Martians in Bartolo’s banana field:

Historical analysis and a perspective of SF in Cuba

Yoss (José Miguel Sánchez)

December 10, 2002

 

Originally published in Stardust.

(Translated by Daniel W. Koon. All rights reserved.)

 

 

SCIENCE FICTION IN CUBA?

 

Science fiction is considered by most experts to be a child of the 20th Century and its explosive technoscientific development.  So is it possible to write science-fiction in an agricultural country that relies on a single agricultural export, sugar, whose harvest (“la zafra“) is still done by hand? In a country of the developing world, whose technical and scientific development has been subject to 40 years of enormous pressure under a blockade by the most powerful country in the world? Science-fiction from that tiny island of the Caribbean, which has been practically on a war economy since the fall of the Soviet bloc, in a period that has been euphemistically called "the special period"?

So, to speak of "Cuban science-fiction" would seem a priori to be a ridiculous oxymoron, similar to “Gypsy Urban Planning” and “Aztec Equitation” proposed by Umberto Eco in his novel "Foucault's Pendulum".  Now, Gypsies do not have urban planners because they are nomads who do not live in houses, and the Aztecs would not be equestrians since they had no horses prior to the arrival of the Spaniards. So, science fiction in Cuba? This is a joke, right?

Well, no.  And this is neither the time nor the place to review the technical and scientific development reached by our country, particularly in spheres like biotechnology.  But there is a Cuban SF, and it is nearly as old as the blockade, even if it is not as well known outside of Cuba.

As with any literary phenomenon, Cuban science fiction did not appear by magic out of nothing, but owes much to those who came before and created the suitable breeding ground necessary for its development.  As in the rest of Latin America, the fantastic narrative has a long tradition in Cuba, with practitioners as prestigious as Alejo Carpentier, José Lezama Lima or Virgilio Piñera.

But although there were precursors like Esteban Borrero (1849-1906), as early as the 19th century, with his "Aventura de las hormigas" ["The adventure of the ants"] and although there were occasional isolated attempts by individual authors before 1959, strictly speaking, SF, and an SF movement, only really appeared in Cuba after the Revolutionary Triumph, in the first half of the 1960’s.

THE FIRST GOLDEN AGE

In 1964 two ground-breaking books of the genre appeared in Cuba: "La ciudad muerta de Korad" ["The dead city of Korad"], by Oscar Hurtado (1919-1977); and "¿Adónde van los cefalomos?" ["Whither go the Cephalomos?"] by Angel Arango (born 1926), considered the dean of Cuban SF for his longevity in and fidelity to this genre. In this, his first book, Arango already demonstrated that which would remain his characteristic style, heavily influenced by the classic English-language writers of the so-called Golden Age of SF, like Asimov and Heinlein.

On the contrary, the book of Hurtado, curiously, is not a narrative work at all, but a book of poems, full of allusions to the Martian stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series (Hurtado was one of the most ardent defenders of the detective's real existence), childrens’ folk tales from around the world, the “Iliad”, and other sources, fashioning a universe where black humor and tragedy were mixed in equal doses with fantasy and this peculiar manner of ridicule and kidding which is Creole humor, and which was later recognizable as one of the strongest, most distinct and most original features of Cuban SF.  But Hurtado’s innovative SF poetry was not taken up by his heirs, except for two or three more or less successful attempts.

One could write much about the dominant influence of Oscar Hurtado in the infancy of the genre in Cuba.  Those who knew him personally say that he was a man of singular aspect (he was known as "El Dragón" [the dragon], as much for his obsession with mythology as for his proverbial ugliness), encyclopedic culture and magnetic conversation.  Chess, paleocontact, UFOs and SF in general were themes over which he could discourse for hours, keeping even the most diverse auditorium enthralled for the duration.

The mortal sickness of which he suffered in his last years, and the apparently justified accusation of plagiarism made by Rogelio Llopis about his story "Carta de un juez" ["The Letter of a Judge"], destroyed El Dragón.  After writing "The Dead City of Korad" (according to scholars, the second SF poem in history, and which inspired the first SF ballet, “Misión Korad” [“Mission Korad”, 1980] which debuted to commemorate the joint Soviet-Cuban space flight), and a few other stories (collected in the posthumous book "Los papeles de Valencia El Mudo" ["The papers of Valencia the Silent"], by his widow Evora Tamayo) his creative fountain appears to have run dry.  But not his influence on the genre, thanks to a small army of imitators and heirs, who would christen the first Cuban SF literary workshop with his name in the 1980's.

In 1966, three books appeared: "El planeta negro" ["the Black planet"] by Angel Arango, which includes the story “Un inesperado vistante” [“An unexpected visitor”], a true classic which the European reader would inevitably compare to similar works (such as Michael Moorcock’s Hugo-winning "Ecce Homo"), "Asesinato por anticipado" ["Murder in advance"] by Arnaldo Correa (born 1935) which its surprising detective subtext within an SF tale; and "El libro fantástico de Oaj" ["The fantastic book of Oaj"] by the recently deceased Miguel Collazo (1936-2000), also known as the Master of Irreality.

