Agustín de Rojas - This mesmerizing novel, recalling '2001: Space Odyssey', is a roman a clef about the intense pressures—economic, ideological, psychological—inside Socialist Cuba.

Agustín de Rojas, A Legend of the Future, Restless Books, 2015.

A morally profound chamber piece, A Legend of the Future is a critique of morality. It takes place inside a spaceship after a crash takes place during a failed mission to Titan, one of the Saturn moons. The journey home forces the crew to face its innermost fears while coexisting with each other in a state of desperation. This mesmerizing novel, recalling Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: Space Odyssey, is a roman a clef about the intense pressures—economic, ideological, psychological—inside Socialist Cuba.

"The best science fiction writer in Cuba; the only possible debate is which of his works is the best…. His trilogy of Spiral, A Legend of the Future, and Year 200 is still the best of Cuban science fiction…. With a very refined style and well-established scientific-social background, Agustín’s work surprises through its humanistic content. His concerns surrounding the meaning of life and the evolution of human beings put him in a privileged place among national writers.”—Cuenta Regresiva

"The best and most popular novelist of this genre that the Island has ever given…. He is considered one of the principal exponents of Cuban science fiction, and he was undoubtedly the one who knew how to best combine solid scientific formation as plots and attractive characters with a confidence well-based in humanity’s socialist future.”—Yoss

"One of the best science fiction writers in Cuba—and, until [his death], one of the best Cuban story tellers alive…. Today Agustín de Rojas’ work, from Spiral through Catharsis and Society, is admired by cult readers, pro-government thinkers, and elitists alike."—Félix Luis Viera

