NOVEMBER 12, 2016
WITH ITS VISIONS of space travel and distant planets, aliens and cyborgs, we often think of science fiction as literature about the future. That future can be portrayed as utopian, as a solution to the problems currently facing us, or — more frequently — as dystopian, a nightmarish realization of the darker tendencies of contemporary society or human nature. Yet these alternate realities are perhaps most effective when their future visions are, in fact, commentaries on the present. As Carl Freedman reminds us in Critical Theory and Science Fiction, the literary space of the future gives a writer the distance to engage with the present, but without the same “ideological baggage” as that of an author writing about his or her own society. The allegorical capacity of science fiction to tell a story that can also refer to a real, extant situation makes the genre a safe and fertile space from which to comment on contemporary reality. Given its ability to both distance us from current events and give us a new or privileged position from which to evaluate them, science fiction’s popularity in times of political transition or social uncertainty is perhaps unsurprising.
The reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States in July 2015, followed by President Obama’s visit to Havana in March 2016, returned this largest Caribbean island and its socialist government to the spotlight of the United States’s interest. The media closely followed the diplomatic opening and the presidential visit (as well as the subsequent visits of numerous celebrities), and for a while articles on Cuba appeared almost daily in newspapers such as The New York Times and journals such as The Nation and The New Yorker. Some of this attention has been tinged with nostalgia for prerevolutionary Cuba, yet the media’s focus on the island has also been motivated by a curiosity about Cuban reality and an increased desire to understand Cuba’s present situation.
To better understand Cuba’s recent zeitgeist, adventurous readers need not confine themselves to hardcore realism or to visual nostalgia. Instead, they could head to the science fiction section, where they would find two recently published novels by Yoss (né José Miguel Sánchez Gómez): A Planet for Rent (Restless Books, 2015) and Super Extra Grande (Restless Books, 2016), both translated from Spanish by David Frye. In choosing Yoss’s work to inaugurate their Cuban science fiction series, Restless Books could not have picked a better ambassador for introducing the Cuban variant of the genre to a North American audience. A brawny, gregarious rockero who looks like he just walked off the set of a Van Halen video, circa 1984, Yoss is one of the most visible members of Cuba’s small but dynamic sci-fi scene. He is also one of the more prolific writers on the island, having published more than 15 novels and books of short stories, and two books of critical essays, as well as numerous anthologies of science fiction and fantasy short stories.
Although science fiction flourished in the years immediately following the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the climate of censorship in the early 1970s led many writers to turn away from the genre. Born in 1969, Yoss is part of a younger generation that rediscovered science fiction (both the writing of their compatriots and the work of Anglo-American and Soviet authors) during the 1980s. As someone who has made his living as a writer since 1988, when his novel Timshel won Cuba’s David Prize for first-time authors, he has been a keen observer of Cuban society (and its literature) for almost three decades. The two selections that Restless Books has published showcase both Yoss’s versatility as a writer and the changes that have happened in the part of the world from where he writes. Although both are written in his direct, engaging style, they could not be more different in tone and vision. Originally published in 2001, A Planet for Rent is a dark allegory of life in Cuba in the early 1990s, while Super Extra Grande (originally published in 2012) serves as a breezy fable. Read together, they offer a different view of Cuba’s journey from the crisis of the post-Soviet era to the expectant, yet uncertain moment of transition in which it finds itself today, on the cusp of a possible end to the US embargo and an opening of the island to its giant neighbor to the north.
A series of interlocking narratives that can be read individually as short stories or together as a novel in fragments, A Planet for Rent begins with a short vignette that provides a context for the various pieces:
For rent, one planet that’s lost its way in the race for development, that showed up at the stadium after all the medals had been handed out, when all that was left was the consolation prize of survival.
For rent, one planet that learned to play the economics game according to one set of rules but discovered once it started playing that the rules had been changed.
A reader doesn’t have to reach very far to understand that the “planet” to which the advertisement refers is a thinly veiled description of Cuba during the “Special Period in Time of Peace,” as Fidel Castro dubbed the economic and social crisis of the early 1990s. When the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 left Cuba without its primary trading partner, Castro’s government began the search for new economic opportunities, including reopening the island to tourism. This “new” source of capital resulted in the creation of a dual economy, in which dollar-wielding tourists were treated as first-class citizens, while ordinary Cubans (who were paid in national pesos) were denied access — legally and financially — to many hotels, restaurants, and beaches. Prostitution, virtually eradicated in the first years of the revolution, surged again as struggling Cubans searched for ways to access tourist dollars.