This last, a satiric pastiche clearly inspired by Ray Bradbury's "Martian Chronicles", continued exploring the territory charted by Hurtado in his initial book. "El libro fantástico de Oaj" combines daily scenes from Havana in the 1950s with bits of the narration of an invasion of the Earth by inhabitants of Saturn as told by one of the invaders, with the absurd and comic flooding through the historical interweavings (a structure known in the North American market as "fix-up", which has given the genre such memorable works as Ray Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles" and "Theodore Sturgeon's "More than Human").

There were other authors, like Juan Luis Herrero (who had received an honorable mention in the UNEAC Story Prize for his book "Tigres en el Vedado" ["Tigers in Vedado"] about counterrevolutionary (Masferrerista)  gang members, in other words, a story having nothing to do with SF); Rogelio Llopis, author of a collection of fantasy stories "La guerra y los Basiliscos" ["War and the basilisks"]; or Germán Piniella, whose stories appeared in various anthologies. These three authors were considered minor, primarily because they did not leave us with any SF novels, focusing primarily on short stories. These and others were included in the two anthologies of fantasy stories compiled in these years, (one of which was compiled by Llopis himself) selections which presented SF as a subgenre of fantasy literature, an editorial classification somewhat reductionist, but one that has remained fairly widespread on the island till the present day.

In 1967, two more books by Arango and Correa were edited, and the following year "El viaje" ["The voyage"] by Collazo saw the light of day. This was an exceptional work: disquieting, metaphysical, reflective, profoundly symbolic and of rare beauty, more concerned with the existential and metaphorical conflict of its strange characters than in describing some scientific or technological setting. Its heroes, survivors of a nuclear catastrophe or of the failed colonization of a distant and hostile world, try to unite to undertake either a reconstruction or a return. An adventure of discovery, of human society: "El viaje" is all that, more than a simple space opera: The novel ends with the phrase, "El viaje ha comenzado," ["The journey has begun"] even though none of the characters has gone anywhere.

With "El fin del caos llega quietamente" ["The end of chaos arrives quietly"] by Angel Arango, published in 1971, this author's prose reached its poetic zenith. With this short book, (with a cover illustration by the celebrated French cartoonist Phillipe Drouillet, a fact that the artist himself probably never noticed) however, the end of the first promising stage of SF in Cuba arrived. It was a swan song.

What happened? How could a literary genre which had achieved such works of surprising quality suddenly disappear from the national literary scene? And what happened to the authors?

CUBAN SF IN HIBERNATION

The quinquennio gris had arrived (the “gray five-year plan”, which would last ten years for some), a period of sad and obscure mediocrity within Cuban literature. In the desire for ideological purification under the slogan (sufficiently extremist and vague, like all good slogans) "Dentro la revolución todo, contra la revolución nada" ["Everything for the Revolution, nothing against the Revolution"], a desire which moved the cultural scene in Cuba at that time, the SF of Arango and Collazo, inspired by the style of the English language classics, and accustomed to portraying a somber dark future as a warning, immediately became suspect in the eyes of the zealous political commissars of the tropics. They accused the authors of pessimistic, antisocial literature, heretically foreign to the sacred models of socialist realism imported from the USSR. Its place as a privileged genre within the national literature passed to the detective story ["la novela policial"] of a new variety: investigators (who are always trying to quit smoking...sad trick of the creators to avoid making the heroes totally, boringly perfect) as eternal positive heroes, who always managed, with the help of the people and their CDR, to capture the thief, spy or enemy saboteur, albeit after a long and bloody manhunt. This plot became a cliché repeated incessantly and mechanically, exalted for its optimism and its hopeful mirror of a future which would belong completely to you know who... History, which occurs first as tragedy and later as farce, repeated the sad beginnings of the October Revolution, when the Russian Modernists and Symbolists, whom even Lenin had praised as the vanguards of hope, found themselves relegated, willingly or not, under Stalin's vile whim, either to self-censorship or to a more enthusiastic embrace of a wretched, antiproblematic "realism" which sang praises to its government rather than questioning it.