"The most elevated figure in Cuban science fiction."—Axxón

A thawing of the icy relations between the United States and Cuba has brought a renewed interest Stateside in the Caribbean island's cultural patrimony. Cuba has a proud literary tradition dating back to the 19th-century poet and freedom fighter José Martí, whose work outside the island is largely known in song form; one of his poems was adapted into the 1960's international hit "Guantanamera" by Pete Seeger. Martí's principal contribution was a call for freedom, liberty, and democracy. His enduring legacy in Cuba (and beyond) today is testament to the timelessness of those ideas, as well as a study in how concepts of liberty can be co-opted by restrictive regimes—Martí remains a strong symbol of Cuban patriotism and one oft-cited by the Castro administration.
Less international attention has been paid to the genres in Cuban writing, however. Though that, too, is changing in the new geopolitical climate. For instance, Restless Books is turning the spotlight on Cuba's science fiction by making two titles available to American readers for the first time: A Planet for Rent by Yoss, a contemporary writer and "Friki" (literally, "Freaky"; colloquially, punk rocker), and A Legend of the Future by Agustín de Rojas. While Yoss has enjoyed some exposure outside his native land in recent years, de Rojas is less known, but perhaps more influential in the world of Cuban sci-fi. In contrast to better-known Cuban writers—people like Reinaldo Arenas, who initially supported the revolution before ultimately fleeing the island as a political dissident in 1980—de Rojas' work is committed to the utopian ideals of Socialism. His critique takes a different form than Arenas' satire. By hewing closely to the convictions of the revolution, he reveals how far from the ideal Castro's regime has strayed.
Set amidst the backdrop of a global contest between two superpowers for world domination, A Legend of the Future tells the tragic tale of the first manned journey to Saturn's moon, Titan. Things don't go quite as planned for the crew of Sviatagor. Following a disaster that leaves most of them dead, the three remaining crewmembers—Isanusi, Gema, and Thondup—must find a way to get back to Earth despite their injuries and the ship's reduced capacities. What develops on the isolated ship is a microcosm of the perils and advantages of collectivism.
Following the death of so many of her friends and colleagues, Gema's psychological state is in danger of collapsing. To prevent this, Thondup activates a conditioning program that alters her consciousness and turns her into a kind of android. (Thondup himself is on shaky psychological ground, only managing to stave off psychosis with regular doses of psychostabilizers.) While the benefits of such a transformation keep the diminished crew from fracturing in the immediate aftermath of the accident, the long-term results are less clear, though they do suggest a potential loss of Gema's fundamental humanity. De Rojas writes:
"Did Thondup explain the conditioning to you?" [Isanusi asked Gema.]
"Was it helpful?"
"Reasonably. Why didn't they include all that explanation in my memory? I wouldn't have had to waste so much time. . ."
"Can you undertake the task now?"
"Which task?"
"Rescue all you can from your previous mental make-up, and merge it with your new one. Do you think you can do that?"
"There's a good probability of it, but . . . I'm overwhelmed with work. And to do what you're suggesting takes time. I don't know if I'll have enough to recover what you want before it finally disappears."
"You're not saying what you really think, Gema."
The young woman said nothing.
"Isanusi . . . Thondup is a psychosociologist."
"I know, he has been for a long time."
"He doesn't think it's possible."
"There's no reason he has to be right there's no previous experience of this kind of conditioning, Gema. Everything we say to you is simply guesswork. . . . The result depends on you, on your efforts."
One gets the sense that de Rojas is gesturing towards the larger collectivism experiment that is part of Socialism. A Legend of the Future was published in 1985, which was in retrospect, perhaps the apogee of Castro's revolution. The regime was secure from American intervention and ideologically oriented. Cuba would enjoy a few more years of Soviet sponsorship before descending into the dreaded "Special Period" of shortages and cataclysmic economic decline in the wake of Soviet collapse. 1985 was likely a relatively hopeful time on the island, a time when the sacrifices Castro demanded in the struggle to establish a new order were waning. Perhaps it would have seemed possible to rescue what was good from before the revolution and integrate it with the newly remodeled nation in much the same way Gema might yet recover the essence of her humanity while operating as an avatar of the state.
It's not just Gema who becomes a living experiment in the collectivist spirit of a utopian new society, however. As she and Thondup succumb to radiation sickness, the successful return of Sviatagor to Earth depends on whether or not the rapidly degrading body of Isanusi—whose name, de Rojas tells us, means "'the seer' or 'he who sees most'"—can be replaced by the ship itself. The scheme involves transplanting Isanusi's consciousness into the ship, which is not as easy as it might seem at first blush—even for a work of science fiction. Sviatagor's crew represent a "united, solid collectivity that...will be able to face any challenge . . .As long as they remain intact." With all of them dead (or very nearly dead) the ability of any individual to successfully bring the ship home without the support of the unit's "mutual dependence" seems unlikely unless Gema and Isanusi are able to form an "emotional telepathy" that will allow Isanusi's consciousness to maintain the emotional imprint of the entire crew and thus save him from total isolation. Sviatagor—under the control of Isanusi's consciousness—does ultimately return home, but the implications extend beyond a mere happy ending. The ship's name is a reference to a tragic figure from Russian mythology who was imprisoned and left to die in a stone coffin and who has come to embody the spirit of an edenic Russia. De Rojas draws a clear connection between the folkloric hero and the ship-of-state here, and, by extension, the utopian Socialist project underway in Cuba. Individual desire, he seems to argue, must be sacrificed in service to the collective good, yet the individual's humanity must be retained, for it is the only thing capable of holding the entire operation together.
1985 was a long time ago and much has changed in Cuba and abroad, but, in a sense, a similar historical moment is playing out on the island today. The Obama administration's doctrine of re-engagement with Cuba after five decades of isolation is one predicated on hope and, unsurprisingly, change—the hope that the reintegration of the neighboring countries can usher in a new era of prosperity for Cubans, which will, inevitably, lead to a change in the political atmosphere. Written thirty years ago, de Rojas' words serve as both justification and warning for the project. The question remains whether or not the Cuban people will be able to reap the benefits of renewed relations with their neighbor and long-standing political adversary without losing whatever benefits their long sacrifice has earned. The literature can point the way, but it's no guarantee of a safe arrival. After all, in Martí we've seen the facility with which enlightened ideas can be manipulated to bolster baser realities. - Dan Lopez

The Year 200, by Agustín de Rojas - 9781632060518.jpg
Agustín de Rojas, The Year 200, Trans. by Nick Caistor and Hebe Powell. Restless Books, 2016.

