NOVEMBER 10, 2016
THE CUBAN SCIENCE FICTION WRITER Agustín de Rojas died of self-imposed starvation on September 11, 2011 — 10 years into a geopolitical era that could hardly be more different from the futures he had imagined in his novels. His writings had projected a prolonged continuation of the Cold War antagonism between capitalism and communism, ending in the triumph of a stable, prosperous, technologically advanced communist civilization. Instead, by the time of de Rojas’s death, Cuba had become a lonely outpost of an ideology long since declared dead and no longer seen as a threat by a capitalist West consumed in a never-ending “war on terror.”
In a symposium honoring de Rojas shortly before his death, the author remarked that his biography sounded like an obituary. And indeed, de Rojas, the science fiction writer, seemed to have perished along with the Soviet bloc. After 1990, he ceased writing socialist-utopian science fiction and turned instead to historical fiction, publishing his last novel — set in the time of Jesus — in 1997. It was as if the end of the historical trajectory of “actually existing socialism” had made the spectacular future worlds of his fiction no longer imaginable. He came to see the Cuban present, too, as questionable: in his final years, as is often recalled, de Rojas became a literal political atheist who denied the existence of Fidel Castro.
Perhaps de Rojas’s retreat from science fiction occurred in part because the world of abundance and possibility portrayed in his writing became impossibly removed from the realities of Cuba in the 1990s. During the so-called Special Period in Time of Peace that followed the withdrawal of Soviet aid, the government imposed a regime of harsh austerity on the Cuban population while simultaneously inviting foreign investors and tourists to take advantage of the tropical pleasures of the island. The capitalist invasion that Castro had erected a bulwark against was suddenly occurring with the full approval of a regime too desperate for hard currency to be ideologically consistent. Yet ordinary Cubans were barred from accessing the wealth that flowed into the island. Hustling, prostitution, and petty crime — activities once associated with the Batista era — became modes of survival.
The stories written by de Rojas’s protégé Yoss (José Miguel Sánchez Gómez) during the Special Period portray a future of interplanetary plunder and exploitation congruent with the Cuba of the 1990s. Although he borrowed elements from de Rojas’s visionary work, Yoss abandoned his master’s cosmic optimism. His narrative voice is wry and cynical, his universe is one of staggering inequality, and his protagonists are planet-hopping grifters looking for a break. Unlike de Rojas, whose books allude obliquely to Cuban realities, Yoss made his allegories stark and savage.
In a subtle way, though, de Rojas’s 1985 novel A Legend of the Future reflects on the hardships of the post-revolutionary era and even anticipates the devastation that would hit Cuba a few years later. Set on the Sviatagor, an interplanetary spaceship returning from Saturn, the novel narrates the aftermath of a collision with a meteorite, in which the “biocomputer” that guides the ship is damaged, several crew members die, and the survivors are seriously injured. As Paul La Farge suggests, one can regard this damaged ship hurtling through space as an allegory of Cuba, a “ship-shaped island which must complete its mission,” drifting along its peculiar historical path in spite of it all. In the novel, the surviving crew members never waver from the determination that “the Sviatagor has to return to Earth, whatever the losses we have suffered or are likely to face.” Sacrifice for the sake of carrying out a mission could describe Cuba’s predicament for much of its post-revolutionary history.
Unlike Yoss’s subversive dystopian allegories, though, A Legend of the Future seems to embrace the ethos of sacrifice, leading La Farge to conclude that the author “believed that Castro’s Brezhnev-themed socialism was working.” Other commentators present a more complex view of de Rojas’s relation to official ideology. Félix Luis Viera, a Cuban writer exiled in Mexico since 1995, recalled after de Rojas’s death that communist officials had on various occasions publicly derided him as a “vago” — an idler or layabout. However hopeful his take on Cuban socialism, the country’s ideological enforcers never mistook his work for propaganda.
The interplay between Legend and the novel that followed it, The Year 200, offers another perspective on the relationship between de Rojas’s future visions and the Cuban realities of the 1980s. In The Year 200, the reigning communist Confederation has brought abundance, comfort, and stability, but beneath it all lurks a mood of apathy and ennui. Part of what has been lost, it seems, is an earlier sense of discovery and experimentation — embodied, particularly, in interplanetary space missions whose crews had forged new forms of collective life. By the time of the events of The Year 200, the government has suppressed space exploration and the radical collectivism that emerged out of it. De Rojas seems to be alluding in part to the disappearance of the more freewheeling early Cuban Revolution, embodied in the guerrilleros of the Sierra Maestra, and its replacement by a bureaucratic regime that traded freedom for stability.
