Translated by David Frye
5 Stars: Highly Recommended by Drew
Publisher: Restless Books
Reviewed by Drew Broussard
The Short Version: When aliens finally do show up, it won't be to induct us into their company - but rather to intervene on our behalf, because we can't be trusted not to destroy ourselves and the world. So begins this collection of stories about a universe where Earth has become a protectorate of the galaxy and what it means to be an Earthling when Earth doesn't mean that much anymore...
The Review: The best science fiction is not the kind full of adventure and majesty and scantily clad alien babes - although the best science fiction often has some or all of those things. But those who would remove social commentary from science fiction miss the point and lack the intelligence, you might say, to see that science fiction has always been a place where authors and readers alike go to better understand our present. The future is nearly impossible to imagine - and I'd wager that most sci-fi authors aren't attempting to predict but rather they're imagining what could be based off of what we have right now. But, of course, you can only understand an extrapolation once you know the original data...
So we come to Yoss, a new arrival for the English-speaking world but "science fiction's brightest star" in Cuba. He's written over twenty books and is a massive success at home - but it's only since the normalization of relations between Cuba and the U.S. (and by extension the rest of the "Western World") that we've had the chance to encounter his work, or at least in any significant way that I can divine. This is his first book translated into English (editor's note: props to Restless Books for putting the translator's name on the cover, which is something more publishers ought to do) and if it's any indication of the rest of his canon, he's quickly going be a bright star in the international sky too - both because of his potent imagination and his whip-smart politically minded prose.
It's not that often that we see an imagined future that doesn't go either super well or dramatically, catastrophically poorly for humanity. I myself can't think, off the top of my head, of another book that denies human "exceptionalism" in the way that this one does - although some do something similar in their own way, like The Dispossessed. But here, we achieve first contact (called simply Contact) and screw it up royally - and when we do, the aliens retaliate with decisive but not catastrophic force. Just enough to put us in our place, as it were... and our place is decidedly second-class. Earth and its inhabitants are not only inferior organisms by the standards of the creatures populating this future, but those creatures have a vested interest in keeping our planet subjugated - both to "protect" humanity's best interests and to make sure that the nutjobs of our planet don't infect the rest of the damn galaxy. We're a "Galactic Protectorate" now and both we as people and as planet are available to anybody for the right price - so step right up!
If you have even a rudimentary grasp of international relations, you'll be thinking that this sounds a whole lot like a take on the situation over the last half-century in Cuba. And Yoss isn't shy about that: this is the kind of science fiction I was talking about earlier that uses an imagined future to better explore the present. All of the characters in the stories contained herein are trying to better their circumstances - many of them, to get off of Earth in the hopes of discovering a better life out amongst the stars, but some of them just trying to make a better time of it here while they can. We see an escort, an athlete, an artist, a cop, a young girl, a scientist, and more - and if you stripped away the futuristic trappings, you'd see that they all could exist in our present (or the present of the writing, which was the mid-late 1990s) with ease. Some of the analogues are more obvious than others; for example, the "Escape Tunnel" of the story of the same name is clearly the passage to Florida and if you changes "voxl" to "baseball", the athletes in "The Champions" suddenly seem far more modern than futuristic. It's impossible not to read every single story in this collection as political allegory - and, by extension, it's at the very least damned difficult not to feel a particular twinge in your innermost soul about the conditions being described here. Because in extending "Cuba" to encompass "Earth", Yoss' simple substitution makes an otherwise limited set of circumstances altogether more universal.
He's also just one hell of a writer. The novel is linked stories, in the vein of The Imperfectionists or A Visit from the Goon Squad (in that they tell a linear story of sorts but the connections between characters only become clear even sometimes several stories later), but also includes shorter stories that detail some aspect of life post-Contact - the advent of "mestizos", for example (mixed human and alien offspring), or the structure of the "World Human Parliament", which is exactly what it sounds like. These shorter chapters are usually more academic in tone but often pack just as much of a wallop as their longer, more detailed neighbors, largely because of just how academic-sounding they are: it borders on frightening to read something about dumpster divers or the world government of the future as though it were an entry in a more realistic Hitchhiker's Guide.
This world-building helps strengthen the impact of the story-stories, too. Every single one of the seven tales herein is guaranteed to hit you on at least a handful of various emotional levels - and a few of them manage to run the full gamut. There's something pitiful about every story but the pity quickly becomes a sort of self-pity because - and I do speak only for myself here, but I think other readers would likely agree with me - it's so easy to see oneself in these characters, even if your circumstances are completely different from theirs. Yoss has an amazing skill at creating human beings, ones who if they aren't you might be your sister or your cousin or your friend, even as he matches that skill in creating the galaxy at large. Speaking of, I shouldn't end before noting that even the most politically minded sci-fi would still suck as sci-fi if it didn't include fantastical representations of the possible future - and Yoss has fun imagining the various extraterrestrial beings (or "xenoids") that might populate the galaxy at large, from the sensual humanoid Cetians to the mysterious Auyars to the armored insect-esque Grodos. This future is a vivid one, full of realistically rendered possibilities - even if they aren't possibilities we would ever hope for. Still, if relations can be normalized between the U.S. and Cuba, perhaps there's hope yet for us as a species.
Rating: 5 out of 5. Perhaps some people knew about it before recently, but I'm thrilled to know now that Cuba has been a hotbed of intellectually potent science fiction for the last forty-odd years - and what an introduction A Planet for Rent turned out to be. Yoss, the rockstar of Cuban sci-fi (and also actual rock star; he sings for a metal band), is hands-down one of the best writers of sci-fi I've ever encountered and his portrait of Cuba-during-the-Special-Period-as-Earth-under-alien-'protection' should be an instant classic. He is wickedly funny, charming, evocative, quick with a smart phrase (props to translator David Frye for keeping the prose sharp), and deeply concerned about not just the humanity of his own nation but that of our entire race. I look forward to much more from Yoss and I'm excited to have the chance to read it.
Drew Broussard reads, a lot. When not doing that, he's writing stories or playing music or acting or producing or coming up with other ways to make trouble. He also has a day job at The Public Theater in New York City.