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Original Content: Our [Hu]man in Havana, by Daniel W. Koon

In an exclusive for the WSNB, Daniel W. Koon reports on science fiction in Cuba!

Our [Hu]man in Havana:

Reflections from an alien correspondent

at a Special Meeting of the Writers’ Workshop Espacio Abierto

Daniel W. Koon

Based on the author’s notes plus

[1] “II Evento Teórico de Ciencia Ficción y Fantasía Espacio abierto 2010

by Yoss, and

[2] “La Flota Marítima Boliviana Parte a la Conquista de los Océanos”

(Yoss, El Caimán Barbudo #357, Havana, Cuba [2010], p. 8 )

Keeping up to date with Cuban science fiction from outside is impossible. But getting there to study it firsthand, given my US passport, my government’s travel restrictions, and hostile customs agents (more on them later), merely seemed impossible, like traveling to another planet. I’ve been reading, translating, and teaching Cuban SF since a chance meeting at a physics educators’ conference in Havana in 2003 brought this fiction to my attention. In the years since, I’ve passed up a standing offer to attend the various national Cuban SF conventions, but it’s hard for an academic to turn down an invitation to speak to a special meeting of a literary workshop that includes the top SF writers on the island. Besides, it represented a chance to meet a growing list of writers I’ve met electronically through translation and interviews.

I squeezed my trip into four working days, Friday through Monday, with the two-day conference in the middle. In addition to attending the conference, I managed to begin my initial research for a study of the history of SF during the 1990s when all publishing ground to a halt, and to collect about two dozen Cuban SF books, (25cm or so in shelf-width) several of them gracious gifts personally signed by the authors. Now trying to get a handle on Cuban SF in four days was like trying to drink out of a firehose, and while trying to distill the weekend down into a coherent report is daunting, I’ll give it my best shot.

But why bother? What’s so interesting about Cuban SF? Well, for me Cuban SF represents a unique experiment in which the influences of American and Soviet science fiction and Latin American magical realism are blended and then brought to a boil by the calor of a society which is itself an ongoing utopian experiment. That, and the results can be pretty tasty.

THE HISTORY OF CUBAN SCIENCE FICTION IN A NUTSHELL

One needs to bear in mind the overall arc of the history of SF in Cuba in any overview like this, so here it is: As in several other Latin American countries, there is a history of Cuban SF stories and novels dating back to the late 19th Century, but the genre really began to pick up steam in Cuba only after the “Triumph of the Revolution” in 1959. From 1964 to 1971 it enjoyed some official favor as a “vanguard” literature, a role it lost during the so-called Quinquennio Gris, the ‘Gray’ Five Year Plan of 1971, when its sometimes less than utopian futures invited official suspicion. New writers, including Daína Chaviano, breathed new life into the genre after 1978, but this second boom came to a screeching halt with the fall of socialism in Europe and the resulting economic bust, wave of emigrations, and shortages of paper and ink during the so-called “Special Period” of the 1990s. Tireless activity behind the scenes during this period prepared the way for another explosion of Cuban SF, starting in 1999 and continuing to this day.

I’ll start this overview as a travelogue following the rough outline of the conference, peppering it here and there with information from my interviews conducted the Friday before and the Monday after, but focusing on the history and current state of Cuban, Spanish-language, and World SF in that order (in what follows, “SF” is my shorthand for science fiction, not speculative fiction). I’ll skip over talks that dealt chiefly with English-language SF or relied mostly on Anglo SF for examples. I’ll finish up with a few comments on recent and future publications in Cuba, the genre’s most obvious vital signs.

SATURDAY

The conference was held in the Centro de Formación Literaria Onelio Jorge Cardoso in Playa (the “embassy” quarter of Havana), the workshop’s home base. Bruno Henríquez, my fellow physicist who first introduced me to Cuban SF, was the first speaker. Bruno has played an important role in Cuban SF at various points in its history. In 1978, his collection of stories, “Aventura en el laboratorio” [“Adventure in the laboratory”] won an honorable mention in the prestigious David literary prize, leading to a separate SF category for the prize the following year, when it was won by the newcomer, Daína Chaviano, setting off a boom of SF throughout the 1980s. Then, in the darkest depths of the economic collapse in the 1990s, Bruno led the group i+Real, which was simultaneously a literary workshop, an electronic magazine, and the organizing group for national gatherings of fans. For over a decade now, Bruno has been responsible for the summer TV film festival known as Ciencia y Ficción, which was the subject of his talk.

