Super Extra Grande. Yoss. Translated by David Frye. New York: Restless Books. 2016. 160 pages.
This is a prejudice I’ve been hearing since the twentieth century: many people believe science fiction, as a “commercial” genre of literature, could never accommodate style or almost any aesthetic aspiration. Of course, this isn’t true: the idea that all writers deemed “sci-fi authors” (whether because they write science fiction deliberately or because that’s what readers, critics, or librarians say) instantaneously become untalented hacks without a genuine interest in language is absurd.
Even at its greatest levels of popularity and abundance as a specialized literature, science fiction has included an enormous quantity of mediocre practitioners, but it has also given rise to a few great artists, just like any other subset of the literary production of an era or a culture. While some of the great exponents of speculative fiction stand out for other reasons – Philip K. Dick is famously blunt and prosaic, for example – others had a verbal capacity that far surpassed not only airport paperbacks but also more than a few “canonical” authors, writing about “appropriate” subjects in the “correct” way. We have the pastiches of Joyce or Burroughs (or the other Burroughs) of Philip José Farmer; the enigmatic verbal filigree of Samuel R. Delany in Dhalgren; the entire oeuvre of Roger Zelazny or of the much better known Ursula K. LeGuin.
In Latin America, since the practice of science fiction has always been more thinly spread – as it lacks the backing of strong markets that it enjoys in English-speaking countries, Japan, and even France – it has been more difficult for interesting works to reach the public, but there has also been much more space for verbal invention. Unbiased Spanish-language readers can just as easily enjoy, let’s say, the atemporal orality of Kalpa imperial by Angélica Gorodischer, the erudite re-writings of Casa de horror y de magia [House of horror and of magic] by Emiliano González, or the verbal invention of Las visiones [The visions] by Edmundo Paz Soldán, all of which are strongly anchored in the present evolution of the Spanish language and in our social and political context.
Super Extra Grande, and the rest of the work of Cuban author Yoss (José Miguel Sánchez, 1969), are in a very different place from all of these authors.
Why is Latin American fiction as heterogeneous as it is? For decades, Latin American sci-fi fans have had to get to know new releases in other languages by means of translations that have been not only delayed, but als0 (generally) deficient: made quickly and published carelessly, precisely because the prejudices against science fiction make presses think that consumers won’t demand (and don’t deserve) anything better. This situation is even more complicated for Cuban readers, limited by the economic blockade and by an even slower than usual diffusion of many works from the neoliberal West. The result has been that our science fiction has been able to utilize, criticize, and recreate tropes and plot elements that originated in other languages, while always being obligated to invent its own styles; the only alternative is to sycophantically copy an imperfect, degraded image of works that could have been stronger precursors.
Yoss’s strategy, incredibly rare among the genuinely talented writers of our region, is to feign a complete lack of separation between these available models: not only do his plots recover elements of the entire past century of science fiction, presenting them with unjaded enthusiasm – with neither irony nor self-consciousness – but he begins, in appearance, by respecting the conventional rhythm of translated Spanish. The surprise comes later, when we begin to notice the density of the language, and especially its utilization of contemporary idioms, references to present-day culture (to the many present-day cultures that permeate through our habitual media saturation), and terms in a mutant variety of Spanglish. Yoss’s world is not the verbal world of “regional” translations, written out of economic exclusion in a neutral, presumptive Spanish that tries to deny and homogenize the many forms of speech of Latin America, but one that explores from its very conception – as the best science fiction always has – the future possibilities of the human experience. Yoss knows that language accompanies us, as it always has, through the transformations that occur around us, and at the same time it will be their reflection and their only opportunity for representation and remembrance.
Something of this linguistic creation is lost, inevitably, in the process of translation to English. But a crucial part remains. Super Extra Grande, the tale of the adventures of interstellar veterinarian Jan Amos Sangan Dongo and his encounter with some of the strangest, most immense creatures in the galaxy, is a space opera in the purest sense of the term: not only does it offer exciting episodes, humor, and even romance in a rich extraterrestrial setting, but it postulates, without cynicism, a future that English-language science fiction finds harder and harder to conceive: one in which, in effect, human beings have overcome their self-destructive tendencies and can participate in a greater and wider-ranging life in the cosmos, coexisting, although not always without problems, with countless other intelligent species. A world that runs counter to our own, that is authentically diverse and in which racism still exists, but as an uncomfortable atavism rather than a point of pride.
What’s more, this world doesn’t only have room – like so many twentieth-century space operas – for white, English-speaking, conventionally attractive inhabitants of Earth. Besides the fact that Sangan is of mixed heritage, looks fairly average, and is uncomfortably big – a protagonist who in other stories would have been relegated to second or even third fiddle – we mustn’t leave out an important detail of his imagined world: like in many others, in this one a form of interstellar propulsion exists, faster than light, to make traveling to other planets and solar systems conveniently possible. This system, in Super Extra Grande, is called “González impulse,” because it was invented by a Latino scientist – more precisely, an Ecuadorian Jesuit!
It’s common for Latin American science fiction to be contaminated by the racism implicit in many of its sources, placing us – those of us who live in this part of the world – in subaltern positions even in its future settings, even more humiliating than the ones we occupy in the present. But not Yoss: Yoss dares to imagine that we can make giant leaps.