The cult classic from the godfather of Cuban science fiction, Agustín de Rojas’s The Year 200 is both a visionary sci-fi masterwork and a bold political parable about the perils of state power.

Centuries have passed since the Communist Federation defeated the capitalist Empire, but humanity is still divided. A vast artificial-intelligence network, a psychiatric bureaucracy, and a tiny egalitarian council oversee civil affairs and quash “abnormal” attitudes such as romantic love. Disillusioned civilians renounce the new society and either forego technology to live as “primitives” or enhance their brains with cybernetic implants to become “cybos.” When the Empire returns and takes over the minds of unsuspecting citizens in a scenario that terrifyingly recalls Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the world’s fate falls into the hands of two brave women.
Drawing as much from the realms of the adventure novel, spy thriller, and political satire as from hard science fiction, horror, and fantasy, The Year 200 has been proven prophetic in its consideration of cryogenic freezing, artificial intelligence, and state surveillance, while its advanced weapons and robot assassins exist in an all-too-imaginable future. Originally published in 1990, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and before the onset of Cuba's devastating Special Period, Agustín de Rojas’s magnum opus brings contemporary trajectories to their logical extremes and boldly asks, “What does ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ really mean?”

"The best and most popular novelist of this genre that the Island has ever given…. He is considered one of the principal exponents of Cuban science fiction, and  he was undoubtedly the one who knew how to best combine solid scientific formation as plots and attractive characters with a confidence well-based in humanity’s socialist future.”—Yoss

“Finally, we have the chance to read a landmark work from one of Cuba’s greatest science fiction writers…. Steady build-up of suspense, believable depiction of characters under intense stress, unique take on human space exploration…. If you like intensely psychological sci-fi that deftly piles on the suspense, this novel’s for you…. Agustín de Rojas authored a trilogy that pushes the boundaries of our imaginations…. You’ll want to prepare yourself for Legend. It’s been compared to Clarke’s 2001, and like that remarkable text, de Rojas’s will blow your mind in a good way…. The boundaries between dream and reality, and then between human and machine, almost melt away as the story progresses. And it is de Rojas’s skillful manipulation of those boundaries that makes Legend so addictive.”

—SF Signal, 4.5-star review

“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.… 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.”—Electric Literature

“On the surface it's a very focused exploration of how three people could survive such a situation and the lengths they might have to go to. How people adapt when circumstances spiral out of control — and how they crack when they don't adapt sufficiently. Dig a bit deeper, though, and it is also a lesson on how ideals and beliefs can be eroded given certain influences and when they do deterioration is inevitable and unavoidable. The tightly written prose manages to firmly grasp the reader, the pace is steady and the quality of the writing superb. It's unforgiving and demanding but also worth the effort. I loved this brief glimpse of science fiction from a mindset free of western constraints. A Legend of the Future is a remarkable glimpse not only into a vision of the future but more importantly into a culture very different from western capitalism. It's also a stark reminder about some of the more serious problems that a country in the stranglehold of a communistic country face. A worthy addition to anyone's science fiction collection.”—

“This is the first English translation of a novel by de Rojas (1949-2011), considered the father of Cuban science fiction. Influenced by Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov "A Legend of the Future" tells the tale of a space mission to Titan, a moon of Saturn, during a potentially apocalyptic war between superpowers back on Earth. Along the way, the spaceship's crew is drawn into an experiment of reconditioning that may remind some readers of the ideological indoctrination reinforced to this day in Castro's Cuba.”—Chicago Tribune

“I was reminded of books like Solaris, and interestingly, of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation.”—io9

