Wednesday, January 11, 2017

SUPER EXTRA GRANDE, Cuban SF giant Yoss's hilarious, trenchant space opera

(translated by David Frye)
Restless Books
$15.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: “Intergalactic space travel meets outrageous, biting satire in Super Extra Grande…. Its author [Yoss] is one of the most celebrated—and controversial—Cuban writers of science fiction…. Reminiscent of Douglas Adams—but even more so, the satire of Rabelais and Swift.” —The Washington Post

In a distant future in which Latin Americans have pioneered faster-than-light space travel, Dr. Jan Amos Sangan Dongo has a job with large and unusual responsibilities: he’s a veterinarian who specializes in treating enormous alien animals. Mountain-sized amoebas, multisex species with bizarre reproductive processes, razor-nailed, carnivorous humanoid hunters: Dr. Sangan has seen it all. When a colonial conflict threatens the fragile peace between the galaxy’s seven intelligent species, he must embark on a daring mission through the insides of a gigantic creature and find two swallowed ambassadors—who also happen to be his competing love interests.

Funny, witty, raunchy, and irrepressibly vivacious, Super Extra Grande is a rare specimen in the richly parodic tradition of Cuban science fiction, and could only have been written by a Cuban heavy-metal rock star with a biology degree: the inimitable Yoss.

My Review: Page one, first paragraph:
"Boss Sangan, sludge al frente and a la derecha, ten centímetros knee," Narbuck peevishly announces through my earbuds.

His voice reminds me unpleasantly of a screechy old machine in need of lube job. But that's not the worst of it. Worst is, he seems to go out of his way to mangle the grammar and syntax of the Spanglish language, stubbornly dropping prepositions and mutilating verbs like he's doing a bad impression of a native in a third-rate holoseries.
That's all you need to know to determine of this is a read for you. If this grates or fails to strike an agreeable note, go away now, because it's not gonna change and I like it, so I'll be quoting more of it.

Okay, all ashore who's goin' ashore? Bueno. Andemos al ruedo.

I'm tempted to make a stab at writing this review in Spanglish just because it would be fun and would make me feel all cool and stuff. Then I realized that old white men, even ones with a decent command of Spanish, don't get to have that kind of fun. Then I realized that showing off really is a major hoot and fuck all the haters. They're gonna hate anyway, so....

Nope. Can't. #ReadingIsResistance all right, but the thing I need to resist is being the center of attention when this book is rightfully the star of this show. Yoss wrote this story seven years ago and is probably hazy, after all this time and all his intervening books, on exactly what he wrote and why. What he wrote is a comedic space opera set in a future where the González Drive, invented by an Ecuadorian Catholic priest who won two Nobel Prizes—Physics, Mathematics—for it, gave humanity unfettered access to the galaxy. Once out there, humanity discovered that one species made it out before us, and then five more followed in short order because that's how probability would arrange it, all the technologically capable species figuring the solution to the problem of how to run away from home around the same time.

That's enough right there for me to fall in love. Then add in the copious word-play, the multilingual puns, the rampant sexism, the unambiguous human male bisexual experiences, the interspecies communication in Spanglish because it's so much easier than trying to teach dimwitted Earthlings any one of the other species' languages (not to mention the hydrogen-breathing species' telepathy, a whole different level of impossible to teach), the narrator named Jan Amos Sangan Dongo (hint: if you speak any Spanish at all, if you know any Cubans, wear a lifter's belt while reading this book or your diaphragm will hurt like sixty tomorrow). I read the book in one uproarious sitting. It's like the slightly high, vaguely tipsy conversation you had with your Hispanic crush-object back in college. (Y'all had one of those, right?)
First Premise: Garden planet with oxygen atmosphere, relatively nonaggressive fauna, and exuberant flora, third from a type G2 yellow dwarf star; that is, very similar to the humans' Sun. A tempting nugget for any colony scheme.

Second Premise: Planetary system on the border between the human and Cetian zones. Humans name the promising planet Canaan. Cetians call it Urgh-Yhaly-Mhan, which in the language of the Goddess means "we deserve this because we are who we are."

Third Premise: Both species are highly expansionistic and will not hesitate to turn to violence if they think it necessary to support and/or safeguard their interests.