As a consequence of concerns so far removed from literary issues, Cuban SF began a hibernation from which it would not rouse itself until 1978. In that year, two small works destined for children's literature were published: "Siffig y el vramontono 45-A" by Antonio Orlando Rodríguez; and "De Tulán, la lejana" ["From Tulan, the alien"] by Giordano Rodríguez, a work that meekly introduced to the national panorama the previously taboo subject of paleocontact. Before this literary thaw, Cuban SF had been relegated to scattered comics, among which is worth noting the excellent "Matías Pérez" series of Luis Lorenzo; (our first aeronaut had disappeared and been converted by the grace of the comic book artist's pen into the service of the space fleet of the planet Strakon, a planet much more technologically developed than the Earth) and the publication of occasional titles of English language SF (especially, and preferably if they spoke of the inevitable crisis of the capitalist system which is just around the corner... like "The Space Merchants" by Pohl and Kornbluth, "The Naked Sun" by Asimov, or Bradbury's ineffable "The Martian Chronicles") buried in a sea of detective stories in Oscar Hurtado’s "Colección Dragón", originally conceived of as a forum for SF, detective, and horror stories.

However, at this same time, (After all, it couldn't have been a complete loss, right?) the Soviet publishers "Mir" and "Progreso" published several titles by the Soviet masters of the genre. The works of the brothers Strugatsky and the Abramovs -- father and son --, Iván Efremov, Sever Gansovsky, Anatoli Dneprov, Victor Kolupaiev and Olga Larionova arrived in the Caribbean island in novels and anthologies with translations full of anachronistic and odd turns of phrase that rang false to the Cuban ear, translations written by refugees of the Spanish Civil War and their children, which wound up corrupting somewhat the language of Cuban writers. This Soviet style, with works that almost unanimously described a luminous future (with the honorable exception of the Strugatsky brothers) where the possibility of violent confrontation with other intelligent races was totally unimaginable (absurd capitalist prejudice), this totally and institutionally optimistic SF, was a guiding star in the heavens for the Cuban functionaries of culture as to how SF should be written.

THE SECOND GOLDEN AGE OF CUBAN SF

We owe the miracle that enabled the resumption of science fiction publication in Cuba in 1978 to several factors. Among these is the honorable mention obtained in the Premio David [The David Prize] that year for the collection of SF stories "Aventura en el laboratorio" ["Adventure in the laboratory"] by Bruno Henríquez (born 1947). The Premio David, organized by UNEAC for young unpublished writers, was one of the most prestigious prizes in the country. Bruno Henríquez, an environmental physicist by profession, in addition to his much discussed merits as an author of stories and poems, has played a primordial and undeniable role in the history of Cuban SF, thanks to his undeniable talent as a popularizer (His scientific essay "Marte: mito y realidad" ["Mars: myth and reality"] was a best-seller in the collection "Los pinos nuevos" ["The new pines"]) and his indefatigable organizational work in support of Cuban SF fandom. But this honorable mention put Cuban SF squarely in Bruno's debt, because it prompted the UNEAC to create a separate Premio David for Science Fiction, alongside the traditional ones for Narrative, Poetry, and Theater, beginning the following year.

That first David for SF in 1979 "Los mundos que amo" ["The worlds I love"] by Daína Chaviano (born 1957) marks the real beginning of the second and (till now) most brilliant stage of Cuban SF.

The first book of stories by the young authoress, despite its naïveté, became enormously popular (The story which gave the collection its name even spawned its own photonovel.) and inspired a particular way of writing SF which has been labeled "rosado" or "suave" ["pink" or "smooth"], and which had as its principal cultivators, aside from Daína herself in her following books ("Amoroso planeta" ["Loving planet"]; "Historias de hadas para adultos" ["Fairy tales for adults"]; "Fábulas de una abuela extraterrestre" ["Tales of an extraterrestrial grandmother"] and "El abrevadero de los dinosaurios" ["The dinosaurs' watering hole") in the writing team of Chely Lima (born 1957) and Alberto Serret (born 1947), both together, in the excellent collection of short stories "Espacio abierto" ["Open space"], and in Serret’s solo, lamentable and erratic "Consultorio terrícola" ["Earthling Bureau"] and "Un día de otro planeta" ["One day on another planet"].

The influence of Daína Chaviano’s romantic style on Cuban SF extended through most of the 1980’s, when she was, officially and unofficially (at least for the majority) the ultimate national authority in the subject. So great was that authority that she managed to pull off two miracles: first, she was permitted to appear weekly for two months to present socialist and capitalist SF films on TV as part of the summer broadcast schedule. Secondly, she was allowed to launch the first ever Cuban SF magazine (with only one issue: the reader is left to decide whether this is fortunate or not), “NOVA”, of which we will talk later.

The rosy style of Daína, which quickly gained the appreciation of children and especially of adolescents, served, despite its many detractors, to focus on the poetic aspect of storytelling and in the more superficially psychological aspects of constructing characters, in a formal and conceptual search which ignored the aspects of science and technology so much favored by the purists of the genre (above all the so-called "hard SF" fans). The hard SF fans immediately attacked this new style as bland and facile.

