Yoss, Condomnauts (Restless Books, 2018, 176pp, £13.99)
Reviewed by Samuel Ginsburg (University of Texas, Austin)
The climax of Yoss’s Condomnauts features three ‘contact specialists’ tasked with having sex with a giant alien cockroach, in an attempt to forge a military and trade alliance with the extra-galactic race. The first, a Cuban and former child sex worker, is overcome by fear and collapses. Next, the German-engineered and nanobot-filled cyborg malfunctions as he attempts to replicate the alien’s physiology. Finally, the novel’s Cuban protagonist Josué, reminded of the albino roach he used to race in the streets of a post-nuclear Havana, performs his duty without hesitation, becomes an intergalactic hero, and finally gains full Catalan citizenship.
With Yoss’s patented stream-of-consciousness narration and a happy disregard for any reader’s squeamishness, Condomnauts successfully shocks its audience to the point that the above scene barely registers as out of the ordinary. Josué’s escapades double as the story of a Cuban immigrant trying to find his footing in a foreign land, in this case a terraformed space station called Nu Barsa. As in his other stories, Yoss’s humour shines through, giving the book an irreverent tone that counterbalances the hyper-detailed sex scenes, establishing a final product that reads like a strange hybrid between the original Star Trek, Octavia Butler’s Lillith’s Brood (1987-9) and Angélica Gorodischer’s Trafalgar (1984).
By focusing on intimate relationships as the basis for trade and accumulation, the novel asks important questions about the future of sex work and sex workers. Josué sees his skills as a ‘condomnaut’ as his only path to legitimacy, though most of his colleagues are natural-born Catalans. Possibly due to Cuba’s complicated history of prostitution and sex tourism, other Cuban sf authors and filmmakers, such as Jorge Enrique Lage, Maielis González Fernández, Erik Flores Taylor and Elena Palacio Ramé, also speculate on the future of sex work. The alien sex in Yoss’s book attempts to break down structures of gender and sexuality, proposing a more fluid and open sexual future.
Throughout the novel, Josué is open and willing to have sex with entities of all different species and genders. Still, what remains memorable in the end are the structures of inequality, even in this distant future. Though the condomnauts are well compensated for their work, state entities trading vulnerable bodies for business deals highlights the power that imperialistic and extractive capitalism maintains in this worldview. The individual sexual relationships and reactions to them also show a surprising amount of body shaming. Josué, who nonchalantly recounts rendezvous with mermaids, giant worms and amorphous blobs, is repulsed by the idea of an obese human condomnaut performing his duties. Even when delving into Josué’s childhood sexual trauma, the reader learns that the protagonist’s emotional scars come not from being forced into relations at such a young age, but from the fact that the woman he was with was overweight. The Cuban’s disgust and fatphobia, juxtaposed with his eagerness to penetrate a giant cockroach, could offset much of the novel’s supposed positivity towards sex. In a text that clearly attempts to push the limits of sexual taboo, it is sometimes difficult to see the line between voyeurism and social commentary. Some of the novel’s taboo-breaking will make the reader question if what they are reading is a dynamic queering of physical relationships or the mere fulfillment of abject male fantasies. With the rest of Yoss’s work in mind, it is easy to believe that the author is perfectly fine with leaving this question unanswered.
Beyond the sexual relationships recounted in detail in the book, Condomnauts proposes a set of values that digresses from many traditional space opera tropes. Though the exchanges between species and nations are primarily made for the acquisition of engines that facilitate long-distance space travel, weaponry and military dominance are not necessarily the ultimate goal. As the last few contact scenes suggest, the most important currencies in this intergalactic economy are language and DNA. Despite being in possession of an incredible quantity of precious metals, Josué is only able to make an important deal by promising rival aliens a translation device and a sample human genetic material. This sparks a conversation about what will be valued and commodified in the future. How is language affected when it becomes not only instantly translatable but also a tradable currency? Whose DNA will be bought or sold, and what rights or responsibilities are left once one gives up their genes? As far-off extrapolations of current translation software and genetic modification projects, Yoss’s novel speculates on the potential intertwining of these particular technological advances with large-scale economic interests.
David Frye’s translation of Condomnauts impressively remains faithful to the original text, even in its wackiest moments. As difficult as it may be to transfer humour between languages, Frye manages to smoothly recreate Yoss’s dry wit and amusing digressions. Other than a peculiar switch from the original’s rugby references to American football in the English version, the translator largely remains unnoticed, a major accomplishment for anyone taking on such a bizarre text, though not surprising for one as accomplished as Frye.
The project of translating and publishing Yoss’s novels is a great sign for the future of Cuban science fiction, as the author has not only earned his acclaim within and outside of the island, but has also used his fame to support up-and-coming authors through his work on anthologies, congresses and workshops. There should be hope that the success of these translations will lead to a wider attention to and dissemination of the already impressive but ever-growing community of science fiction writers from Cuba.