Galactic and Confined: Restless Books’ A Planet For Rent and A Legend of the Future
Fiction written under an authoritarian or totalitarian government often dares readers to view the work as a critique of that society. This feeling is only accentuated when entering the realm of speculative fiction, where worlds can take on additional metaphorical trappings. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Definitely Maybe, for instance, contains plenty of moments of absurdism-laced paranoia–but one could just as easily view the presence of voyeuristic entities monitoring the proceedings as a commentary on the pervasive fears that gripped the populace of the Soviet Union.
Two works of science fiction from Cuban authors, newly released in the United States by Restless Books, offer dueling perspectives on similar themes. The more recent of the two is written by Yoss, one of the few science fiction authors that looks as though his band could have opened for Slayer at any time in the past twenty years. A Planet For Rent (first published in 2001) initially looks like a collection of short stories set on the same futuristic Earth. Here, a group of advanced alien races have taken control of the planet, allowing limited self-government. Those limitations are wide-ranging, and the aliens’ (or, in the book’s parlance, xenoids’) penchant for wiping out entire populations and regions en masse (including all of Africa) doesn’t inspire much optimism in the populace.
Throughout A Planet For Rent, the sense of living in a society entirely subject to the whims of more powerful entities becomes pervasive. In “The Champions,” it becomes apparent that one of the few ways to escape Earth for a better life is through athletic prowess. The story pertains to a human team facing off in a game against a collection of xenoids from around the galaxy. For some, the result will be death or permanent injury; for others may find a way out of their predicament. As I worked on this piece, the Cuban national soccer team faced off in a friendly match against the New York Cosmos, and it was hard not to find the parallels between the real game and fictional one depicted in Yoss’s book.
What appears to be a series of vignettes written in a host of styles, from third-person narratives to monologues to interrogations, gradually comes together into something bigger. A character mentioned in passing in several other stories makes an appearance towards the end of the book, and a bond between an artist whose visceral work both terrifies and compels audiences and his xenoid patron takes on a very different dimension over time. This isn’t to say that it’s a seamless work: how shocked a reader will be by the image that closes one story may depend on their familiarity with the short stories of Octavia E. Butler. Leilah, the jaded-beyond-her-years narrator of “The Platinum Card, throws off the book’s balance between evocative science fiction and grittier descriptions of a shellshocked Earth. She’s world-weary and sexually precocious at a very young age, and while this aspect of her character might be intended to demonstrate the hellishness of the environment in which she was raised, it also prompts a general feeling of unease while reading it–that this particular subplot heads to places that the rest of the book isn’t quite equipped to deal with.
Agustín de Rojas’s A Legend of the Future, originally published in 1985, feels on the surface to be more traditional. The characters are explorers, venturing through the solar system when something goes horribly wrong, as tends to happen in stories like these. However, out of this archetypal setup comes something stranger: a subdued psychological drama enhanced by speculative elements about human psychology (fans of Joss Whedon’s TV show Dollhouse will find a couple of points of resonance) topped off with an overwhelming awareness of mortality.
There’s a moment in the novel’s prologue where one character waxes both ecstatic and expository about their destination, citing “that tiny cosmic pebble” and imparting a handful of scientific information, right before another character shushes him. And, later in the book, a character in a hallucinatory state is told an alternate (and false) reading of several of the events that have transpired, suggesting what a more traditional version of this novel might have looked like. Clearly de Rojas seems aware of the tropes associated with the genre.
The book’s title takes on a shifting meaning over the course of the book. Are the actions of the crew, forced to wrestle with an impossible situation and questions of their own survival and their own identities, the formation of the legend in question? Does it have to do with Isanusi, a character who, at the start of the book, is in a dreamlike situation that seems decidedly mythological in its setting? The book’s ending, in which the title takes on one more interpretation, satisfies on a thematic level and brings the complicated dynamics between the characters to a moving conclusion.
The backdrop of A Legend of the Future does feature global superpowers in a conflict both literal and ideological. It’s telling, however, that the main characters with which the reader interacts are separated from those conflicts by the vastness of space–and, in some cases, have to deal with the ways in which adapting to that conflict has left them altered on a fundamental level from their fellow humans. It’s a novel that, together with A Planet for Rent, shows the dizzying range of fantastical situations that can emerge from a ground-level view of ideological conflict’s aftereffects.
by Agustin De Rojas