10 Cuban science-fiction books: a reading guide
© 2005 Juan Pablo Noroña
Translation: Daniel W. Koon © 2006
Cuasar -- Articles
Original in Spanish
Cuban literature, from Martí to the present, has played a special role within Latin American literature. And despite its low profile, Cuban science fiction plays a similar role within the region. Juan Pablo Noroña (born Havana, 1973) offers us a brief guide to the canonical science-fiction literature from this Caribbean island.
The literature of science fiction in Cuba began to blossom in the 1960's as part of the cultural expansion fed by strong state patronage, mass literacy and educational developments (above all in the area of technical education), conditions which helped to create an eager market for the genre. This beginning was of course characterized by the influence of earlier, foreign models, although there were also sparks of originality from characters such as Oscar Hurtado and Miguel Collazo.
Later came what was termed the 'quinquenio gris' (the gray five years) during which all literature suffered under the weight of dogmatism and bureaucracy, and nearly all publication in the genre ceased. During this period, Cuban science fiction came within the sphere of influence of many Soviet science fiction publications, blessed with the ideological glamor of their country of origin and the slick production of the Soviet publishing houses. The Soviet influence left a utopian and slightly hard stamp on Cuban science fiction.
By the end of the 70s the genre reemerged with the inauguration of the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists' (UNEAC) Special David Prize for Science Fiction. In the 1980s writers like Daína Chaviano and Alberto Serret captured the public imagination with a new style, the so-called blando (soft) or rosado (pink) style, so-called for its romanticism, leaving behind all pretense of hardness in favor of the suggestive and poetic potential of plot and character. On the other hand, the novel of scientific and social extrapolation reached its maturity with Agustín de Rojas, and at the end of the decade José Miguel Sánchez, aka Yoss, brought new, darker, experimental territories into view.
Then came the fall of the socialist camp, with economic repurcusions that meant a publishing dry spell in Cuba, particularly for such a marginal genre as science fiction; it is interesting to note that all hint of utopianism disappeared from the narrative at this same time. Cuban writers began to look outside their borders to be published and to be recognized.
The 90s were above all a time of workshops and of nonliterary events and activities until 1999, when the publishing house Letras Cubanas published an anthology of new writers, Reino Eterno. This same house and Extramuros published several more books up to 2002. More recently, in 2003, the first Calendario Prize from the publisher Abril included a category for science fiction, with two awards so far -- the selections of the first being particularly unfortunate.
El Viaje (The Voyage) (1968), Miguel Collazo. Havana: Ediciones Unión.
Collazo in general and El viaje in particular are key milestones in the dialogue between science fiction and mainstream literature. The characters of this novel are survivors of an unnamed catastrophe -- possibly a nuclear war or a cosmic shipwreck on a hostile world -- who attempt to refocus their energies as human and social beings on either constructing a new society or on returning to the one they have lost. The ingredients of this tale, which many consider an existential metaphor for the contemporary situation, are not technology and scientific extrapolation, but rather reflections, metaphysics, and an exploration of what it means to be human under extraordinary conditions.
El arco iris del mono (The monkey's rainbow) (1980), Ángel Arango. Havana: Letras Cubanas.
This volume includes Ángel Arango's best stories. The dean of Cuban science fiction, Arango has lived through all the stages of the genre's development in Cuba, remaining active for longer than any other writer. In his life's work, a large part of which is display in El arco iris del mono, one witnesses science fiction's transformation on the island, from echoes of the Golden Age of English-language SF to a distinctly national voice, displaying the influence of the Soviet literature along the way. Wandering through these stories about space trips, contact with aliens, human evolution and thinking machines is the equivalent of reliving the history of the genre in Cuba.
Kappa15 (1982), Gregorio Ortega. Havana: Letras Cubanas.
This book by Gregorio Ortega is a reworking of The Odyssey and The Voyages of Sinbad, but with a science fiction flavor. But that doesn't do justice to this novel, which is more an adventurous tale than a tale of adventures, deep when it needs to be and light when that is what is required. Unfortunately, it is the sole incursion into this field from this polymath, a writer whose life was rather like that of his protagonist, as Ortega had been a journalist, a deputy minister, a diplomat, a lawyer for revolutionaries, an exiled politician and traveler, and the author of numerous novels and collections.
