Sci-Fi Writers Find Warmer Climate Amid Cuban Thaw


This article by Jonathan Wolfe appeared in The New York Times.

José Miguel Sánchez discovered Conan the Barbarian as a 10-year-old boy in Havana. Before long, he was wearing giant boots and sporting a mane of long hair, inventing a personal style that he calls “medieval-rocker” — risky behavior in a society that shuns individualism.

Mr. Sánchez, 46, whose pen name is Yoss, said he dreamed of having Conan-like adventures in the Alps or in California. But he couldn’t leaveCuba. So at 15, he began escaping in imaginary worlds he created in his writing. This week, Yoss’s “A Planet for Rent” was published in the United States by Restless Books, alongside “A Legend of the Future” by Agustín de Rojas — rare appearances in English of Cuban science-fiction books, which are arriving during a travel boom to the island nation and a wave of interest in all things Cuban.

“A Planet for Rent,” written almost two decades ago, is set in a world conquered by aliens and converted into a tourist playground. The story is an allegory of the so-called special period in Cuba during the 1990s, a time of widespread poverty created by the fall of the Soviet Union.

In prose that is direct, sarcastic, sexual and often violent, “A Planet for Rent” criticizes Cuban reality in thinly veiled terms. Cuban defectors leave the country not on rafts but on “unlawful space launches”; prostitutes are “social workers”; foreigners are “xenoids”; and Cuba is a “planet whose inhabitants have stopped believing in the future.”

“All they have left,” Yoss writes, “is the pride of their solitary past to help them face up to their irksome, everyday xenoid-filled present.”

The book is particularly critical of the government-run tourism industry of the ’90s, which welcomed and protected tourists — often at the expense of Cubans — and whose legacy can still be felt today.

During a phone interview from his mother’s apartment in Havana, Yoss said in Spanish, “I wrote this book out of anger, because I saw what was happening to my country and I couldn’t change it.” Even as Cuba changed, Yoss preserved his individuality. “Of course, this has caused me a lot of problems,” he said. The police often stop him, he said, because he doesn’t look like a “revolutionary youth” and he has refused to change his clothes — which has prevented his being on television.

“A Planet for Rent” was never published in Cuba; its criticisms of the government are “too transparent,” Yoss said. It was published in Spain in 2001 but was rejected multiple times by state-run Cuban publishers — effectively banning it in a country where the government controls mass communication. Yoss is planning to present it to the publishers again this year. “When people think you’re crazy, that’s the beginning of freedom,” he said.

Not all science fiction has been as critical of the government. Mr. de Rojas, who died in 2011, placed “A Legend of the Future” (1985) in a world in which Communism defeats capitalism. When the Berlin Wall fell, Mr. de Rojas felt so betrayed that he gave up writing science fiction and, toward the end of his life, worked to persuade others that former President Fidel Castro was a robot or that he didn’t exist.

Yoss, who remains on good terms with Cuban publishers despite some of the books he has presented in the past, is the country’s most recognizable science-fiction author, and he continues to publish widely in Cuba. (He has written more than 20 books.) But the genre is a small part of Cuban literature as a whole, said Ilan Stavans, a professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College and the publisher of Restless Books. In general, works of science fiction are not as prevalent in Spanish as they are in English.

“We have a problem with the future,” Mr. Stavans said. “Latin America has been obsessed with the wounds of the conquest and colonization.” The region, he added, generally focuses on the present.

In Cuba, science fiction “is not used to grease discoveries in science and technology,” as it has been in the United States, Mr. Stavans said, nor is it generally dystopian (as it is in Mexico) or “bookish” (as it is in Argentina). Instead, science fiction for Cubans became a way, he said, “to escape, and sharply criticize the realities that they were living.”

Mr. Stavans founded Restless Books in 2013 as a digital-only enterprise, but in April it began printing some titles. “A Planet for Rent” and “A Legend of the Future,” among the first to be made into physical books, were chosen, he said, because they reflect the political reality of their times and the hodgepodge nature of Cuban culture, which has borrowed from Soviet, North American and European traditions.

While science fiction is growing in popularity in Cuba — Yoss said that more books in this genre are to be published this year than in years past and that attendance at sci-fi workshops and events is growing — it has been hobbled throughout its history. It blossomed in the 1960s with the works of writers like Ángel Arango, Oscar Hurtado and Miguel Collazo. But it all but disappeared for years after 1971. That year, Mr. Castro adopted the Soviet ideology of Socialist Realism, which required literature to glorify Communism with realistic, not fantastical, depictions.

“My generation lived in a time when science fiction and fantasy was forbidden,” said Daína Chaviano, 58, a prominent Cuban science-fiction and fantasy writer who lives in Miami. But because of Cuba’s close relationship with the Soviet Union, many works of prescreened Soviet science fiction were published. Much of it “was a little bit politically dangerous,” Ms. Chaviano said, because it dealt with forbidden subjects like the paranormal. Ms. Chaviano said the Soviet works taught her how to hide controversial political and social statements in her writing.

Juan Carlos Toledano Redondo, an associate professor of Hispanic studies at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., who writes about Cuban science fiction, said President Raúl Castro’s liberalization of Cuba has changed the genre. “Today’s writers don’t feel limited by what they can say, so they don’t feel like they have to criticize the government so strongly,” he said.

Yoss said that since the announcement of the thaw with the United Statesin December, he has seen young writers explore new themes and topics that look toward the future, including stories that imagine Cuba after the death of Raúl Castro, or realities in which Cuba is a client state of the United States. Yoss said he, too, was planning a new book.

“I would like to focus on a great change in technology in Cuba that would change the situation,” he said. While he doesn’t know how this story will end, he might not have to wait for inspiration.

Cuba is already changing. Soon enough, he said, this sci-fi story “is going to write itself.”

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