Bruno has always been a fan of using science fiction to teach science, so his program contains a strong didactic element, putting the science and the cultural elements of each film into context for the viewers. His talk included an impressive sequence of movie posters (too many for me to write all down), including the typical Hollywood blockbusters and cult films (Idiocracy and Donnie Darko), but also a dose of Japanese anime (Paprika, Japan: 2006) and other World SF such as Los Cronocrímenes (Time crimes, Spain: 2007) and Zapreshchennaya realnost (Interceptor, Russia, 2009) and of course Nochnoy Dozor (Night Watch, Russia: 2004). Speaking of Russian SF, Bruno has compiled and edited an anthology, “El hombre que hizo el mar Báltico” (“The man who created the Baltic Sea”, Arte y Literatura, 2009) with stories by Chekhov, Dnieprov, Pudolni, Kolupáev, the Abramovs (father and son), Shefner, the Strugatsky brothers, Larionova and Gansvoski.

Next I gave my perspective as an Anglo searching for science fiction from around the world: a different sort of SETI project, the Search for Extraterritorial Imagination (The slides of my talk are available here: English, Spanish). But for me the highlight of this talk was the chance to present writer Erick J. Mota with copies of his own novel and short story collection “Habana Underguater”, a print-on-demand book (well, three books: one each containing the novel, the associated short story collection, or both) which his half-brother sent me to pass on to him. (Little did I realize that Cuban Customs agents would not appreciate the ironic humor of the dystopian world in which the Soviets (yes, the Soviets) have literally abandoned the Cubans to their own devices as they fly off to a series of Earth-orbit satellites, the “Soviet States of Space”, let alone a novel whose cover features the iconic Plaza de la Revolución, well,…underwater. Where else but in Cuba would you find a novel in which the Soviets not only still exist, but are to blame for Havana’s miseries? Luckily, Cuban Customs eventually did wave me through without confiscating anything, giving me this anecdote as consolatoin for the two-hour delay.) Erick’s other book, “Algunos recuerdos que valen la pena” (“Some worthwhile memories”, Abril: 2010) won the national Calendario Prize in 2009.

Next came one of the organizers of the workshop, accomplished writer, musician, literary workshop organizer, and poet Elaine Vilar Madruga, to talk about sex and sexuality in SF. 2009 saw Elaine’s debut novel, “Al límite de los olivos” [“At the edge of the olives”], a chronicle of a dystopian earth lorded over by alien races (and she’s still very young, so expect to hear more from her). Elaine’s discussion centered mostly on works by English-language writers, although she did mention two Cuban writers’ works — Gabriel Gil’s short story “Sus jirazas son nuestras” (which interestingly was written as an exercise for this very workshop, Espacio Abierto) and Yoss’ (José Miguel Sánchez’) novel “Pluma de León” (“The Lion’s feather”. Letras Cubanas: 2008).

After lunch, there was an opportunity to buy books from the Editorial House Gente Nueva and there was an exhibition of handmade replica weapons (Japanese, Nepali, Chinese swords as well as Western varieties) and other art and handicrafts by the group Manos Libres.

Next, back in the conference room, Yoss and Jeffrey López presented three works —  Ariel Pérez Rodríguez’ “Viaje al centro del Verne desconocido” [“Voyage to the center of the unknown Verne”], “La sombra del buitre” [“The Shadow of the vulture”], a Robert E. Howard Red Sonya adventure that predates the Red Sonja of the Conan the Barbarian series, and issue #357 of the newspaper El Caimán Barbudo [The bearded alligator], which includes the Gabriel Gil story mentioned above, Venezuelan Susana Sussmann’s “Khunta”, and Yoss’ “La flota marítima boliviana parte a la conquista de los oceános” [“The Bolivian navy takes to the high seas”], an extrapolation of his earlier history of Cuban SF (English, Spanish) into the 21st Century. (I hope to post a translation of the “Bolivian navy’s” exploits by the end of this summer.)

Next, David Alfonso, a student of Foreign Languages, took a stab at defining the boundary between science fiction and fantasy. Javiher Gutiérrez, a researcher, analyzed autocracies and systems of social control in SF. Finally, Gabriel Gil and Laura Azor, physics and biology students, respectively, discussed “El hiperboloide trófico del ingeniero terraformador” [“The terraforming engineer’s alimentary hyperboloid”], a mouthful of a title, and a play on words on Alexei Tolstoi’s 1920s’ SF death-ray classic “Engineer Garin’s hyperboloid”. Their talk analyzed the food-energy dynamics and ecology of a number of well-known SF universes, including the human batteries of “The Matrix”, the sandworms of “Dune” and the planet Lusitania from “The Speaker for the Dead”. Gabriel, by trhe way, is another very young writer with a number of stories e-published in Disparo en Red [Cuba] and Axxón [Argentina], and undoubtedly a lot more to follow.