THE 1980s

But, perhaps to compensate (for there is no black without white, no right without left), the second David in SF went in 1980 to the biologist Agustín de Rojas (born 1949), for his novel “Espiral” [”Spiral”]. This novel, a true landmark of Cuban SF, and not yet surpassed, combined the best of the style of the English language classics in terms of the design of the characters and the imaginative milieu (mutants, monsters, androids) with the socialist ideal of a better future. The novel, sufficiently “hard” and a veritable tour de force for any author, first-time or not, is brimming with characters. It tells the story of the return of a group of cosmonauts born on an extraplanetary colony of socialist origin to a post-apocalyptic Earth, devastated by a ferocious imperialism in its final death throes. The visitors try first to study, then to understand and save the complex new world which has arisen (much to their surprise) from among the radioactive ruins, battling their own prejudices and with a looming threat, culminating in a thrilling, surprising conclusion.

If one is to speak of an authentic, first-class SF in the 1980s, it is in the works of this author. In his initial work, "Espiral", as in his two succeeding works, the impeccable "Una leyendo de la futuro" ["A legend of the future"] and in his somewhat antiquated "El año 200" ["The year 200"], a rich and correct prose unites with a notable scientific authority (thanks to his background as a biologist) and a coherent conception of history. Unfortunately, with the fall of real socialism, Agustín de Rojas stopped writing SF (although hopefully not for ever). Deprived of his faith in a socialist future which animated all of his work, his focus turned to humanity's past, and he now dedicates his intellect to investigating, in essay and fiction, the truth behind the life and works of Jesus. The first fruit of his new creative focus, his historical novel "El publicano" ["The publican"] is an investigation of Christ so original and mature and so full of literary quality, that it makes us yearn all the more for “Saint Agustín’s” return to to SF.

Other authors continued this new wave. Also notable in this decade were Gregorio Ortega (with the surprising and adventurous novel "Kappa 15"), Luis Alberto Soto (another David Prize with "Eilder", a novel noteworthy for translating the formula of investigator plus public against the delinquent or spy, typical of the worst socialist detective story, to SF) and Félix Mondéjar -- aka F. Mond -- (the most humorous, and one of the most prolific: "Con perdón de los terrícolas" ["Our apologies to the Earthlings "] "¿Dónde está mi Habana?" ["Where is my Havana?"] "Cecilia después o ¿Por qué la Tierra?" ["Cecilia afterwards, or Why the Earth?"]; the satirical "Krónicas Koradianas" ["The Korad Chronicles"], and, most recently, "Vida, pasión y suerte" ["Life, passion and luck"], another SF vision of Jesus, and the simply infamous "Holocausto 2084" ["Holocaust 2084"].

And in these years the first SF Literary Workshop was created, located in the Havana municipality of Plaza de la Revolución, named – naturally – after Oscar Hurtado, and led by Daína Chaviano. This workshop produced authors like Félix Lizárraga ("Beatrice", David Prize of 1981); Arnoldo Aguila ("Serpiente emplumada" ["feathered serpent"]); Roberto Estrada ("Trenco", novel which was a David finalist and was later published); Julián Pérez ("El eligido" ["The chosen"], short stories); Eduardo Frank ("Más allá del sol" ["Beyond the sun"], short stories...another David Prize) Ileana Vicente, Raúl Aguiar, Ricardo Fumero and others. Later, other workshops were formed in the capital and in the rest of the country, such as the "Jules Verne" and "Androides" ["Androids"] workshops.

The magazine "Juventud Técnica" ["Technical Youth"] played a very important role in the rise of the genre in the 80s. Consistent with its editorial mission of popularizing science, this publication occasionally also included in its pages short SF pieces by Cuban and foreign authors, and halfway through the decade inaugurated a science fiction short story competition, a second opportunity to introduce young unpublished SF authors, in addition to the Davids. The frequent airing of SF films in theaters and on TV also increased the genre’s popularity among the Cuban public.

There were even five anthologies of Cuban SF storytelling, two with narration by the members of the literary workshops ("Cuentos cubanos de ciencia ficción" ["Cuban science fiction stories"] and "Juegos planetarios" ["Planetary games"], in the "Suspenso" ["Suspense"] collection aimed at adolescents and youth) and two composed of the finalists in the magazine Juventud Técnica’s story competitions ("Recurso extremo" ["Last resort"] and "Astronomía se escribe con G” [”Astronomy is spelled with a G”], as well as a fifth with editorial selection: “Contactos” [”Contacts”], without doubt the finest of the lot, directed at the time by the editor Juan Carlos Reloba, a dedicated fan of the genre and coauthor with Rodolfo Pérez Valero of one of the singular novels of detective SF, “Confrontación”, situated in the very near future, in which socialism is a nearly global reality.

