union, de Rojas stopped writing science fiction. He spent his final years persuaded—and persuading others—that Fidel Castro did not exist.

Nick Caistor is a British journalist, non-fiction author, and translator of Spanish and Portuguese literature. He has translated Cesar Aira, Paulo Coelho, Eduardo Mendoza, Juan Marsé, and Manuel Vázquez Montalban, and he has twice won the Valle-Inclán Prize for translation. He regularly contributes to Radio 4, the BBC World Service, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Guardian. He lives in Norwich, England.

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Born José Miguel Sánchez Gómez, Yoss assumed his pen name in 1988, when he won the Premio David in the science fiction category for Timshel. Since then, he has gone on to become one of Cuba’s most iconic literary figures—as the author of more than twenty acclaimed books of sci-fi and realism, as a champion of science fiction through his workshops in Cuba and around the world, and as the lead singer of the heavy metal band Tenaz. Alongside novels, Yoss produces essays, reviews, and compilations, and actively promotes the Cuban science fiction literary workshops, Espiral and Espacio Abierto. His novel A Planet for Rent is his first book in English translation.

When he isn’t translating, David Frye teaches Latin American culture and society at the University of Michigan. Translations include First New Chronicle and Good Government by Guaman Poma de Ayala (Peru, 1615); The Mangy Parrot by José Joaquín Fernandez de Lizardi (Mexico, 1816), for which he received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship; Writing across Cultures: Narrative Transculturation in Latin America by Ángel Rama (Uruguay, 1982), and several Cuban and Spanish novels and poems.

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Adam Morgan is an award-winning writer, editor, and adjunct professor in Chicago. He is the editor-in-chief of the Chicago Review of Books, the author of two books, and has written about books, film, and the arts for The Denver Post, Electric Literature, The Chicago Reader, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter or visit his website.