"At last, they are finally publishing science fiction from Cuba.... Let me assure you, it is a pity that it took so long!... What really sells this story is not the situation (which is terribly reminiscent of2001 and Tau Zero), but the psychological focus on the characters.... I came to admire Rojas’ lesson conducted with the crew of the Sviatagor: namely, how the limits of individual humanity can only be surpassed through cooperation and dependency upon our fellow man—sometimes at great personal sacrifice. If A Legend of the Future is idealistic science fiction, colored by the politics of its age, then it is idealistic science fiction at its best—concerned with the fate of mankind among the stars and not with spaceships and gadgets and alien races. I remain curious as to what else Cuban science fiction has in store for its new, English-speaking audience. For those of you who are also curious, start with A Legend of the Future."Portland Book Review

“Philosophically dense and hallucinatory in the manner of later Philip K. Dick.… Legend works as both suspenseful survival sci-fi (much like the current Matt Damon film The Martian) and a philosophical reflection of what it means to be human.… A strong blend of hard science and psychological fiction, A Legend of the Future should prove engrossing for admirers of Philip Dick or Stanislaw Lem.”—Blogcritics

The Year 200 is set several centuries in the future, some two hundred years since the collapse of the 'Empire', which was a world roughly comparable to the present-day one. The novel's opening chapter 'When Hydra Awakes', suggests a sort of ticking time-bomb that has been lying, well-hidden, in wait, until two centuries have passed, but it's not immediately clear what the reawakened Hydras (there are several of them) purpose or function is, or even their origin.
       The story then moves to a small slice of the world as it is now -- though beginning with a touch of virtual reality, which is now apparently commonplace. Life is comfortable and safe in the appropriately named outpost of Tranquil Grove -- and made easier with a "prodigious cybernetic intelligence;" as household help. True, family structure is a bit different than might be expected: men and women almost always only stay together for a year or two, with children "the center of their mothers' only stable emotion" and relationship, with father-figures coming and going; one of the few domestic crises of this world described in the book is a child suffering from the "pathological nature" of her parents' relationship -- they've been together for ten years ! On the whole, however. life seems peaceful and idyllic.
       The world is controlled by an 'Integrated Cybernetic System', apparently designed to maximize utility. There is a Supreme Council, which considers any appeals against decisions by the ICS, but there are few of these: the system seems to work to general satisfaction, and more or less everyone seems to do well in it.
       As it turns out, the long-gone Empire -- a world of conflict and nationalism and individualism -- had brought about its own collapse -- intentionally, back in the day, hastening its own demise:
     "The Empire had foreseen that it was bound to fall," Alice explained. "But it thought that the factors that made its survival impossible would disappear later on. They believed that the World Communist Federation was unstable, that it would collapse once the Empire had ceased to exist. They saw the Empire as an unintended catalyst for the Federation itself. They thought that after a couple of centuries, the centrifugal forces generated by nationalism and local interests would bring about not only the complete destruction of the Federation, but also extremely favorable conditions for the reconstruction of the Empire. That would be the ideal moment to reappear
       Obviously, the Empire miscalculated. The world -- and the winning system -- did not collapse, but rather seems to have more or less perfected itself, albeit with a great deal of artificial intelligence help. But the Empire plan to strike back was set in motion by the reawakening of Hydra -- or rather the several Hydras -- and just because the conditions they found were different than what they had expected, they weren't going to let that stop them. If expectations A -- allowing for a simple, traditional takeover of power -- aren't met, there's still a plan B to try:
If we can't control the decision-making mechanisms, we still have the possibility to change these people's way of thinking -- and thus undermine the foundations of their power.
       The Empire-holdovers are baffled by this new world, where people:
feel satisfied with their lives without knowing the pleasure of struggle and triumph. It's clear; we have to give virility back to this world of eunuchs.
       The way the Hydras work is through a technology that allows the minds of people to be transferred into other bodies -- a body-snatcher variation. Each Hydra -- there are several, but the novel focuses on one of them -- has a vanguard from the Empire that has been kept in a sort of limbo for the past two hundred years. When the machine holding these determines that conditions are ripe, it sets their revitalization into motion, finding first one body to transfer someone from the Empire into, and then working their way up from there. It's key that they assume these new identities without raising too much suspicion, and much of the early part of the novel is about how they go about this, and how they slowly establish a present-day base of operations.