A critical assessment of what was published in these years, necessarily superficial for reasons of space, would show two curious circumstances. The first, already anticipated by Oscar Hurtado in “The dead city of Korad”, is the predomination of humor, parody, and nonsense, especially in the almost bufoonish work of F. Mond (whose “¿Dónde está mi Habana?”, his second and most serious work -- or at least, his least bufoonish -- is considered by the general opinion, paradoxically, to constitute his artistic zenith) who mercilessly skewered the genre, well-known locations and the Western, Christian world in general. Other authors also entered this world of farce and satire with more or less success, like Luis Alberto Soto in his delicious little story “Memorias de un traductor simultáneo” [”Memoirs of a simultaneous translator”]. The second circumstance is, in every sense, sadder: during the 80s (aside from the honorable exceptions of Agustín de Rojas, Félix Lizárraga and sometimes Gregorio Ortega, the writers who knew their science didn’t know their fiction, and vice versa. A clear example of the former is the work of the physicist Bruno Henríquez, and of the second the work of Alberto Serret.

A third circumstance, but no less lamentable, is the return of a lax editorial scrutiny, perhaps because of the editors’ lack of sufficient knowledge of the field. Without providing a distasteful paternalism, works as painfully bad as “Expedición Unión-Tierra” [“Expedition of the Earth Union”] by Gabriel Céspedes (who in fact won an unearned David in SF) probably should never have been published. Or the epidemic proliferation of a particular type of work of dubious humor and scarce literary merit, which simply transplanted topics of world SF onto Cuban soil. Martians landing in the archetypical Creole ‘platanar de Bartolo’, the robot that gets its creator in a jam, etc., pitfalls that even writers of Daína Chaviano’s stature fell into (I blame the robot).

These works not only contributed nothing to the genre, but also sufficiently damaged the public’s perception of SF “made in Cuba”. However, despite these and other problems (like the absence of a magazine dedicated to this genre, apart from the isolated attempt by Daína, Chely and Alberto, with “NOVA”, in which they barely got to publish their own work) the Cuban public remained receptive to SF. The reader wished to read more SF, and better SF, and wished to read other writers of SF (aside from Daína Chaviano and F. Mond, the most privileged – by far – in terms of the number of books published), and different styles of SF.

In 1988 the David in SF was shared for the first time, between the two books “El mago del futuro” [“The magician of the future”] by María Felicia Vera (born 1967), and “Timshel” by José Miguel Sánchez (born 1969, and now known as Yoss, although his editors omitted this pseudonym at the time).

If María Felicia’s book was pretty surrealistic, enigmatic, and difficult to label as SF (nor was it easy to convince the jury that it wasn’t), “Timshel”, on the other hand, also a collection of stories, that despite the youth of its author, broke with the preconceived notions of how one could write SF in Cuba. Cuba and socialism hardly factor into these stories at all: almost all of them are based in a future in which capitalism not only obstinately refuses to disappear, despite the predictions of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, but continues on its dizzying technological evolution. However, despite such apparent pessimism, a poetic optimism shines through Yoss’ work, a faith in mankind, beyond ideologies, which captivated the readers.

A student of biology in those days, or rather, a colleague of Agustín de Rojas (who was one of the jurors that year), the very young José Miguel Sánchez already enjoyed a broad familiarity with the genre and a solid scientific background, as well as a taste for adventure and the exotic which was to say the least unusual for the Cuban SF community of the time. As an added note, less than a year before winning the David, the same writer was awarded in the Juventud Técnica competition, for the story “Cosas que pasan” [“Things that happen”], which for inexplicable reasons, has never been published in that magazine or in any anthologies sponsored by it…

But this was yet another swan song. The Davids of 1988 were the last to be published before the disaster. Before perestroika. Before a paper shortage reduced the booming Cuban publishing effort to zero in just a matter of months. Once again, SF saw itself relegated to oblivion, although, to be fair, this time not at the expense of other genres, but out of the sheer physical impossibility of publishing anything, the same as for all other sectors of Cuban literature. Still, with its last gasp, the Book Institute could still arrange to publish two previously promised titles: “Desterrado en el tiempo” [“Exiled in time”] and “Por el atajo” [“By a shortcut”], second books by Rafael Morante and Bruno Henríquez, respectively. With respect to Cuba SF publishing, from 1990 on (other than the nearly heroic publication in 1994 of “Sider”, by Angel Arango, and of pamphlets like “Las ruinas de Sant Eldrado” [“The ruins of Sant Eldrado”], by Gregorio Ortega; and “La memoria metálica” [“Metallic memory”], another one by Morante), one can say that until 1999, the rest is silence.

Many writers passed on to a better life (“pasaron a major vida” – Cuban euphemism for having left the country): Daína Chaviano (the only one who appears to have sustained her success abroad, with the novel – although not SF – “El hombre, la hembra y el hambre” [“Man, woman, and hunger”], Azorín Prize, 1997 in Spain), Eduardo Frank, Arnoldo Aguila, Julián Pérez, María Felicia Vera, Ricardo Fumero, Félix Lizárraga…Others, like the team Alberto-Chely, negotiated open-ended contracts for work in other countries, and off they went, fleeing “the special period”.

