Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A Legend of the Future by Agustín de Rojas, translated by Nick Caistor

A Legend of the Future
Agustín de Rojas
Translated by Nick Caistor (Spanish)
Original published 1985, I read ebook of 2014 translation
227 pages, hard science fiction

Many thanks to Restless Books for providing a review copy of this novel, part of their Cuban Science Fiction series. 

A tight-knit crew of six cosmonauts has embarked on the cutting-edge ship Sviagator. Their mission: explore Titan, one of the moons of Saturn, and return the experimental ship safely to Earth. When disaster strikes, only three crewmembers survive: Isanusi, the captain, who is physically incapacitated; Thondup, an engineer and psycho-sociologist, who is emotionally fragile after the death of his partner Alix; and Gema, a physiologist whose conditioning has been activated so now she has all the skills of a computer. All three of them are dying, some more quickly than others. Now they need to figure out how to return the ship to Earth, without autopilot and without any of them being able to survive the three months required to make the trip.

Philosophy, politics, psycho-sociology

This book involves a lot of sitting around talking. Granted, due to their assorted physical disabilities there’s not much else the crew can do at this point, but it struck me as incredibly wordy. This sometimes passed into being really boring. There are a few themes that keep appearing, and which provide the majority of the plot:

First, the novel explicitly touches on the philosophical question of man vs. machine. Even though Thondup activated Gema’s conditioning, he doesn’t approve of it; he believes she has been made into a computer. Isanusi does not agree. Gema spends much of her time trying to combine her new personality with pieces of the old one, but the question still remains about whether she is actually a human being anymore. If you read a lot of science fiction (particularly older works), this is nothing that you haven't seen before.

Second, much discussion is devoted to the political situation and living conditions in the Communist Federation, in comparison with the (Capitalist) Empire. In essence, this is an utterly transparent discussion of the merits of Communism as compared to the horrendous, downtrodden lives that people have under Capitalism. What was most interesting, to me at least, was comparing de Rojas's critique of Capitalist society and idyllic vision of Communist society with those featured in American sci-fi novels. Amusingly, both sides of the Cold War think pretty much the same thing: their side is made up of the good guys, who promote free expression and living a fulfilling life; the other side is evil, preventing free expression, manipulating and abusing people, and keep people under the power of the state/ruling class. Good to know that both sides had the same idea of an ideal society!

Third, much of the novel deals with “psycho-sociology,” or the psychology of groups of people. The crew of the Sviagator was picked based on how well they can work as a team; to put it another way, how they can form a stable society with a minimum number of people. De Rojas seems to be very interested in how people can cope with psychologically stressful situations. He presents several solutions, in the guise of advanced psychological training: self-induced trance, neurological stabilizers, human interaction, intense self-control. Ironically, however, the novel is lacking in real displays or feelings of emotion. It seemed to me that emotion was being studied through a microscope, without being allowed to seep through to the reader. Most of the discussion of psychology is just that, discussion. This may be partially because the novel is mainly told through Gema’s newly detached perspective, but I was surprised to see an emotionally distant book that was this concerned about psychology.

Hard science fiction

This novel reminds me of Asimov’s early work – very analytical, just stating the facts without getting emotionally involved. One thing that I very much appreciated was the diversity of the main characters: they come from many different backgrounds and countries (as evidenced by their names), and fully 50% of the crew are women (although only 1/3 of the survivors are, and she is turned into a computer...). The captain of the ship, Isanusi, is even Black. This diversity makes no difference in the plot, and is not even remarked upon by any of the characters; it’s assumed to be normal. While there is ethnic, racial and gender diversity, sexual orientation is not even a question: the six crewmembers are nicely matched into three heterosexual couples.

This is definitely a hard science fiction novel. The level of technobabble makes some episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation seem understandable in comparison. While the ideas themselves are (somewhat) interesting, I thought they could have been presented in a better way.

If you like science fiction, this novel may be worth your time for its discussion of philosophy, especially the analysis of Communism and Capitalism. However, I much preferred the other novel in this Cuban Science Fiction series, which more than makes up for the dryness of this text.

Further Reading: 

"Cosmic Communism: Soviet Science Fiction on Film" by Robert Barry (The Quietus)

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