Science fiction is an international project. It’s multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and accommodating enough as a genre to include authors of almost any identitification. So though it’s clear there isn’t a genre problem—there still is a publishing problem.
In America, for instance, there simply aren’t enough people of color and women authors being published. What’s more—further reflective of the problem of access to translated works in the United States (famously, only 3% of books published stateside are from translation)—the full range of exciting sci-fi published in Japan, China and India only makes its way to non-native readers in a slight trickle.
Cuban science fiction, however, is another problem entirely. All writing on the island was for decades subject to the whims of the Department of Revolutionary Orientation, and with trade in general being fairly limited in the 1960s and 1970s, Cuban science fiction has struggled to realize itself.
And now that the long-awaited global thaw is finally happening, Restless Books, a Brooklyn-based publishing house, is taking the noteworthy step of translating some of the most interesting sci-fi writers on the island. Yoss (whose birth name is José Miguel Sánchez Gómez), the author of A Planet for Rent, is one such writer.
All genre writing is a kind of family drama, with each new work being a variation on a theme, and with similarities foregrounding the differences. Working on a continuum emphasizes gestures in one direction or another. And in any dynamic like this—the Grateful Dead playing thousands of versions of their own songs, for example—a vocabulary of taxonomy arises to place certain works. A Planet for Rent, vivaciously translated by David Frye, could be called “postcolonial-pessimist-stoner sci-fi.”
To break that down for you: the book describes a distant and technologically advanced future in which stories of alien colonization and subjugation are told from a subaltern perspective without imagining an alternative or a “way out” in a kind of wacky, cartoonish, and opulently goofy voice. And just as Yoss deftly avoids an over-simplistic “bad communism vs. good neoliberalism” (or vice versa) dichotomy, he also transcends the “somber seriousness vs. fun fluffiness” binarism as well. The book is serious fun, simultaneously passing judgment on both Cuba’s colonial past and inevitable neoliberal future.
A Planet for Rent is composed of a series of interlocking vignettes, connected through the human characters who sometimes know one another and recount stories of Earthlings living in a “post-Contact” reality (contact happened at some point in what we would consider the near future). One day, alien (called “xenoid” in the book) ships descend after having watched Earth civilization for thousands of years—descending, apparently, in a bid to save humans from themselves. Of course, our terrestrial leaders try to pull an Independence Day and attack the aliens. The aliens use a “geophysical weapon” and sink Africa as a warning (of course! Africa dies first).
And after that comes an ultimatum: “since the terrestrials were incapable of intelligent self-government or of using their natural resources rationally, from that moment on they would cease to be an independent culture. And so they entered the status of a Galactic Protectorate.” Through increasingly draconian measures, Earth loses its independence—but is returned to a state of pristine-pre-civilization.
“A brilliant future awaited human beings, under the benevolent tutelage of the galactic community, into which they would be accepted one not very distant day, with the full rights of membership…At least, that was the official version.” The future Yoss imagines attaches his readers to Cuba’s own colonial past, completing a circuit with warnings of the neoliberal marketization that almost surely await the island in the next decade or so. By listing a third imaginary coordinate in the distant future, Yoss is able to render the book itself into a nexus where colonial exploitation and its official “this is for your own good” rationale can be read simultaneously, in a kind of temporal palimpsest.
Yoss’ vignettes are stories of humans moving through xenoid spaces. This is a new earth, where the only chance at material security (spare as it may be) comes from being a sex worker, an artist, or an athlete, and cashing in on stereotypes of Earthlings as primitive and somehow more “authentic”. There’s the story of Buca, a former sex worker (more or less ironically called “Social Workers” in the book) who chooses to live a life of almost unlimited opulence until the day insectoid eggs incubating in her womb hatch and kill her. Channeling the phenomenon of great Cuban baseball players being lured off the island by American teams, there’s the Voxl (think high-tech tlachtli, sort-of) hero Daniel Menéndez, hero of Team Earth, who is lured from the planet by high xenoid salaries. There’s Moy, the artist who gives a monologue about art to rapt xenoid audiences who subsequently tear his body to shreds.
These are stories of barbarian Earthlings given special access to peek behind the curtain of galactic empire. Like all stories told from this perspective, technology hails from the outside. Technology itself is alien and almost magical. But these tales of colonialism still hold less in common with Heart of Darkness or The Radiance of the King than with the true story of Minik Wallace, the Inuk child kidnapped from Greenland in the 19th century, and brought to live as a specimen in the American Museum of Natural History. Or like Pocahontas and her son sitting for the “Sedgeford Portrait,” these are stories of the subjugated—tokenized and used as baubles.
Yoss describes a menagerie of alien races superior to humans in almost every way: physically, legally, economically, materially, etc. In a galaxy that very much resembles a high-tech neoliberal fever dream, everything is reduced to transaction, and the only things humans are left with over the aliens isn’t valuable in a transactional sense: the power of moral perspective. Humans are made tragically wise by the humiliating role they play in the galaxy.
The themes might be heavy, but the book itself is fun. It’s full of jokes, surreal asides, funny sex, and a kind of refreshingly sophomoric attitude towards tragedy that keeps the book from being too pedantic. Yoss’ sense of humor is like a spoonful of sugar to help down his pessimism—which works, because the book is fundamentally pessimistic. It’s impossible for the characters to imagine a different reality than the one they live in. History is over, the score has been tallied, and humans came up on the losing end.
There’s no hope for agency or freedom, just a long dull subjugation occasionally punctuated with sex, violence, and drugs; the entire experience suffused with both Yoss’ and his characters’ sarcasm. As the last line of the novel goes, “And they say that reality can’t beat fantasy…”
Scott Beauchamp is a writer and Army veteran living in Portland, Maine. His previous work has appeared in the Paris Review, the Atlantic, Bookforum, and the Washington Post, among other places.