When did you get the idea of imagining a world in which the Russians won the Cold War?
A long time ago I was thinking of a hypothetical society that would correspond with the aesthetics of Cyberpunk but that wouldn’t carry the almost Baroque burden of neon, Japanese corporations and yakusas. I wanted to do something different and at the same time something I identified with. And I thought, “If the Cyberpunk movement emerges as Utopia counter to capitalism, I, being Cuban, am forced to make a dystopia of socialism. Oh, and it can’t seem like 1984.” Then the idea occurred to me of a dystopic Soviet society, a “mega-Special-Period” and a Havana-Cyberpunk. Right now I can’t imagine a Havana with another kind of anti-Utopia within the sub-genre. Nor did I have a neon corporate Havana. Mine was one with a dozen plants and Russian trucks. I consider just writing about things that have a benchmark I can identify with. I can’t write about an alternative NY or Tokyo. I simply can’t.
I've heard that in your case, unlike what one might imagine, before the novel you weren’t particularly interested in Russian culture and the history of Communism. Tell me a little more about what you had with the story of the former Soviet Union, that now will be the three part Havana Underguater.
The truth is I was never interested in the Soviet aesthetic or the Russian language, beyond enjoying (in some cases developing) the animated Eastern European cartoons. When I designed the universe of Habana Underguater I was thinking specifically about a mega-Special-Period. The old science fiction phrase, “what would have happened if...”, if when we broke relations with the Russians instead of twelve plants there were eighty plants. If instead of the old Russian cars, the Ladas 2106s, we had Lada Blizzards V8, and a crisis like the one we lamentably call The Special Period. This is basically Underguater. I couldn’t write it without knowing, at least, phrases in Russian, the makes of cars and trucks, technical data about Soviet weaponry, or the list of the first secretaries of the Communist Party. I had to do my homework and study a society, one that I lived in during my childhood, from another point of view.
As during the missile crisis, Cuba is once again the center of the world: an island divided by the guerrillas and ideologies, talk to me about that scenario.
It is always tempting to conceive of a story or novel that begins and ends with Cuba, despite the fact that the name Cuba never appears in the novel. I conceived the scene as an island divided into three powerful city-states: Autonomous Santiago, Santa Clara and Autonomous Havana. Havana is the center of the first trilogy because it is a chaotic place that works like any Cyberpunk. Urban guerrillas like the guerrillas of Fanguito. Religious organizations that do not work as such, but rather as a kind of organized crime. A hitman named Acer and hackers who "ride" on the Orishas -- Santeria deities -- on the Global Web (who control the Soviet States of Space, of course); that is Havana Underguater. A scene where several social and political fears (either a kind of Marxist-Leninist globalization or a cyclone destroys Old Havana and floods part of Central Havana and Vedado) are recreated, but all this is a justification to have our own cyberpunk far from Los Angeles or Tokyo. A Cyberpunk or techno thriller that every Cuban anywhere in the world can genuinely enjoy.
How do you see the development of science fiction in Cuba?
Science fiction in Cuba has survived thanks to a specific editorial policy, a matter of state policy or a group of writers who simply want to make art (or money). Cuban science fiction has survived because of its readers. For a enormous share of the people who read it, from Isaac Asimov to Robert Heinlein, and who consume audiovisual from The War of the Galaxys to the Night Patrol, from Aladar Mézga to Akira. There is a public eager to read science fiction and that’s why science fiction writers have not disappeared despite the different editorial policies or any kind of government support. As for talk of a development, that seems too strong a word for our science fiction has sinned, mostly by always being a copy or an echo of science fiction from other countries. I think that very few Cuban authors (as in the case of Michael Collins in the 1960s and ‘70s) are worried about making their own science fiction without having to mimic the North American, European, Russian or Japanese aesthetic models. Science fiction, in my opinion, has merely survived rather than thrived. I have confidence in a development of science fiction, for me as if it starts tomorrow, but I do not think we are now able to speak of that.
Have you received feedback from readers? How have they embraced the novel?
Those who have read it have told me that they liked it. As an author I can not be more pleased.
Why not be published Havana Underguater in Cuba? How do you feel after being censored, did it affect you? Or is it simply one possibility?
In all honesty the only attempt I made to publish it was sending a collection of short stories to a contest. The result was in part as I expected along with comments about how unacceptable what a "bleak" future is for our country. It was a possibility from the beginning but still, it affected me. I see science fictions as art and not politics. I am not going to tell anyone what the future should be like, and Soviet science fiction is there (published in Spanish for those who want to read it) to show how to create a “hopeful and politically correct" future, recreated in very bad novels (which does not include the Strugaski nor Lem). Nevertheless two stories have been published, one as part of a collection and one in an anthology. Clearly, they are stories that do not speak of the pilgrims going to the Holy Sepulcher of the Guerrilla in Autonomous Santa Clara. Anyway, I'm still writing and I do not care what the publishers or the officials say. I concentrate on making science fiction.
You are beginning the third part. Can you give us a preview?
I just finished the second part, which is an old dream of mine, to do a long novel. It is titled The Russians Themselves and focuses more on a description of the Yoruba elements and the Artificial Intelligence Dissidents in cyberspace. In this novel I delve more deeply into the politics of the Soviet States of Space and the Guevarist Church in Santa Clara. I had fun writing it, people who read it have the last word. Now I'm writing the first drafts of a third (I still have not published the second but I keep writing). I can not give you any preview because the idea is still in my head ... and well, it is a chaos of loose ideas. I run the risk of telling you something completely different from what I will later write. And this is not fair. You can buy the first book in Havana Underguater here
This is an excerpt to a version of the song, Epitaph for Vladimir Visotski by Karsmarski Jacek (Polish dissident songwriter), which includes Ciro Diaz in his latest album, The Blue Slug, that I listened to compulsively for at least two months, especially on the street with my mp3 inherited from a friend who now has an I-pod. (Download the lyrics here) (Download the recording and album cover here) The song (in summary, which runs about ten minutes) is about a desperate artist going through the circles of hell in search of an answer or death, and at the end of his journey there is only loneliness and the weight of the supreme power above himself. So I found myself at times catching the bus across Havana at 12 noon in August under the perennial sunshine and with the distressing feeling of not going anywhere, or arriving too late, or going for pleasure ... I feel that I have already arrived at the eighth enclosure (this is the finale of the song) where there is nothing, and I feel useless and empty, and I look at people without faith who walk along the street and who have so much fear that they no longer know they're afraid, and who have seen so many Roundtables and so many news broadcasts that they no longer know what belongs to reality or just to the TV screen. They cannot discern that they no longer believe, but cannot disbelieve either, and just move along past me not going anywhere.