Tuesday
Oct062015

A Legend of the Future

By Agustín de Rojas
Translated by Nick Caistor


 

Restless Books
March 2015
978-1632060358


Reviewed by Dan Lopez


 

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.]

"Yes."

"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.

"Speak."

"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.