Wednesday, September 9, 2015

A Planet for Rent by Yoss, translated by David Frye

A Planet for Rent
Yoss (José Miguel Sánchez)
Translated by David Frye (Spanish)
First published 2011, I read English language ebook 2014
266 pages,  hard science fiction, satire

Many thanks to Restless Books for providing a review copy of this novel. 

I first heard about the Cuban Science Fiction series from Restless Books sometime earlier this year (probably in this New York Times article). Immediately, I knew that I had to read and review them. Here is a chance to read international science fiction, my favorite genre, that had been completely off my radar. This book is the first I have read from the series, and it did not disappoint.

The novel tells several intertwined stories, featuring characters that are loosely related through mostly random events. Yoss does not bother to flesh out the connections between the characters, instead relying on the reader to figure that out for themselves. This trust in the reader's intelligence was quite refreshing, and it also made the satirical aspects of the story more apparent. It also made the ending harder to predict; for the first time in a long time, I was actually surprised by a book! This may have been because I was reading an ebook, which always makes it a bit more difficult for me to follow the story and pick up on clues.

The basic background is that aliens have *cough* invaded the earth, and taken complete control, forcing humans to be second-class citizens solely used for the purpose of bringing (mostly sexual) pleasure to the xenoid tourists. *cough* Sorry, I must be coming down with a cold or something. As I was saying, aliens have saved humanity by restoring the environment and bringing peace to the planet, making it a very safe place for tourists to visit.

In these circumstances, the (very reasonable) sole desire of humans is to get off the planet. This is difficult, to say the least. People have found many ways to go about it - if you are sexy enough, you might be picked by a xenoid as a "social worker" and taken home with them. If you have some sort of artistic or performing talent, you might be able to amuse them in some way. If you can come up with some completely unique scientific concept, maybe you can blackmail your way off. And if you have no skills that would be useful for the xenoids, you can always attempt an illegal spaceflight - if your pieced-together ship somehow manages to hold together, you just have to avoid the guard ships that want to shoot you down, and then the one-off jump to hyperspace using the engine you've made yourself. Even if you get away, there's no turning back. Since the Earth and humanity are classified as less-developed, bringing knowledge from outside of the planet is strictly prohibited. Anyone who leaves will not be able to come back without getting their memory erased. Not that they want to return, of course.

From this brief description, I'm sure you can see the way Yoss uses this alien framework to talk about Cuba's political situation. This is done in a way that is both obvious and extremely subtle - if you don't compare it with what you know about Cuba, it just seems like fantastic science fiction. If you do compare it, you can see that Yoss is making some sneaky political statements about the international community....  The satire is not so obvious that it disrupts the storytelling, which in my opinion makes it all the more powerful. It's only when you step back for a moment that the implications start to hit you.

The only complaint that I have is that I didn't particularly like the ending. Yoss tries to give it a bit of a happy ending, or at least one that can be thought of as hopeful. But I'm not sure how hopeful it is, when nothing changes and aliens continue to exploit the earth and humans. I'm sure that this hollow victory is part of the message he is trying to convey. But I might have liked it better if it had just ended on a depressing note! (Wow, I never thought I would say that.)

A Planet for Rent falls perfectly in the realm of "hard" science fiction: it is very much focused on technology and the relationship between aliens ("xenoids") and humans. In fact, this book evoked memories of such classics as Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles or Dan Simmons's Hyperion. Like Bradbury, Yoss creates beautiful descriptions of a society that is both like ours and unlike ours, filling in tiny details with a deft hand. But at times the events of the novel, in their visceral, hyper-real descriptions and the horror that they induce in the reader, reminded me of the best parts of Hyperion. Like the scenes from Hyperion, I cannot see the events of A Planet for Rent fading from my memory for a very long time.

This book was absolutely fantastic. I highly recommend it for anyone who likes to read science fiction. Go read it right now!

A Planet for Rent is available in the US from Amazon and indiebound, in the UK from Amazon and Hive, in India from Amazon, and worldwide from wordery and Book Depository

Further Reading: 

"Discovering Cuban Sci-Fi" by Ilan Stavans (how the publisher found these books!) (Boing Boing)

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