Conclusion: To avoid sparking a large-scale armed conflict, in the years following the First Battle of Canaan (a minor skirmish that left thousands of casualties on both sides), neither race risks settling the tempting border world. They sign a solemn treaty sanctioning this unstable but reassuring equilibrium. A tiny joint garrison of troops from both species will oversee compliance.
Some points: First, the Cetians are not, as you're saying it in your head, SEE-shuns. They're SETTEE-uns, beings from a planet around Tau Ceti. Second, Jan Sangan (chuckle) is a biological veterinarian specializing in the biggest of the big creatures around the galaxy. He's almost eight feet tall and very strong. You gettin' the vibe for why this is Super Extra Grande? He's a graduate of the Anima Mundi (Animal Planet, get it?) University for Biological Sciences where he had to study logic, hence the syllogistic format. Up to speed? Okay:
First Premise: Far, far from Canaan, the grassland planet Olduvaila, a First Wave human colony world, has barely eight-tenths the gravity of Earth. Its inhabitants, descendants of the Maasai people, average seven feet in height as adults and specialize in cattle ranching.

Second Premise: Bwana, a gas giant approximately the size of Saturn and the fourth planet in the same system, passes near Olduvaila every fourteen years, and with each pass it overwhelms the colonial world's weaker gravity and captures a bit more of its atmosphere. This process has been going on for millions of years...but after two or three more passes, the declining density of the local atmosphere will leave it too thin for the humans and their herds to breathe. Already the air on Olduvaila is barely equivalent the atmosphere at an altitude of five thousand meters on Earth.

Third Premise: The Maasai, a cattle-herding African people from whom the human colonizers on Olduvaila are descended, have a strong warrior tradition and have never resigned themselves to being defeated by drought, famine, other natural disasters...or any enemy.

Conclusion: The warlike and desperate inhabitants of the dying planet Olduvaila are seeking another world where they can move. Urgently and en masse, no matter where it is and no matter whose bodies they have to step over to get there.
Some points: The wonderful planet name Canaan/"we deserve this because we are who we are" now meets the equally wonderful "Olduvai-la." The Maasai do indeed count the Olduvai Gorge in their territory. The Cradle of Humankind, Lucy's backyard. Planet Bwana, "master," is stealing the very air from the Africans. If there's a more amusing and apt way to handle an info-dump, I've yet to encounter it.

And on goes Yoss for four more syllogisms, outlining the course of a cracking good space opera replete with battleships and explosions and feats of derring-do! And not one bit of that happens! Well, there's a battleship, but it's the place where the telepathic hydrogen-breathing Juhungans have offered to host a diplomatic summit (shades of the Enterprise, eh what?) to avoid the looming interspecies war. Enter Jan Sangan (chuckle), Biological Veterinarian to the Super Extra Grande, because the negotiators are trapped on Brobdingnag (Swift is spinning about now) inside a two-hundred-kilometer living lake of protoplasm called Cosita. (The closest English equivalent I can come up with for this in its intended nickname use is the Southern American affectionate contronym "Little Bit.") Bonus: the negotiators are both former employees of his! Added extra bonus: they're both female and desirable! But wait, there's more: they're each in love with Jan Sangan (chuckle), quite famously and publicly, even though he fired them because he won't sleep with the help!

This kind of playful, gonzo storytelling always gets my vote for escapist reading. Yoss's jabs at the Arab-Israeli conflict, his not-very-veiled anti-imperialism, and his willingness to subvert every convention he can find even while embracing them is more than the sum of the parts. He makes it very clear that, bumbling fools though we be, humanity survives and thrives in all its messy, smelly, squabbly squalor because.

Yep. That period is exactly where I intended it to be. And the ending Yoss made for the story is exactly where he intended it to be. Resist cultural blindness, read a genre not your usual, like science fiction. Resist social conformism, read a Cuban rocker-cum-writer's book publicly, displaying the cover for all your fellow commuters to see and wonder about. Resist your natural urge towards despair as the world, as it ever does and ever will, descends into ever-deeper chaos: Yoss reminds us that humanity is a glorious, idiotic, hyperbolic mess.

Thank goodness.

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