Defying and Changing Reality: an Interview with Yoss, the Cuban Sci-Fi Giant and author of A Planet…
Like a mythical quest to defeat an unvanquishable monster, many have tried to tackle the meaning of science fiction and fantasy. For our trouble we often end up scratching our heads, starting over, or desperately trying to come up with new terms to help understand why our culture seems to need science fiction. But sometimes the reminder of the importance of sci-fi isn’t found in texts which attempt to explain it, but rather in a work of pure passion itself.
Cuba has produced an author capable of understanding science fiction by writing it like it’s rock and roll. Yoss is a thoughtful author who simply seems to understand his work and science fiction better than many of us. We were lucky enough to score an interview with him, in which he talks about his first science fiction novel released in English, A Planet for Rent (Restless Books). In the following, Yoss covers everything from his influences, to his background as a member of a metal band, to why sci-fi is so necessary in all of our lives…
Ryan Britt: A Planet for Rent is very heavy on allegory, metaphor, and analogy. Is science fiction the best way to communicate “real world” issues?
Yoss: I like to say that Sci-Fi is a mirror we place in the future to understand our present better, and that this reflection is better than if we looked at our present directly. Actually, when we write stories about 24th-century characters facing problems that currently appear fantastical, these characters are often our contemporaries, fighting everyday dilemmas in disguise.
…Sci-Fi then becomes a code, not only to evade censorship, but also to try looking beyond the everyday.
In Cuba, on the other hand, it is normal that if one deals directly with the most critical points of the “real world,” the official response will be, in fact, intolerant: If one does not draw an optimistic panorama, one will be accused of being a defeatist, of siding with the enemy, etc. So Sci-Fi then becomes a code, not only to evade censorship, but also to try looking beyond the everyday. For example, writing about a future Cuba becoming the 51st state of the U.S. could now appear totally absurd (perhaps not so much after 12/17/2014) but dissecting that possible country could make us consider, much more carefully, the pros and cons of present politics. Of course, the politicians that decide Cuba’s destiny don’t read Sci-Fi — they prefer to make it come true. But is Sci-Fi their favorite genre? Or is it terror, which they love to nurture?
Britt: You’ve got alien art curators who “help out” human artists towards the end of the book. Are real artistic curators (editors, band managers, bookers, etc.) similarly alien to real artists?
Yoss: I think that the metalized xenoid manager Tutambiénbruto or Ettubrute, who appears in the story, “The Performance of Death,” later changes a lot to become nearly the protagonist of the last story, “The Platinum Card,” in which he becomes, one could wonder, more human? He practically represents the two sides of all the foreign curators, managers and marchands (above all Europeans) who flocked to the Cuban art scene in the ’90s: everyone from those who wanted profits and only profits, to those who became so emotionally invested that they surprised themselves. Some even got to understand life, how artists think, and that says a lot about the phrase, “the first rule to make money from art is not to understand it.” In general, most patrons and curators respect and praise artists, because they live off them… and at the same time they despise them, thinking that artists are people who don’t have their feet on the ground entirely, which is but a reflection of their secret envy. Personally, I suspect that many would give all the money they make off those creative madmen in order to have the ability to create like they do, even if it was for a brief moment. And I tried exploring that point of view in my novel.
Britt: How does your musical background [heavy metal] influence your writing?
Yoss: First of all, I want to clarify that I do not have a background in classical music, which I regret. I don’t have good pitch, nor can I read musical notation; I even have trouble telling C apart from D. I don’t have a good voice either, like those who can travel entire scales. But singing in my band Tenaz since 2007 has been one of the great experiences of my life. As every teenager who is a fan of heavy metal, I dreamed of doing it… and even though I was already 38 when they asked me to become their singer, I think it’s never too late to chase your dream, right? I’ve loved heavy metal since I was 11 because of its mix of symphonic sophistication and pure street energy… and I have also learned to appreciate the immediacy of the feedback you get onstage: when you write, you often have to wait months and even years to know what the public thinks of your creative effort. By contrast, with music that lapse is much shorter, almost immediate: You only need to play a song once to know if people like it or not.
