Cuban Cyberpunk on the Rise: Variations and Successors

Photo by Taton Moïse on Unsplash.

An emerging field with its own autonomy that has become considerably recognizable within the genre of Cuban fantasy is cyberpunk science fiction, considered in its widest sense, along with its variations and subgenres like biopunk and post-cyberpunk.  It must be clarified that this cyberpunk is no longer a mimetic copy of its English-language relatives, with a simple recontextualization of certain themes and characters of the English-speaking cyberpunk imagination in a Cuban environment, as Juan Carlos Toledano explains in his article.1 Its readings or interpretations have changed as much on an ideological-political level as on a discursive one.  The contributions of Fabricio González, Michel Encinosa Fú, Ariel Cruz, Vladimir Hernández, Erick J. Mota, Leonardo Gala, Alejandro Rojas, Eric Flores, and Dennis Mourdoch all strike me as very interesting, just to name the most important.

Three writers of the old school, founders of the Oscar Hurtado workshop and still active today, offer us their vision of the genre in novels and short stories.  Among them are R. E. Bourgeois, Bruno Enríquez, Alejandro Madruga, Yoss, and myself.

In 2016, Bourgeois published two short novels in one volume: Metamundo. Willi Capote. In “Metamundo,” a text that was already written in the eighties, the author offers us a story in which elements of psychedelic literature, heroic fantasy, and suburban tribes are intertwined.  In “Willi Capote,” a dystopian world appears, riddled with the purest of cyberpunk references and strongly influenced by the noir detective novel.   

The first productions of Michel Encinosa, Ariel Cruz, Erick J. Mota, and Vladimir Hernandez resembled poorly translated copies of the cyberpunk stories and novels of William Gibson or Bruce Sterling.  However, they quickly figured out how to imbue their stories, situated in a future and dystopian Cuba, with very personal styles that achieve a particular aftertaste – at times quite bitter – while at the same time their characters, the structures of their universes, and their recreations of vernacular speech give great complexity to their collections of stories.

Vladimir Hernandez has found good fortune on the journey from his first book Nova de cuarzo [Nova of quartz] to the recent Sueños de interfaz [Dreams of interface] and Semiótica para los lobos [Semiotics for wolves], the latter two award-winning stories gaining special mention from the UPC prize for science fiction from the Polytechnic University of Catalonia.  Of course, the plot immediately suggests William Gibson, but from a Latin perspective.

The most productive author is Michel Encinosa, who has also been written about profusely, with close to nine books published, several of them within the cyberpunk saga of Ofidia, like Niños de neon [Neon children] and Dioses de neon [Neon gods], but also Veredas [Paths]  or La guerra de Bianka [Bianka’s war].  These are short novels related to the subgenre and successfully avoid the danger of autophagy, along with his notebook, Enemigo sin voz [Enemy without a voice], winner of the 2006 Calendario prize for science fiction, which is an almost Orwellian dystopia where speech is controlled by an electronic chip inserted into each citizen, all subject to power in this future totalitarian state.  Another book of his also won a prize in the same contest, and although it doesn’t belong to the science fiction genre, the seven stories in which a serial killer visits websites to capture young girls and records his experiences on a personal blog make for a very interesting read.

A few writers who occupy a wide spectrum, whose essential characteristic is based in the search for a thematic heterogeneity for their stories without rejecting occasional forays into cyberpunk, as well as showing off a vast knowledge of international contributions to the genre, are Yoss, Fabricio González, Carlos Duarte, and Juan Pablo Noroña.

The latter is, inexplicably, not to be found in print, although his stories are relatively well known online, most notably his publications in the magazine Axxón.  His first approaches to the cyberpunk theme come hand in hand with associated themes of war and the weapons technology used to fight it.

Much has been written about Yoss’s work.  The scholar Juan Carlos Toledano proposes some of the stories of Timshel, above all Historia de gladiadores [History of gladiators] as a type of pre-cyberpunk story.  Despite that, it is not a genre to which Yoss applies himself with much assiduousness.  With the exception of “Lider de la red” [Leader of the network] and “Una moneda de plata en el bolsillo de la noche” [A silver coin in the pocket of the night], which are distinctly cyberpunk, the other stories that come close to the genre do so briefly, by way of the dystopic contexts they use, the marginalization of certain characters, or an approximation of biological themes, as in the case of “Apolvenusina.”