Timshel (1987), José Miguel Sánchez (aka Yoss) Havana: Editorial Abril.
José Miguel Sánchez is the most decorated Cuban science fiction writer, more prestigious than any other within the mainstream without abandoning this genre, and the only one capable of surviving on his writing alone. Timshel, a collection of stories, was his letter of introduction: he was only 18 when it was published. At the time it was the darkest, most high-tech and most experimental work yet of Cuban science fiction, introducing elements of cyberpunk, slipstream and the postmodern into the national consciousness. These continue to be his trademark, along with a decidedly biological sense of wonder.
Crónicas Koradianas (Korad Chronicles) (1988), Félix Mondéjar (aka F. Mond). Havana: Letras Cubanas.
There is a trend in Cuban science-fiction which deems it necessary to wear your nationality on your sleeve, sometimes with a cocky attitude. F. Mond is the principal exponent of this trend, and this is based not only on his giving his stories a local flavor but also on his so-called choteo cubano, a jovial attitude which we natives supposedly extend to all endeavors. The novel Crónicas Koradianas, although it is not a Cuban story per se, is in effect a grand comedy, satirical and irreverent, poking fun at religion, spy novels, space opera and even Goethe.
Fábulas de una abuela extraterrestre (Fables of an extra terrestrial grandmother) (1988), Daína Chaviano. Havana: Letras Cubanas.
Daína Chaviano will forever be known as the grand lady of Cuban science-fiction. In the 1980s she managed to spark the imaginations of readers everywhere with her style, with her references to the SF New Wave and to the great feminist voices of the genre. She won over the fans' affection with her intelligent defense, at every opportunity, of science fiction against dogmatic viewpoints. Fábulas de una abuela extraterrestre is not the most profound of her creations, but it reflects the maturity of her style and of her narrative capacity, with a plot masterfully interweaving the planetary novel, contact between intelligent species, heroic fantasy and mythology.
El año 200 (The Year 200) (1990), Agustín de Rojas. Havana: Letras Cubanas.
The consensus of national fandom is that Agustín de Rojas is the best Cuban SF writer; the only question is which is his best work. For many, El año 200 wins the gold. Here de Rojas takes his fundamental leitmotif, the imperfect utopia, to an extreme, with a plot deep in reflection and filled with action. It also employs a daring social extrapolation, a serious sense of science and technology, and a controversial conception of the future of man, a topic sadly lacking in the works of other writers of his generation. El año 200 was the author's last science fiction novel.
Reino Eterno (Eternal realm) (1999) Compiled by José Miguel Sánchez. Havana: Letras Cubanas.
The 1990's were lean times for Cuban science fiction publishing. The young writers in particular had no options for getting into print, and only one publisher of provincial scope, Extramuros, was willing to gamble on the new generation. In this volume one can find texts not only of science fiction but also of fantasy, written by Yailín Pérez Zamora, Juan Pablo Noroña, Orlando Vila, Eduardo del Llano, Juan A. Padrón, Fabricio González, Vladimir Hernández and others. Even the cover art, by Yailín Pérez Zamora, reflects the book's sense of novelty.
Nova de cuarzo (Quartz Nova) (2000), Vladimír Hernández. Havana: Ediciones Extramuros.
Vladimír Hernández, who after earning prizes and honorable mentions in Spain no longer resides in Cuba, is the staunchest and most original purveyor of cyberpunk. This comes through in this collection of stories Nova de cuarzo, which displays a distinctive style based on immersing the reader in his strange and futuristic Universe with a language of neologisms, weighted with adjectives and expressions that transform each object, person or circumstance into a new object in the reader's eyes. The plots of most of the six stories deal with the relationship between human beings and a ubiquitous technology.
Niños de Neón (Neon Children) (2001), Michel Encinosa Fú. Havana: Letras Cubanas.
Michel Encinosa is better known for his work in heroic fantasy -- Sol Negro (2001) -- than for his science-fiction writing. Niños de Neón is a mix of stories rooted in the futuristic universe of Ofidia, a cyberpunk megalopolis which facilitates the author's own role-play gaming style; readers will find aspects of this gaming culture in some of the stories. Still, the narrative experimentation in the audacity of his language -- not always successful -- make up for the lack of both verisimilitude and a proper scientific-technical eye.
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