I also have to highlight the importance of collaboration; in Tenaz, we all compose. The synergy is almost magical: Lesther, the guitar player, comes up with a riff, and then Aramis, the drummer and bandleader, plays a beat, Gaby the bass player joins the rhythm and suggests a couple of variations, and then I’m already writing the lyrics. Of course, sometimes I arrive with lyrics and an outline of the melody, or Aramis comes up with the lyrics and the basic rhythm… but finding the point in which we are all satisfied, not clinging to the absolute truth of your original version, is a true learning experience. In fact, many times during my writing career I have tried writing in tandem with other authors… and it is something similar: it requires patience, not boxing oneself in one’s own style, and trying new things. To sum it up, it’s something quite difficult, in general… but since 2007 I sincerely find it a bit easier.
Britt: In the novel, you give groups of optimistic science fiction writers a name- “futurologists.” Do you think there’s a place for optimistic science fiction in today’s world? Has there ever been? Would you describe this novel as optimistic?
Yoss: In every time period there must be a place for optimism. If we are here today, if the 21st century civilization still exists, even though it appeared that it would disappear during the 20th century because of nuclear war, overpopulation or environmental contamination… if we survived the terrible tensions of the Cold War without our world ending in an atomic holocaust, why not be a little optimistic? Things are never so good that they can’t get better.
Nor so bad that they can’t get worse. Because, objectively, many of the problems I just mentioned are still reasons to worry right now. If we add up global warming, terrorism, plagues, and total energy collapse if we run out of oil before discovering other energy sources, it nearly makes me want to go screaming that the Apocalypse is coming. Tomorrow.
It is true that Sci-Fi writers are often accused of these sinister predictions, of blowing up the planet once a week in our writings. But people forget that the genre’s function is to warn. Raising awareness of creating a system of anti-asteroid missiles so that we don’t end up like the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, for example. Or talking to the World Health Organization so that SARS, AIDS, or Ebola don’t become the pandemics that make humans an extinct species.
Of course, Cuban authors and readers, as well as all the citizens of the socialist world, so depleted since the ’90s, remember well the time in which, as a side effect of social realism, the Sci-Fi we were encouraged to write was methodically optimistic: Capitalism was about to fall in a definitive crisis, the world would be completely communist in a couple of decades, and if we bumped into another intelligent species they would be pacific and not a race of galactic conquerors whose only interest in humans would be the interest of a farmer in his livestock. Very pretty.
But, as you can see, what eventually disappeared was socialism, and Fermi’s paradox still holds true: if there are others out there, why don’t they answer back? It’s not about a lack of room for optimism, but like I just said (If I were religious I could very well believe that gods love humanity very much, given that despite all our stupidities we are still here), when this becomes, ideologically, the only option for representing the future, these futures turn false. And writers of these don’t believe much in them, nor do their readers.
That’s why A Planet for Rent has a load of pessimistic baggage: after our leaders promised us development for decades, the USSR fell, and it all ended up being a lie. But we were not even allowed to say that: so while the government opened up the country’s doors for foreign tourism… and while our women opened their legs to these tourists in order to survive, there was still talk about the inevitable victory of socialism, and of redundant values while we all looked desperately for dollars. The ’90s were all about hypocrisy being the government’s policy. In my novel the xenoids, owners of the Earth, always claim they are humanity’s friends, and hide the fact that they are its masters.
…leaders and their dictators, their paranoid repressions and their stupid policies fade away, but the people always remain.
However, Cuba survived the “Special Period” after all, and without giving up socialism… even if this happened by perverting all the socialist values we had been spoon fed before the ’90s. A very high price. So at the end of my novel, the last story, “The Platinum Card,” has a message that is optimistic for me, an homage to the Cuban people: You can betray us, you can lie to us, you can repress us, force us to emigrate, to sell ourselves… but we are here and we will still be here. Because no government is stronger than its people; leaders and their dictators, their paranoid repressions and their stupid policies fade away, but the people always remain. Maybe they remain only to suffer new repressions and dictatorships… but they remain, and that’s the important part.
Britt: Friga was an interesting character; you made someone who was tough and happened to be a woman into a sympathetic and formidable character. It doesn’t seem like it, but do you have challenges as a man writing female characters?
Yoss: Gustave Flaubert once rightly said: “Madame Bovary is myself.” Like him, I firmly believe that one of the main appeals of literary creation is that an author can get under the skin of many characters, become a woman, if he is a man, or a man, if she is a woman. And no one questions your sexual identity because of that… not even in a country as male-dominated and Leninist as Cuba.