There is not much to say about Fabricio González, as he is not a prolific author. Perhaps his most important contribution to cyberpunk is his story “Sobre la extraña muerte de Mateo Habba” [On the strange death of Meteo Habba], the best example of what story might result if we combine the Latin American boom of the sixties with the “neuromantic” explosion of Gibson, the narrative style of Jorge Luis Borges, and the cyberpunk thematic:

“It is essential to understand the possible reason for his death in order to know the man who was in life Mateo Habba.  It could be said of him that he loved coffee, roasted mutton, the poetry of Umar al-Khayyami, and women with thick asses.  He also detested pork, Catholicism, the servile destiny of the Arab people under Israeli rule, and solitude; although he rarely left his apartment and had few friendships.  However, this sum of characteristics, the majority of them decidedly banal, do not define him; I think that there are two more important things, the knowledge of which is indispensable to understanding him: Mateo was Muslim and a hacker.”

Erick J. Mota, in his collection of stories and novels related to the world of “Habana Underguater” has launched the creation of a universe that refers in a joking tone to “Orisha-punk,” where elements of Afro-Cuban folklore mix in a Havana partially submerged underwater, with the devices of a world defined simultaneously by cyberpunk and untraditional alternate history.

Since the end of the nineties, there have been several women writers who have emerged from the panorama of fantasy in Cuba.  I should note above all Anabel Enríquez Piñiero, whose book Nada de declarar [Nothing to declare], winner of the 2005 Calendario Prize for science fiction, offers, among others, an excellent story: “Nada de declarar” is about a family of “space rafters,” a story that gives me the feeling of being on the edges of cyberpunk, even if only because the characters are marginalized beings, planetary migrants who want to escape a dystopian society that excludes and enslaves them.

More in line with the biopunk genre is the writer Haydeé Sardiñas, winner of the science fiction prize in the Juventud Técnica contest, who in one of her stories, “Jane at Ten Thirty,” is not afraid to establish an intertextual link with Yoss’s story “Apolvenusina”:

“I open my shirt and caress the breasts of Claudia Schiffer, slight and perfect.  In my bag I carry clothing in her size. I will not go unnoticed.  I am a blonde that cannot be ignored.  But who is going to recognize me.  It has been more than 20 years since the Apolvenusinas were prohibited. After an epidemic of side effects they were restricted to the experimental zone.  My mother was wearing them the day she died and I saved them along with all the knick knacks from her bag.  I didn’t know they were going to be useful to me.  Quite useful...”     

Yadira Álvarez, a member of the workshop Espacio Abierto, approaches cyberpunk themes at times with stories that deal with dystopian universes where children are genetically modified to be perfect soldiers, as in her story “Kikubi,” which relies on microhistory, the interpersonal relations that are established between the characters, mostly feminine, and her particular vision of war and society.

Raúl Flores, who won the 2007 Calendario prize for science fiction, and his book La carne luminosa de los gigantes make for an atypical case within the subgenre of cyberpunk. The book is a combination of homage stories that speak to the author’s preferences with respect to literature, rock music, and cinema.  I find the first story in the book to be the most interesting, with direct and intertextual allusions to the William Gibson’s Idoru and J. G. Ballard’s Crash. Another of the stories pays homage to Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, an author whose influence is noted in many of the texts of this young author.  Raúl Flores’s style is consciously light, with tactics of rhizomatic narrative, pulp, fantasy of the absurd and almost a sort of splatterpunk light – splatterpink? – and perhaps this particular characteristic differentiates it, allowing it to carve out a fandom in Cuba.

Another author of the mainstream or Slipstream who uses many premises of the genre in his novels and stories is Jorge Enrique Lage, above all in his intergeneric novels, Carbono 14, una novela de culto [Carbon 14, a cult novel] and La autopista: the movie, a hallucinatory and post-apocalyptic world where Havana has been reduced to ruins and its inhabitants live in squalor alongside the Pan-American superhighway that is being constructed by a sort of robot transformers they refer to as “constructicons.”

Another very interesting proposal is that which Leonardo Gala offers with his Cuentos de Bajavel [Stories of Bajavel], above all in “El fin del paradigma Turing – von Neumann” [The End of the Turing-von Neumann paradigm], a story that contains a post-cyberpunk vision of a world where hackers no longer exist and cyberspace is prohibited to human beings, who are under the complete control of artificial intelligence:

“Because as of today I wash my hands of this.  As of today, you can push the button on the console yourself if you want to, and when you return from classes I will disconnect you.  There are no hackers in Bajavel, Dany.  Only AIs.  And they are not intelligent like you or me, no.  They are intelligent enough to answer questions that don’t even cross our mind.  In fact, Bajavel is the room where they have allowed us to stay along with our stupid questions.  And the AIs don’t like hackers, Dany, and so if you don’t show them you are one of them, you’ll be okay.”

Leonardo cultivates Cuban science fiction of the hardest and purest style, and his knowledge of computer science permits him, as in his story “Aitana” to develop the concept of technological singularity used in the most recent science fiction, concerned with the development of artificial intelligence and its possible interaction with human beings.