But, as the saying goes, “bicho malo nunca muere” [“A bad pest never dies”]; even without publications, the fan base kept growing … and writing. In 1993, under the auspices of the indefatigable (and ineffable) Bruno Henríquez, a new SF literary workshop was formed, “El negro hueco” [“The black hole”]; the virtual magazine “I+real” was born (distributed free via diskette to whoever wished to copy it…and now on the Internet) and the first Cuban SF convention was celebrated: IBEFICCION 94, which had sequels such as QUASAR-DRAGON in 1995 and successive CUBAFICCIONs from 1996 to the present. (although the Cuban Association of Science Fiction, for which Bruno Henríquez and the rest of fandom have been battling for nearly 15 years, still faces official and bureaucratic hurdles which show no sign of vanishing)

Other isolated attempts to create magazines or fanzines dedicated to the genre (like PORTICO XXI [“Gateway 21”], or NEXUS, which saw only two issues, with enormous effort and scant circulation, despite its undeniable quality) failed, inevitably from lack of financial support, or at least official interest.

CONTEMPORARY CUBAN SF

One can spot three more or less distinct categories in the Cuban SF literary scene (almost entirely unpublished, of course) since the fall of the Berlin Wall (bearing in mind that, since we are mostly dealing with very young writers, this attempt to classify may prove at best to be premature).

The first of these categories is what we could call classic, inspired by the style of Asimov, Heinlein, and other writers of the Campbell era of US pulp magazines. It is principally older writers, survivors of the second, or even the first, stage of Cuban SF who ascribe to this style (the most audacious occasionally including cyberpunk themes) and they gather around Bruno Henríquez and his virtual magazine “I+real”. With a rather spare style, based above all in the not always apt use of the third person and surprise endings, with neither grand stylistic experimentation nor psychological complications, these authors suffer, among other ills, from a lack of familiarity with contemporary masters of the genre, like Orson Scott Card, Samuel Delany, William Gibson, Dan Simmons, Ian Banks or Connie Willis, to cite a few of the many who have never been published, nor are likely to be published in Cuba anytime soon.

The second stylistic category is la ciberpunk [cyberpunk], obviously derived from Gibson, Sterling, Rucker and the other gurus of computers and cyberspace. Some of the youngest writers, better acquainted with more recent and more varied readings, as well as a stronger literary sense, because in general they read not only SF and fantasy (like in the good times in the ghetto) but also mainstream works, above all North American narrative and Latin American postboom. With this variegated style, sometimes telegraphic, sometimes chock full of obviously English slang (the Esperanto of technology at the end of the 20th Century), others clearly inspired by the classics of South America, representatives of this style include Vladimir Hernández (born 1966; aka Blade), Fabricio González (born 1973), Ariel Cruz Vega, Michel Encinosa (born 1974) and some others who make occasional forays into the style, including José Miguel Sánchez (Yoss) in one or more story, as well as authors chronologically classifiable in the first stylistic category, like Roberto Estrada (born 1950) and, at times, even Bruno Henríquez himself, or his son Alvan.

Even counting notable collections like the anthology “Horizontales probables” [”Probable Horizons”] edited by Vladimir Hernández Pacín (“Blade”) and published in Mexico, one could say that cyberpunk, a movement in SF in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, arrived with a not too surprising tardiness in Cuba, and is much more a style of writing and a manner of approaching reality than an authentic movement, especially given its minority condition even within the meager Cuban SF panorama.

The third stylistic current is simply everything else: the experimental, the strange, the more novel: clear echoes of what was the New Wave of the 1960s, with the late discovery of writers like Philip K. Dick, Samuel Delany, Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss, Thomas M. Disch, John Brunner and J. P. Ballard can be found in the work of various writers, like Ariel Cruz, Michel Encinosa, Juan Pablo Noroña and Yoss. Lester Alvarez merits special mention for his magnificent story “La casa” [”The house”], along with his text (unclassifiable any other way, since it lies at the tenuous boundary between essay and fiction) “Sobre la detección de universos alterados” [”On the detection of altered universes”], which shows promise for a very bright future in the genre for its author. Eroticism, war, space opera and metaphoric references to everyday life (the novels "Los pecios y los náufragos" ["The shipwreck and the shipwrecked"], recently published and destined for the youth market, as well as the still unpublished "Al final de la senda" ["At the end of the road"] (which will be published simultaneously in Mexico and Cuba, at the beginning of 2003); "El advenimiento" [“The arrival”], and "Pluma de león" [“The lion’s quill”], as well as the cuentinovela [novel of stories] "Se alquila un planeta" ["Planet for rent"] -- published in 2002 in Spain by Equipo Sirius [Team Sirius], although it hasn't appeared in Cuba -- all works by Yoss; the already mentioned "Signos de guerra" and "Hipernova" by Blade, and "Bosque" by Roberto Estrada Bourgeois -- R. E. Bourgeois -- all finalists in the prestigious UPC Prize for short SF novels, in Spain, in 1997 and 2000). Formal and poetic experimentation, Dickian conflicts of identity, word play, a search for the thematic and formal limits, hyper reality (a constant in the most recent work of Raúl Aguiar, as in the story "El tren de Einstein" ["Einstein's train"] or the novel "La estrella bocaarriba" [“The face-up star”], which might be classified as either realism or SF) and a curious convergence between the fields of SF and classic heroic fantasy (in stories like the yet unpublished "El ángel de la inmovilidad" ["The angel of motionlessness"] by Michel Encinosa), seem to be some of the tools of this style, the most innovative and promising, as well as the most popular.