In Yoss’s interplanetary allegory of this moment, Earth — deemed incapable of responsible self-governance — has been colonized by the xenoids, a consortium of the galaxy’s other sentient beings. In the interests of “saving Earth from itself,” they have turned the planet, now a “Galactic Protectorate,” into a vacation destination: Earth and its inhabitants exist solely to satisfy the desires of its alien visitors. Advertised as a vacation paradise for aliens, Earth has become a kind of prison for humans. Prostitution, known in this universe as “social work,” is rampant. Humans cannot travel freely and have few ways to leave the planet legally, unless they occupy a privileged position as artists or athletes. Corruption and subterfuge become key practices as Earth’s inhabitants either seek to create lives for themselves beyond the rigid limits of xenoid law or attempt to escape the planet altogether.
Each section of A Planet for Rent focuses on one particular character’s struggle within Earth’s limited options for survival or escape. Although several of the characters survive, success often comes at an extreme cost, making their victories Pyrrhic at best. Buca, the prostitute protagonist of the “Social Worker” chapter, may finally get to leave the planet as the consort of a wealthy Grodo (an insect-like xenoid) named Selshaliman. While a comfortable life awaits her, her years of freedom have an expiration date, as Buca is destined ultimately to serve as a living incubator for Selshaliman’s offspring, who will feed off of her insides, killing her slowly. In “The Champions,” Daniel, a gifted athlete on Earth’s voxl team (a kind of space age, interspecies rugby), is offered a chance to play in the interplanetary leagues. But taking the job means abandoning his friends on Earth’s team, who have not been offered the chance to escape, as well as accepting wages well below those of xenoid players. The story that may best illustrate the high cost of success is “Performing Death,” which features Moy, a performance artist who has built a career touring the galaxy. In an indirect nod to Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist,” Moy literally kills himself on stage every night in the goriest way; his body is then “auto-cloned” so that he can be resurrected to repeat the performance. The show creates pleasure out of Moy’s suffering, and the constant death and resurrection is not without cost: “[T]hese cloned rebirths were wearing him out more and more.” Yet when Moy receives an offer to repeat the performance every night for considerably more money, he accepts, despite the physical and psychological risks.
As of 2016, A Planet for Rent is the only one of Yoss’s longer works not to have been published in Cuba. The editorial board of Cuba’s nationalized publishing system rejected it twice, once in 1999 and again in 2007, presumably because the social critique that it offers was felt to be too strong or too direct. Yet the book’s allegory does not specifically reference the Cuban Revolution or former leader Fidel Castro’s government. What it does critique, and strongly, is a world system that allows Earth to be used and controlled in this way. The Earth that emerges from these interconnected stories is a place of insecurity and instability, where everything (and everyone) is potentially for sale and where every interaction is a potential transaction. Earth’s inhabitants participate voluntarily in their own exploitation, since that exploitation often constitutes the only means of survival. Indeed, the individuals who survive, even thrive, in this environment are those who are willing to compromise their well-being, their ethics, even their physical safety. Those who refuse to compromise, like Jowe, pay an even steeper price. Arrested for his dissident political activities in “Social Worker,” Jowe is sentenced to serve as a “Body Spare,” a rent-a-body for visiting aliens who cannot support Earth’s atmosphere. When we meet up with him in “Escape Tunnel,” he has been irrevocably damaged by the experience, and is engaged in an ill-fated attempt to leave the planet on an illegal spaceship.
The gritty environment of Yoss’s stories, coupled with the presence of futuristic technology and characters with marginal or perilous lifestyles, has led some critics to characterize A Planet for Rent as cyberpunk, the subgenre of science fiction initiated in the 1980s by works such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. It is certainly true that authors like Yoss and the other writers of his cohort (like Michel Encinosa Fu, Vladimir Hernández Pacín, and Erick Mota) were drawn to the dark, technologically sophisticated worlds imagined in the work of authors such as Gibson and Stephenson. Yet to explain A Planet for Rent’s atmosphere as solely a borrowing from Anglo-American literature is to ignore the extent to which Yoss’s book draws on both the emotional atmosphere and the challenges of life in Cuba during the Special Period. In the midst of extreme economic crisis, the diversion of food and material goods to the tourist economy did make it seem as if parts of the country existed solely to serve tourists. The feeling of claustrophobia experienced by Cubans wanting to escape these privations led thousands of them to take to the sea in whatever kind of vessel they could find, most dramatically demonstrated in the balseros (rafters) crisis of 1994, or to use other means to leave the island, cutting themselves off from family and friends and exposing themselves to unforeseen dangers.