A Legend of the Future immerses its readers in the radical social experimentation made possible — and necessary — by interplanetary travel. In order to live in isolation from the larger human community and to enable closer collaboration, the cosmonauts of the Confederation have created bonds deeper than any prior human groups. The members of the group at the center of the novel have become telepathically and emotionally linked to the extent that individualized ego boundaries between them have largely disappeared. Manned space exploration, as de Rojas imagines it, inaugurates a new phase of human evolution, one consistent with a romantic version of communist collectivism familiar from Marx’s early writings and Che Guevara’s concept of the “New Man.”
In this regard, Legend differs dramatically from a narrative that it broadly resembles: 2001. As in Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, a human crew is undertaking a pioneering mission to Saturn (or Jupiter in Stanley Kubrick’s film). While it meets a catastrophic setback, the mission is ultimately completed, leading to a conclusion that also suggests arrival at a new phase in human evolution. Yet 2001 ultimately focuses on the journey of one explorer, Dave Bowman, whose enigmatic final metamorphosis into the Star Child is an individual destiny. The space pioneers of de Rojas’s novel undertake a transformation that involves the transcendence of individuality and the forging of new units of human consciousness that encompass multiple selves. Evolution advances at the level of the collective rather than the individual.
Unsurprisingly, then, A Legend of the Future does not feature well-developed characters. De Rojas attempts to convey the new social reality forged on the Sviatagor by foregrounding dialogue, blurring any clear demarcation between the speakers, and interweaving telepathic communication with verbal exchanges. The co-protagonists Isanusi, Gema, and Thondup — the survivors of the meteorite collision — are distinguishable to the degree needed for narrative coherence, and that is the point. The result is that for an action-driven science fiction novel, Legend comes surprisingly close at times to stream-of-consciousness techniques, shifting dizzyingly between thought and speech, dream and reality, the past and the present. Translator Nick Caistor effectively transmits de Rojas’s blending of action and dialogue, and the detailed immediacy of the narrative, into English.
The fusion of human and machine is an equally central concern of the story. Gema, we soon learn, has been conditioned to become hyper-rational and non-emotional in crisis situations. This capacity allows her to take on some of the roles previously played by Palas, the HAL-like biocomputer that had operated many of Sviatagor’s functions before the meteorite damaged it irreparably. However, when Gema and Thondup realize their survival is threatened by radioactive poisoning, they determine that the only way for the ship to return to Earth will be by connecting Isanusi’s undamaged brain to the ship’s computer system. The result is a transhumanist variation on legends of ghost ships: the characters perish, but because their consciousnesses have fused, they live on as facets of Isanusi’s disembodied brain.
If Legend offers an indirect allegory of certain dimensions of Cuba’s history, it also has points of connection — and disjunction — with the 21st-century technological imagination. Like The Year 200, it presents contemporary readers with a defamiliarized version of current fantasies, such as the concept of the networked self and the transhumanist quest for immortality. While 2001’s Star Child finale seems a fitting prototype for Silicon Valley fantasies of individualized self-transcendence for those who can afford it, the immortal hive mind operating the Sviatagor forces us to imagine what the politics of transhumanism might look like in collectivist terms. Legend thus permits its readers to reflect on how the limits of the political imagination intersect with our sense of technological possibility. Read alongside The Year 200, Legend offers a rich account of the longue durée of de Rojas’s imagined future of expansionary hi-tech communism.
De Rojas lived to see some of the technological developments that fascinated him come to fruition just as the political lens that gave them meaning in his fiction had become irreversibly obsolete. Read in retrospect, the historical optimism that infuses his novels is jarring, particularly when juxtaposed with the black humor of his countryman Yoss, whose fiercely cynical work started appearing only a few years after Legend and The Year 200. Yoss’s writings from the early ’90s vividly capture the grim realities of globalized inequality, technologically enabled dispossession, and spiraling environmental catastrophe. De Rojas, on the other hand, speaks to us as an eccentric prophet whose visions remain vital by giving us access to the otherwise unimaginable.