       Among the tricks the Empire-leaders had back in the day already was the ability to 'condition' minds. This is a different sort of mind control, but helpful in keeping those who serve the leaders properly devoted to them. Among the other things some of the Hydra-members have been conditioned to, aside from loyalty, is to self-destruct if they are put in a position that could harm the cause -- if they are captured by the enemy and it tries to mind-probe them to get at their secrets. And there's one particularly unpleasant case of conditioning, as one of the Hydra members is so perversely sexually inclined that he needs to brainwash his subject to get her to go along with his kinks; this becomes a significant part of the story (though the perverse sex acts are mercifully only hinted at and never described), a complicating twist to the conditioning being that the subject is made particularly vulnerable, conditioned to be so deeply in love with him that if he dies she will too (of heartbreak).
       The local authorities come to learn of the infiltrators and must figure out how to combat them. Because of the uncertainty about how far the Empire-infiltrators have infiltrated the present-day world only a very limited number of people are in the know -- an approach that has its advantages but is also dangerous, because the public at large remains unaware of the threat. The dangers of the approach are nicely expressed in one warning:
Don't they realize what they're doing is like searching for gunpowder by lighting matches in the dark ?
       In any case, it makes for a quite exciting chess game, as each side tries to figure out the others' position, strategy, and possible moves.
       The new society does function well, but they've also learned that perfection is impossible: solve one set of problems, and new ones arise. And so here too they've found that:
New contradictions arise. More subtle, harder to understand ... Not as obvious as those of the Empire. But they are there, growing and developing ... And the moment will come when they must be confronted.
       So for example, not everyone has been satisfied with the status quo and some twelve thousand people have, over the past fifty years, "had cybernetic systems implanted in their brains, arguing that they need to know more, to discover more". These so-called cybos are viewed with some suspicion and live isolated from the rest of the world -- but in this crisis situation the authorities (itself largely cyber-determined) must consider asking the cybos for help .....
       The body-switching occasionally bogs the novel down some, as it is (relatively) easy to switch identities, and it's not just the characters who get confused about which person is inhabiting which body (and what that means for/to those around them ...). On the whole, however, the novel is well-constructed and thought-through -- as seen also in how the early scenes and characters, which fade from view for much of the story, resurface late on, with one character's virtual reality ambitions of an 'Enchanted Valley' central to one of the final show-downs. De Rojas is also particularly good in what he leaves unsaid, from some of the early bodily take-overs to, for example, some of the sex scenes -- the lead-ups suggestive (or disturbing ...) enough that there's no need for an explicit description of what then happens.
       Despite keeping the number of characters to a relatively small number, the novel does feel crowded, different actors pulling it in different directions. Even though they all serve a larger purpose -- practically everything does crisscross and is connected -- it can leave the reader feeling pulled in too many different directions. At more than six hundred pages, it can also all get to be a bit much -- especially when de Rojas is forced to explain details of technology or personal relationships (he really is much better when he pulls back or pans away, rather than zooms in).
       The Year 200 raises a variety of interesting questions, ranging from the ideological to the sociological to the philosophical, most of which de Rojas leaves nicely open for the reader to ponder -- there are few easy answers or prescriptions here. A nice touch, too, are breaks in the narrative that are presented as parts of an ongoing test -- quizzes of sorts, of a few questions each, regarding what has happened in the story and the reader's reaction to various aspects. It makes for a sort of readers-guide, too -- but the questions are more challenging than the usual straightforward ones. These tests are a clever expansion of and on the story, a nice twist that also serves to remind the reader, every hundred pages or so, that they are in a novel-experience, a created fiction .....
       The Year 200 has its longueurs and occasionally seems to get sidetracked in not-quite-as-interesting detail, but it is more hit than miss, and some of what de Rojas does impresses greatly. If the denouement disappoints as slightly too conventional (right down to its forced surprise twist) there's still more than enough of real substance here. - M.A.Orthofer


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