It would be wrong, however, to see A Planet for Rent as just about Cuba. Cubans living in the Special Period witnessed the end of the exceptionalism of Cuba’s particular brand of socialist utopia and the reincorporation of the island into the economy of global capital. The tourist planet that Yoss explores is the world of Caribbean tourism that Antiguan writer Jamaica Kincaid excoriated in her 1988 tour de force A Small Place, transposed onto the scene of interplanetary travel. Yoss’s stories show us what it feels like to make space for oneself in a world in which money alone can buy social privilege, and in which visitors to a country may be treated better than its citizens.
Overtly political fiction, at times, runs the risk of allowing the main story to suffer in subtlety in order to prove a political point. What saves Yoss’s narrative — and his transparent Earth-Cuba analogy — from this fate is the vivid, engaging nature of his narration. His writing is brisk and compelling, with flashes of dark humor, and his characters are not mere ciphers, but flesh and blood beings for whom both the narrator and eventually the reader come to care deeply. Although each story is its own independent tale, connections between the characters become evident later in the book: Jowe, in love with Buca, is an art school friend of Moy’s; the security guard narrator of the chapter “The Rules of the Game” is one of the agents sent to arrest Jowe; Leilah, the adolescent protagonist of the final story, “The Platinum Card,” is the daughter of Friga, a woman who dies trying to escape with Jowe in “Escape Tunnel.” Just as these connections add dimension to the characters, they also reveal the extent to which people’s lives are interconnected, the ways in which one person’s loss means another’s survival.
Steeped in the precarious moment of the Special Period, A Planet for Rent is a dark, angry tale. While reading it can be a pleasurable experience, it’s hard not to come away impacted by its claustrophobic atmosphere. Super Extra Grande, published a decade later, is a lighter, more hopeful read. We are again in a world of interplanetary and interspecies communication, only this time around, Earth has been one of the planets engaged in intergalactic exploration and colonization. (In fact, the engine enabling interplanetary travel is developed by none other than an Ecuadorian priest.) Our hero, a human named Jan Amos Sangan Dongo, is the descendent of two such colonizers: a father of Japanese heritage and a mother of Cuban descent. Jan Amos has an unusual profession; as the self-titled “Veterinarian to the Giants,” he is a veterinary doctor to all kinds of strange, oversized creatures (worms the size of storms, microbes the size of small planets). His fondness for large fauna may have something to do with his own size, as he measures an impressive seven-foot-11-inches tall and weighs 375 pounds. (In Spanish, Jan Amos’s name is a linguistic play on both his size and his profession, sangandongo being a colloquial Cuban expression for “extra large.”)
The plot of Super Extra Grande is at heart a rescue tale. When it is discovered that Jan Amos’s two lovely former assistants, Enti Kmussa and An-Mhaly, have been swallowed by a laketon, a giant microbe the size of a continent, Jan Amos and his assistant must figure out a way to free them from the creature before they become its next meal. The plan, of course, quickly becomes complicated by both politics and biology, for Enti and An-Mhaly were not traveling close to the laketon’s planet by chance. To rescue them, Jan Amos must contend with both the physical challenge of entering a laketon as well as the political machinations of one of his former classmates from veterinary school. The surprisingly interesting details of alien veterinary science allow Yoss to draw on his background as a biologist, and Jan Amos’s complicated romantic feelings about his two assistants showcase the writer’s gift for narrative humor. One particularly amusing touch is the fact that Jan Amos and his assistant communicate in Spanglish, a galaxian lingua franca, which translator David Frye has done a good job of rendering in translation. The reader never really doubts that Jan Amos will find a creative way to rescue Enti and An-Mhaly, but the rescue process reveals surprising insights about Jan Amos’s abilities to navigate his own relationships with human (and xenoid) colleagues and companions. This relatively small episode turns out to have huge consequences for Jan Amos himself.
Super Extra Grande is certainly a more optimistic, less critical work than A Planet for Rent. Yet this may be illustrative of the moment in which Cuba finds itself. After surviving on pluck and ingenuity through varying degrees of scarcity and economic crisis, Cuba’s citizens may now have access to new opportunities, thanks in part to the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States. At the same time, without certain controls, this opening threatens to reshape the island’s social fabric in ways that may not be beneficial. Will ordinary Cubans have a say in how things change, and how quickly? Will these changes benefit a majority of the island’s inhabitants or mainly serve elitist or North American interests? Yoss’s more recent novel imagines a world in which Earth is just one part of a dynamic, complicated universe, in which interplanetary love and understanding exists, and in which even an unknown large animal vet can resolve an intergalactic political crisis. In short, it dares us to hope for a universe in which all things (super extra) large and small can find their place.
Emily A. Maguire is an associate professor of Spanish at Northwestern University where she specializes in literature of the Caribbean and its diasporas. She is the author of Racial Experiments in Cuban Literature and Ethnography (University Press of Florida, 2011).