Personally, I like developing female characters a lot, because beginning with genetics and ending with the different education that both sexes receive, men and women are so different from one another that, despite the current premium on gender equality, one could say that they are two separate species. But also important: one is not better than the other. And also, full of exceptions: feminists and male chauvinists forgive me if you can, but I don’t think that a man, for being a man, has to be physically stronger than all women, or that women have to be shy and prudish for having ovaries instead of testicles. All of us are, above all else, individuals.
Friga, enormous, physically powerful, resolute, a natural leader, is what many would call a tomboy… without leaving aside the fact that she is still a woman. As a contrasting character, Jowe is a sweet man with lots of femininity.
Of course, I am Friga… but also Jowe. And both are influenced by many men and many women whom I know or have known, in life as much as in literature, because literary feedback also helps in character development. The same as in watching films or even paintings.
By the way, I got the idea of Friga’s body while reading a magazine called Musclemag, in which a female bodybuilder (I think it was Kim Chizevsky) was dressed in street clothes instead of her competition bikini. And she looked so glorious and strange. I imagined how the everyday life of a woman of that build would look like, and from there I developed the character, with a lot of the inner strength of some women I’ve known, without so much muscle to back her up.
Britt: Who was the hardest character in this book to write?
Yoss: I hope I don’t sound careless if I say that all characters… all characters were easy. The prostitute in “Social Worker,” the player in “The Winning Team,” and the artist in “The Performance of Death” all came out in a stroke of the pen, as they say. So probably the character that was hardest to write was either the corrupt policeman of Planetary Security in “The Rules of the Game,” or the marginal little girl in “The Platinum Card.” Those two demanded a little bit more time to profile their personalities. Above all because I don’t know any corrupt cops (although I have known many players, prostitutes and scientists) and I had stopped being a kid some years ago.
Britt: What’s your favorite section of this novel?
Yoss: Once again, I would stick with two: “Escape Tunnel” and “Fitness Interview.” Those are the two stories in which I focused more on the style: one-phrase paragraphs in the former and the exchange of questions and answers in the latter. But I think that “Escape Tunnel” ended up being the best. Out of the seven endings in the book, that one is my favorite. Optimism despite disaster, triumph in defeat, not giving up on your dreams; a total statement of values.
Britt: Which (if any) English-language science fiction writers influenced you?
Yoss: Oh, there are many. Great Sci-Fi has many splendid figures in English and I am an ardent reader. I can mention my beloved Alfred Bester and Roger Zelazny, but also Philip José Farmer, Brian Aldiss, Ursula K. LeGuin, Dan Simmons and Joanna Rush. Without forgetting Orson Scott Card, Robert Heinlein and John T. Sladek. All those Sci-Fi authors.
Outside of the fantastical realm I can mention, of course, the legendary Ernest Hemingway, Aldous Huxley, Thomas Pynchon, John Updike, E.L. Doctorow and William Saroyan, nowadays unjustly forgotten.
I read a lot of Anglo-Saxon literature, most of it translated, I confess, but now more often in its original language. I think they are the masters of the short story, without a doubt. In any genre.
Britt: What was your first exposure to science fiction?
…this book lied, but… it was such an attractive lie!
Yoss: Ah, it was unforgettable: I was about five years old (I learned to read on my own when I was two, looking over my father’s shoulder as he read The Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth) when a neighbor lent me From the Earth to the Moon, by Jules Verne. I devoured it in a single stretch, in two days, and this despite it being a thick book, because the Cuban edition also included Around the Moon, the follow-up novel. It was the discovery of a new world: I already knew that we had reached the Moon by rocket, so this book lied, but… it was such an attractive lie! Not what had actually happened, but what it could have been. I started looking for other Verne novels, and my favorites were 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Facing the Flag, Master of the World… the ones that were the most in the Sci-Fi realm. Even the others that dealt with trips to the little known areas of the globe (little known in that time, of course) fascinated me because of their sense of wonder, even though I knew that the land there wasn’t uninhabitable anymore. Afterwards, I discovered that there were other novels and stories that talked about other worlds, of that final frontier that, since Star Trek, is and will always be outer space. I read a lot of Soviet Sci-Fi, the small amount of English-language novels that had been published in Cuba then (and this is not to say that many more have been published since, but now at least one can get many translations of the classics online, pirated, of course) and I had the good luck of having a neighbor, Arnoldo Aguila, who had some books of the Nova collection from Editorial Bruguera, with a prologue by Carlo Fabretti, and he lent them to me… it made me discover an infinite world, in time and space. So when I was fifteen I had already made up my mind: I would become a writer, and until I learned typing, I spent hours scrabbling with my horrible handwriting in thick booklets, trying to see if I could write stories like all those I liked to read so much… it was hard at first, but soon I learned that playing the demiurge and creating new worlds was even more fascinating than entering the worlds created by others. And I keep doing that till now…
Britt: Do you think science fiction writers have more of a responsibility or less of a responsibility than other “kinds” of writers to infuse activism into their writing?
