5 Questions With Cuba’s Celebrated Sci-Fi Writer (and Heavy Metal Singer) Yoss

José Miguel Sánchez collects Anime and swords in his home in Havana. Photo via Restless Books

The Cuban science fiction writer José Miguel Sánchez Gómez, who goes by the pen name Yoss, is one of the most invigorating voices in contemporary literature. Yoss is something of a rock star in his native Cuba—a “medieval-rocker” to let him tell it—who first gained attention in 1989 after he won the Cuban Premio David in the sci-fi category with his book Timshel. Now, after years of winning over Spanish-language readers, his work is finally being recognized in the United States and abroad. He’s been profiled by the New York Times and his work has received rave reviews from NPR and The Washington Post. His books Super Extra Grande and A Planet for Rent were both published in English by Restless Books.

Ironically, or perhaps, predictably, A Planet for Rent was never released in Cuba; its deep criticisms of the government have gained Yoss detractors as much as they have earned him admirers. In that book, a portrait of a dystopian future where aliens dubbed xenoids invade Earth, people scramble to escape a destitute and altogether bankrupt human civilization. The setting provides Yoss fertile ground to touch on issues like immigration and political corruption, all of it serving as a metaphor for the challenges of modern-day Cuba. But as the U.S. has taken historic steps to mend tensions with the island nation, interest in Yoss’s imaginative and deeply rich fiction is at an all-time high.

We caught up with Yoss as he is making his rounds in the U.S. and gearing up for the Miami Book Fair in November.

What is it about science fiction that makes it the perfect vehicle for your expression? Does it allow you to arrive at ideas that other genres might not permit?
To me, science fiction is like a mirror: you put your characters in the future, or in the tomorrow, in order to better understand today. And when I say tomorrow I mean even the “what-ifs,” and the “what-might-be’s.” Sci-fi is the literature of consequences, it allows you to evaluate the changes that our actions can bring about. And, in a time where things like science, technology, and even society are growing increasingly faster, sometimes I believe sci-fi is the only kind of narrative that can accurately describe the strangeness of the present. When you write a realistic novel, it becomes a historical novel the moment it gets published.

Some of your stories read like smoke signals, like you’re sending out warning signs in hopes that people will listen and take heed. Would you say this is true? And do you feel a kind of responsibility to alert people about possible doom or destruction?
Of course. I mean, usually when people think of sci-fi writers, they think of people who are pessimistic about life. But when we speak about things like an asteroid crashing into our planet, alien invasions, or other kinds of disasters, there’s more to it. This kind of literature is our way of telling people what we can avoid, so that certain things don’t come true. In an ideal world, that is the role of every writer and intellectual—but not enough of us are preoccupied with tomorrow. To them, the present leaves enough for us to worry about.

One of the things that really stands out in both ‘A Planet for Rent’ and ‘Super Extra Grande’ is how funny they can be. And that’s something that I also love about the work of sci-fi authors like Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Humor can be a great tool and literary device in sci-fi.
Yes, and I love the work of the Strugatsky brothers, too—and others like Douglas Adams and Robert Sheckley. In sci-fi, humor is often the best way of getting peoples’ attention without boring or scaring them away. Cubans are naturally very funny, but sometimes our humor can also come across a little dark, even macabre.

Photo by Juan Carlos Alom.
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Besides being a novelist, you’re also the lead singer and play harmonica in the metal band Tenaz. Do you see both art forms as performance art?
My band plays classic heavy metal. The main advantage of singing over writing is the instantaneous feedback you get from the crowd. When you’re on stage, it’s easy to understand what songs people like and what they dislike. Singing is a kind of form that also improves my performance as a writer. It teaches me a lot about self-confidence in front of the lights and cameras. Sci-fi and metal are both traditionally considered non-conventional, experimental even. But not “high culture.” I like that, and I like challenging impressions in both.

It’s evident that you have a wild and vivid imagination. Tell me two truths and a lie.
Hey, I like that question.

Truth: The Cuban government doesn’t really desire the end of the USA embargo. It’s just the best alibi for the great inefficiency of our economy, and our entire society.

Truth: The future of mankind is in space. Day by day, our planet is becoming smaller and more overpopulated. In time, we won’t have enough water and food for all the people. We need mars and other planets… and, in a few hundred years, even other stars.

Lie: This November, Donald Trump will become the USA’s president, and just months after that he will put an end to the Cuban Adjustment Law and the embargo. One year later, he will begin the construction of a giant tunnel under the sea, connecting Miami and Havana.