A screening of “Repo! The Genetic Opera” (2008) closed out Saturday’s session.

SUNDAY

The Sunday session kicked off with the most successful Cuban writer at publishing in Axxón (The presence of so much Cuban SF in this e-zine speaks volumes about the island’s stature in Latin American SF.), philologist Juan Pablo Noroña. Juan Pablo’s talk was an exhaustive search for the roots of modern science fiction and heroic fantasy in the rupture of the conventions of the classic fantasy of the 18th and 19th Centuries. My notebook pages are crammed and I missed half of what I wanted to write down.

Andalucian-born Juan Carlos Toledano, Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies at Lewis and Clark College, Portland, OR, USA, spoke about “Tico” [Costa Rican] SF. This is a promising time for SF from CR, and it would be hard to find a better speaker on this topic than Juanka, author of the prologue to the recent CR SF anthology, “Posibles futuros”. The six stories from that collection come from Laura Casasa Nuñez, Antonio Chamu, Jessica Clark, David Díaz Arias, Iván Molina Jiménez, and Laura Quijano Vincenzi.

Sheila Padrón, coordinator first of the Onírica group and then of Dialfa Hermes (both of these groups focused primarily on fantasy rather than science fiction), spoke on witches and sorceresses, their origins in fertility gods and their persecution during the Middle Ages. Leonardo Gala (Leo Galech to his friends) spoke on Worldbuilding (a phrase that resisted translation into Spanish in his title). He maintains the Blog de Bajavel, named after the fictional universe of some of his fiction, and an outgrowth of his activity in the presently-dormant workshop Espiral.

After Sunday’s lunch, a variety of DVDs from Raúl Aguiar’s personal collection were put up for sale, as were copies of Yoss’ “Las químeras no existen” (Extramuros: 2009), a departure for the writer into less hard-SF fantasy. Yoss remained at the podium to discuss the role of translations of Russian and other Eastern European SF in the history of Cuban SF, bolstered by an impressive collection of about two dozen books that he passed around the room. The arrival of translations like these onto the island in the 1970s was one of the few bright spots in an era when there were few opportunities for homegrown writers to publish, even if the language of many of the translations sounded stilted to Cuban ears, having been written by the refugees and the children of refugees from the Spanish Civil War.

The final academic portion of the conference was a roundtable on the current state of Hispanic science fiction, featuring Raúl Aguiar, Juan Carlos Toledano, and Yoss, and the fish out of water, myself. My sole contribution was to point out how little science fiction makes it from Spanish to English, citing a few odd titles that have made the jump — the film Abre los ojos (Open your eyes, Spain: 1997) through its English-language remake, Vanilla Sky (US: 2001), the anthology “Cosmos Latinos” (Wesleyan University Press: 2003) and Ursula K. LeGuin’s translation of Angélica Gorodischer’s “Kalpa Imperial” (Small Beer Press, 2005). For the English-speaking market that’s pretty much it for the last decade or so. Raúl gave the most exhaustive contribution to the roundtable, outlining both his series of Qubit (e-zine) issues devoted to the SF of various countries and his odyssey in assembling a Latin American anthology for print publication. As of this writing, Raúl is still looking for a publisher for the anthology, as well as stories from both Panama and El Salvador.

FUN AND GAMES

The next event was a trivia game based on Othello, between two teams drawn from the audience competing on questions of science fiction and fantasy trivia in a variety of categories. As a side note, much of the science fiction and fantasy in the island over the last decade has come from members of an informal group of role-playing gamers, “La Horda” (“The Horde”) — that included Yoss, Raúl Aguiar, Vladimir Hernández, Michel Encinosa, Fabricio Neira, Javier de la Torre, Juan Padrón, Juan Pablo Noroña and his brother Julio — who would meet weekly over Traveller [sic] and Battle Tech, before getting bored and inventing their own RPGs. This group wrote two of the anthologies that broke the long SF dry spell during Cuba’s Special Period — Vladimir’s “Horizontes Probables” (“Probable Horizons”. Lectorum, Mexico) and Yoss’ “Reino Eterno” (“Eternal Kingdom”, Letras Cubanas, 1999), the latter a mix of both science fiction and heroic fantasy, with stories solicited from among fellow gamers during these weekend gaming sessions.