In 1999, with the slow but steady reestablishment of national publications, Cuban SF was showing hopeful signs of recuperation. The awarding of the Luis Rogelio Nogueras Prize to the novel "Los pecios y los náufragos" by Yoss, as well as the honorable mentions obtained in the same competition by the books "Nova de cuarzo" by Blade; "Los viajes de Nicanor" [“The voyages of Nicanor”] by the humorist and playwright Eduardo del Llano Rodríguez; the fantasy collection "El druida" ["The Druid"], by Gina Picart Baluja, (these three already published) and once again "Bosque" by R. E. Bourgeois, showed the Provinical Center of the Book and Literature that something was happening in the world of Cuban SF and fantasy, because its editorial board, under the series "Extramuros" ["Outside the  [city] walls"] decided to dedicate various titles yearly to the theme of SF and fantasy.

In 1999 another anthology of Cuban SF, "Polvo en el viento" ["Dust in the wind"] was published in Argentina, compiled by and with a prologue by Bruno Henríquez. This work included stories by some of the youngest writers in the genre alongside well-established writers.

The publishing house “Letras Cubanos” printed an anthology of SF and Fantasy "Reino Eterno" ["Eternal kingdom"] in 2000, and another publisher, "Abril" ["April"], quickly printed another, "Pórtico XXI" ["Gateway 21"], (both compiled, prologued, and annotated by Yoss). Both anthologies shared a number of characteristics, given the similarities in ages of the authors in each, primarily the youngest writers, as with the previously mentioned "Horizontes probables", compiled and annotated by Blade. Another anthology, "Onda de choque" ["Shock wave"], by Blade, is being planned by Extramuros.

The conventions CUBAFICCIÓN 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2002, which united fans of the genre with followers of esoteric and mystic phenomena (yoga, pyradmid energy) and other collateral themes (electroacoustic music, chaos, fractals, comics, paleocontact, etc.), demonstrated the enormous interest of the public in these themes. Representatives of the prestigious North American fanzine LOCUS attended the most recent meetings. The celebration, now traditional in these meetings, of the Dragón Competition for super-brief stories and poetry (limited to a single sheet of paper) clearly demonstrates the large number of fans of SF. In 2000, for the first time, the recently created SF workshop “Espiral” (named by Yoss, its founder, in honor of the first novel by Agustín de Rojas, and which meets weekly, under the direction of Juan Pablo Noroña), gave out prizes of the same name to the best short stories, novels, cover art and novels in the genre over the last 10 years.

In the summer TV season in 2001 and 2002, Bruno Henríquez repeated the success of Daína Chaviano in the 1980s, presenting and commenting on a new cycle of televised SF. And now the return of a David Prize in SF is under serious consideration, after a 12 year hiatus.

THE FUTURE

What are the concerns of Cuban SF at the turn of the millennium?

The same as in SF around the world: Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Will we survive the ecological disaster that we are bringing down upon ourselves? What of the informational overload of which the Internet is the most obvious symptom? Are we alone in the Universe? What will happen when we finally achieve artificial intelligence? And much more. For the young Cuban writers, SF remains the ideal method for understanding this hyperreality which is our dizzying present, turning the looking glass on a hypothetical future.

Furthermore, as an underdeveloped country which has chosen a path to socialism that now apparently appears to be a dead-end, a country destined for economic and social changes that cannot be predicted, like a museum piece in a monopolar world, as a world formerly closed but suddenly thrown open to international tourism and foreign investment and the consequent social inequalities...SF in Cuba faces particular questions. Will we become a world tourism preserve in the near future? What future awaits us as an underdeveloped country in a neoliberal world? After socialism (and/or Fidel), what?