Dentro de la boca del lobo [Inside the mouth of the wolf] by Dennis Mourdoch Morán is a short cyberpunk novel.  Its protagonist, Cruz, a boss of the underworld, serves his sentence in La Cueva del Lobo [The Cave of the Wolf], a maximum-security prison.  There, he tries to rekindle his relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Kima, along with a new prisoner, el Jabao, by way of a mechanism that allows him to enjoy experiences that are told to him as if they were his own.  Mourdoch does not show geographic elements that associate the plot with a future Cuba; however, in the background of his characters, the marginalized societies that he describes, and in the words and actions of his protagonists, many aspects of current Cuban reality are recognized.  Dennis is not content to incorporate elements common to other cyberpunk stories, but rather is capable of innovating from his own peculiar universe.  And so he introduces quite original concepts, such as a virtual ninja homunculus, employed by the protagonist to do dirty work in cyberspace, and the “arrives,” a type of AIs with female humanoid appearance, that demonstrate a range of powers as much in the virtual world as in the real.

A lethal virus, zombies, clones, robots, a boy with particular powers: these are the themes that Erick Flores deals with in his book En La Habana en más difícil, which won the 2015 Calendario prize in the genre of science fiction.  Flores belongs to a group of writers, like Jesús Minsal, Carlos Muñoz, and David Alfonso, who work with a wide array of subjects and cover a broad spectrum that spans from fantasy stories or traditional science fiction to experimental stories in which they dare to combine science fiction and sometimes cyberpunk with elements of heroic fantasy, magic, humor, and gothic terror.

Chunga Maya,  from Alejandro Rojas Medina, winner of the 2016 Calendario prize for science fiction, is made up of four books and a short novel (or long story) of forty pages, in which Rojas lets his imagination run wild in a Cuban-style worldbuilding where elements both strange and familiar appear, like a fireproof mutant stork, a genetically modified moringa tree as a staple food of the citizens, “nanobug” fumigators that go around the neighborhoods trying to control the plagues of nanobots that infect all electronic devices, survivors of the First Nano-robot Massacre, and mutant air-breathing catfishes used as a mode of transport and the only source of animal protein ever since the gray epidemic liquidated most cultivated crops and all of the cattle herds.  This entire universe is revealed in the first story of the book, “Fumigador” [Fumigator] and prepares the reader for the following stories.

The book closes with “Chunga Maya,” the longest story of them all, and by far the most interesting.  Chunga Maya emulates Moby Dick, but instead of a whale, a giant catfish has blocked the island and impeded all sea and air travel.  To top it all off, its existence has resulted in the formation of a new cult: The Order of Clarius of the Scales.  Mayito, a former member of the Collective of the Radioactive Stork Brigade, turns into a sort of national captain Ahab and pursues the monstrous catfish with the same vengeful zeal as his Melvillian colleague – and all this under the ironic and imaginative gaze of an author like Alejandro Rojas, who doesn’t cease to point out, with knowing winks, the Cuban reality of today.

The most recent addition to the genre of cyberpunk comes from the hand of Maielis González Fernández, who in 2015 won the Kovalivker prize for short narrative with her book Los días de la histeria, [The days of hysteria], a story in two parts that recalls Orwell’s 1984, but turns out to be a metaphor about the excesses of technology manipulated for political ends.

In 2016, Maielis published, under the Spanish imprint Guantanamera, her book of short stories Sobre los nerds y otras criaturas mitológicas [On nerds and other mythological creatures] with characters who belong to that bestiary of humans marked by technology, videogames, self-isolation and the militancy of so many young urban gangs.  The Havana of today is recognizable, but from a myopic and cybernetic view, perhaps due to the glasses broken and fastened together with tape, distinctively nerdy, that give it a feeling of peculiarity and convert it into a far-away and extravagant city.

It would appear that Cuban cyberpunk, as well as its variants and subgenres, are making way for new hybridizations and stylistic experiments, and I think that very soon these authors and books, along with their interesting propositions, will come to be well known, and not only in Cuba. I only hope that literary journals (and not just online ones) will discuss this phenomenon - that is all I ask.

Translated by Sarah Warmker

 

1 “When cyberpunk entered Cuba, at any rate, it was recharged with historical perspective and ideology-an ideology that embraces some of the values of the bourgeois individual who faces the oppression of the imposed norms of socialist realism, but who also shares the fear of multinationals taking over Cuba and draining away the wealth of the country.” Toledano-Redondo, Juan C. “From Socialist Realism to Anarchist-Capitalism: Cuban Cyberpunk”. Science Fiction Studies 96, Volume 32, Part 2, July 2005, pp. 448.

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LALT No. 5
Number 5

LALT No. 5 features powerful literary voices from across Latin America, including dossiers of essential writers Sergio Pitol and Victoria de Stefano, a special selection of Latin American chronicles curated by Felipe Restrepo Pombo, and a moving collection of trilingual poems by Mapuche poet Liliana Ancalao.

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