Next came the presentation of a mock-up (“Issue zero”) of a new electronic magazine Revista Korad. It is hoped that this second electronic magazine made in Cuba, along with Raúl Aguiar’s Qubit, and Ricardo Acevedo’s MiNatura (“published” from Spain), will fill the void left by the loss of “Darthmota” Erick J. Mota’s and “Jartower” Javier de la Torre’s Disparo en Red. (Potential subscribers to the first two should write to revistakorad AT gmail.com or qubit AT centro-onelio.cult.cu.)

The meeting concluded with the awarding of the Oscar Hurtado awards, from which I can vouch that there are plenty of new writers in the pipeline, honing their craft in the Espacio Abierto workshop.

ANTHOLOGIES

Two things in particular struck me at this meeting: first, how central the culture of literary workshops has been to Cuban SF since the Oscar Hurtado and Julio Verne workshops in the early 1980s, and second, the sheer number of short story anthologies either recently written or in the works as of April, 2010. Most published writers in Cuba have learned their craft in these workshops — Oscar Hurtado, Julio Verne, i+Real, El Negro Hueco, Espiral, Espacio Abierto, etc. — and from an outsider’s perspective, each successive workshop seems to spring quickly forth from the ashes if its predecessor. The workshops play a profound role in the formation of new writers, producing an SF&F community that is probably as close-knit as in any other country.

As for the anthologies, here is a list:

  • “Escritos con guitarra: cuentos cubanos sobre el rock” (‘Writings with guitar: Cuban stories about rock”. Yoss & Raúl Aguiar: 2005). Okay, not a collection of SF, but still…
  • “Cronicas del Mañana: cincuenta años de ciencia ficción cubana” (“Chronicles of tomorrow: fifty years of Cuban science fiction”.  Yoss: 2008). This collection brings together a number of classics and some compelling new works, for a total of 38 stories and over 300 pages. It would have to be considered the definitive anthology of Cuban SF. Below are three of the stories. Maybe we can find a publisher willing to translate the others into an English-language anthology?
    • “Un inesperado visitante” (”An unexpected visitor”) – Ángel Arango
    • “Solo Marta” (“Just Marta”) – Bruno Henríquez
    • “Apolvenusina” (“Apollovenusine”) — Yoss
    • “Deuda temporal” (“Borrowed Time”. Raúl Aguiar) A collection of stories written by female Cuban writers, including a very moving title piece from Anabel Enríquez.
    • “En sus marcas, listos,… ¡futuro!” (“On your mark, get set,… future!” Yoss and Carlos Duarte Cano) Sports-related SF stories. Carlos Duarte, by the way, is a research biologist who grew interested in writing relatively later in life, joining Argentine Sergio Gaut vel Hartman’s virtual writers’ workshop, Taller 7, and writing ever since.
    • “Ciencia Ricción” (The title is a phrase invented by author F. Mond that is a hybrid of science fiction and laughter. Yoss & Carlos Duarte Cano) Humorous SF stories.
    • “Las fronteras de la vida” (“The frontiers of life”. Yoss & Carlos Duarte Cano) Biology-themed SF stories, interspersed with essays on related biological themes.
    • “Semillas de magia y acero” (“Seeds of magic and steel”. Elaine Vilar Madruga & Jeffrey López). Epic fantasy. While I haven’t written about non-SF fantasy here, there has been enough activity associated with fantasy on the island – writing, meetings, fandom, workshops – to merit much more attention than I’ve given it. My apologies to my hosts.
    • “Viejos magos y jovenes guerreros” (Old wizards and young warriors. Yoss and Javier de la Torre). Epic fantasy.

Yes, Cuban SF and fantasy is alive and well. The latest wave, begun in 1999, shows no signs of subsiding. New names pop up among the winners of prizes like the Oscar Hurtados and as contributors in international venues such as Axxón. At this rate I will soon be clearing out my suitcase again to fit even more books, scheduling my next trip and bracing myself for the scrutiny of Cuban Customs.

June 7, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , ,

2 Comments

  1. Very informative. Thanks for the stories too. Yoss’ Apollovenusine read like one of those Mad TV mock advertisements.

    Anil

    Comment by Anil Menon | June 7, 2010

  2. Hard to express the depth of my admiration for Daniel in doing this work. I’m one of those yankees who has always felt a great deal of guilt about my lack of a second language, especially in the light of my admiration for Cuban artistic sensibilities. Daniel not only worked hard to become conversant in Spanish — he put it to work. This was great to read, Daniel. Thanks!
    m{far

    Comment by Michael Farley | June 9, 2010


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