Yoss: I suppose that answering in the affirmative would be something like putting more coal in my fire, trying to legitimize or privilege the genre I cultivate.
All literature has a great responsibility to its readers and its time. But Sci-Fi, to be honest, has a responsibility that goes beyond: a compromise with the future. This is not about Sci-Fi predicting the future, which many have done countless times to justify the entire genre, listing with notorious ingenuity the forecasts and gadgets it has gotten right. This is about the duty to show humankind the consequences that its own actions can have tomorrow. Of reminding us that we are not the masters of the Earth, because we only have it on a loan from our parents and must give it back to our children. And if possible, not merely intact, but improved.
Sci-Fi reminds us of something we like to forget: we are here because our ancestors thought a little about us. Because they believed that the human race was a concept that went beyond the nation state, and even beyond one’s generation. Or we are here despite they tried to think that only the present mattered, paying with their selfishness. Let’s not repeat their mistake! Let’s not transfer that debt to our descendants!
And dreams are not only an essential element to defy reality, but also the raw material with which to change it.
Also, many traditional critics without imagination, or lacking a basic knowledge of technology, bohemians but not geeks, before recognizing the literary or philosophical merits of Sci-Fi, prefer to label it as “escapist literature.” But who, besides jailers, could possibly care about escapism? Sci-Fi is about dreams filtered through logic. And dreams are not only an essential element to defy reality, but also the raw material with which to change it. That is the genre’s great responsibility.
Britt: Do other members of your band [Tenaz] read your books?
Yoss: Ha, I’d like to say yes… it would look nice in the interview without a doubt. But why fool myself? No, I don’t think they’ve read much of what I’ve written, even though in Cuba more than twenty books of mine have been published, among them novels, story collections, anthologies, works of scientific promotion and essay compilations. I’m not going to generalize and say that rock musicians do not usually read Sci-Fi… because, as every generalization, it is false: I have heartfelt admiration for how David Bowie, Brian May, Bruce Dickinson, Mick Jagger (who acted in the film Freejack), Steve Tyler and many others love the genre. But also: as a writer, I nearly always have the last say with regards to the lyrics of our songs… And not only mine. Something is something, right?
Britt: What are you working on now?
Yoss: I usually write many books at a time, and right now it’s not an exception. I’m finishing a work of popular science, 100 Question About Weapons, for a youth audience. I’m halfway done with a story-novel or fix-up (I like this format a lot, the same one I used in A Planet for Rent) of heroic fantasy, titled The Forgotten Names. Of the thirteen stories the book must have, I’ve already written eight, and from what I’ve heard in the literary workshop Espacio Abierto, in which I participate and assist regularly every other Sunday, it is turning up pretty well. I’m also revising a trilogy of heroic fantasy, Rain in the City of Salt… an ambitious project that I began more than twenty years ago, in 1993, although, of course, I haven’t been writing intermittently all this time, because if I had it would be longer than the Mahabharata by now. And I’m beginning to outline the first sheets of a short Sci-Fi novel, a space opera with the backdrop of a war that right now has the title of Wolves and Calves… I hope to send it next year to the La Edad de Oro prize, the only Cuban Sci-Fi award I have yet to win. And because the page limit is 110, I will have to restrain my hand quite a bit, like I did for many years when I would send, each summer, works to the UPC prize in Barcelona, until I won it in 2010 with Super Extra Grande, which will soon appear in the U.S. with Restless Books, in English and in a digital version.
This interview was made possible by a translation from English to Spanish and back again, courtesy of Restless Books.