Some works, like in Yoss' cuentinovela "Se alquila un planeta" which includes stories like "Trabajadora social" ["Social worker"], "El performance de la muerte" ["Death's performance"] and "El equipo campeón" ["The championship team"], of growing popularity, and not only among fans of the genre (who have determined, for example, that the first of these tales be included by the writer and President of the UNEAC, Francisco López Sacha, in his anthology of Cuban literature from distinct genres, "La tierra de las mil danzas" ["The world of a thousand dances"] soon to be published in Italy; and the second in "Horizontes probables") investigate the present and future of the country, as a metaphor for the present situation. Various others are doing the same in the stories "Nova de cuarzo" of Blade, belonging together with some of Fabricio González Neira to the cyberpunk cycle of SF, a megalopolis of technocapitalism in the year 2050, developed on the site of present-day Havana: an engaged look at the cosmos and at cyberspace, that also looks within. This is what Cuban science fiction will be at the beginning of the third millennium.

Despite the risky and still solo efforts of Extramuros, publishing prospects are still a problem. Right now, the majority of the still very few Cuban publications are printed thanks to the donation of paper by foreign nongovernmental organizations in solidarity with Cuba, or from the Fund for Cultural Development ["El Fondo de Desarrollo para la Cultura"]. And, once again, publishers give preference to realism, especially in its most critical viewpoint, a continuing sore point in these days of "the special period".

In the last four editions of the series "Los Pinos Nuevos" published so far, there has only been a single title which could be considered SF, in the first: "La poza del ángel" ["The angel's puddle"] by Gina Picart Baluja, which earned the author a David years ago.

The other route for Cuban writers to publish in "the special period" -- foreign magazines and anthologies -- has not been very welcoming to Cuban SF either. In a worldwide market almost totally dominated by English language writers, where only Spain has sufficient editorial autonomy to publish its national writers at the same level as the North American masters, the words "Cuban science fiction" seem so far to be synonymous with "financial losses" and "unprofitable obligations".

True SF, in the opinion of almost all the publishers, is written in either English or French (the language of one of Yoss' stories,”Kaishaku”, appearing in the anthology “Utopiales 2002”) or even Japanese: the languages of the First World. The foreign public would rather hear about Cuba's balseros [raft refugees], its jineteras [hustlers], its gays and its dissidents, but its science fiction?! Is there such a thing? And if it did exist, could it really be worthwhile? Isn’t the everyday reality of Cuba “science fictiony” enough?

 

NOTES:

 

1. “Bartolo’s banana field” - "El Platanar de Bartolo": a popular Cuban song recorded in 1955, and thus a quintessentially Cuban location.

2. The Revolutionary Triumph -- January 1, 1959 -- triumph of the guerilla forces, including, most famously Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara.

3. UNEAC -- La Unión de escritores y artistas de Cuba = Union of Cuban writers and artists

4. El Vedado -- residential / commercial section of Havana, near the University of Havana, and, today, site of several luxury tourist hotels.

5. Masferrerista: Follower of Rolando Masferrer, who invaded Cuba following the Triumph of the Revolution (1959) in an attempt to overthrow the Cuban government.

6. CDR -- Comité de la Defensa de la Revolucion -- an extensive system of neighborhood committees charged with, well, “defending the Revolution”.

7. October Revolution -- The Russian revolution, 1917

8. Matías Pérez -- the first Cuban aeronaut, a balloonist who lifted off in 1857, never to return. Hence the popular Cuban expression, “volar como Matías Pérez” ,which literally means “to fly like Matías Pérez

 

ADDITIONAL NOTES ON SOME OF THE AUTHORS AND THEIR WORKS:

 

Hurtado, Oscar (1919-1977).

(who was also the editor for the first and until now the best world SF anthology in Cuba, with a prologue that made history ... although it owed too much to a similar work by Borges and Bioy Casares which served as an introduction to an anthology of the fantastic literature of both)

Hernández, Vladimir (born 1966, aka “Blade”)

Published in 2000 his book of stories “Nova de cuarzo” [“Quartz nova”] and was finalist in the prestigious Catalan [Spain] UPC competition for short SF novel in the same year, with “Signos de guerra” [“Signs of war”], appeared in one of the annual anthologies published by the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, and again finalist for the same Prize in 2002 with “Hipernova” [“Hypernova”]

González, Fabricio (born 1973)

Has dedicated himself more to criticism than to actually writing fiction, having most recently devoted himself graduating in philology and then serving as a professor of the same. He does not consider himself an authentic cyberpunk, although he does subscribe to the principles of this style.

Encinosa, Michel  (born 1974)

One of the most prolific of the young crop, with great influence from the Tolkienesque fantastic literature, and the possessor of a refined and cryptic poetic style. In 2001 he published the collection of heroic fantasy tales “El sol Negro” [“The black sun”], and his Ofidia -- of the recently appeared “Niños de neón” [“Children of neon”] -- the cyberpunk universe which he shares with the equally talented but less prolific Juan Alexander Padrón (born 1973), is one of the greatest inventions in contemporary Cuban SF.

Estrada, Roberto (born 1950)

Another 1997 UPC finalist for short novel with “Bosque” [“Forest”], still unpublished.

 


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