In 1990 and 1991 respectively, the following two books were published: The Year 200 by Agustin De Rojas, and Los Gusanos by John Sayles. The former was only available in Spanish, and the latter failed to make the impact that it might have made had it been published today. Every book has its fate.
Now, The Year 200 is about to be available in English, and I recently found Los Gusanos in the bowels of a garage sale in Buena Vista. Both books are remarkable epics, and both are indispensable when it comes to understanding the connections between Miami and Cuba.
Although The Year 200 is not about Cuba, its author, De Rojas, was Cuban. Moreover, he is known as the “patron saint of Cuban science fiction.” Nobody told me. The novel’s vast setting is this: a post-communist world where all past calendars have been erased — and mostly all of the universe’s futuristic machinery either floats or is transparent. Think A Wrinkle in Time.
It’s interesting to note that De Rojas believed that Fidel Castro did not exist. Hence, the symbolism of see-through things. Take for instance this passage from the book: “Alice finally stood up straight. She rubbed her face and eyes, trying to get a proper view of the building in front of her: air, light, and transparent walls rising in gentle curves up to the sky; inside, irregular patches of calm colors creating an enigmatic design.”
In The Year 200, all thought is relegated to humanlike robots, and all the planets are united in support of this hierarchy. Naturally, a few talented go-getters, called “The Three” (the main one is Alice) aim to save humanity from extinction by harnessing their powers of telepathy. Their enemies are a group called Hydra, who have been in power for the first two hundred years of the “Era of Humanity.”
It’s rare for science fiction to merge scientific and emotional accuracy. De Rojas was influenced by Bradbury and Asimov, but I find some of the first-person voicing to be sort of like Dostoevsky in Notes From the Underground. However, on the sci-fi level, none of the tropes are especially new. If anything, they’re like the books I read as a kid. There is a big theme of body hijacking, which is what would often happen in Animorphs.
Finally, there is a lightness to the prose in The Year 200. It’s in the tone and syntax. There are so many parentheticals and ellipses that the paragraphs seem like they might fall apart. But they don’t. They remain small, fluid, and steady throughout the novel’s deceptively fast 640 pages.
On the other hand, Sayles' Los Gusanos is fast, too, but with very dark undertones that cause you to pause; flowing beneath long, panoramic paragraphs. Reading it is like riding the Metro Rail in the middle of the night: It’s not about the future but about the present, which can be gritty and hopeless.
Despite the word “gusanos” translating to English as “worms,” Los Gusanos is not really about worms. But rather, it's about Cuba and Miami in 1981. It's about the historic days when all we had was South Beach and Calle Ocho. The main character is a woman named Marta who seeks to avenge the deaths of her brothers. In order to do so, she must navigate allegiances and bridge gaps between Cuban culture old and new, between Catholicism and commercialism. I imagine her like Joan of Arc.
“Marta didn’t cry at the burying or at the Mass later for Ambrosio and the others," states a passage from the book. "Some praised her strength and some were a little frightened by her. It was that day that she knew her eyes could see into men’s souls.”
The narrative of Los Gusanos anchors itself in our city through persistent verisimilitude. For instance, Miamians will recognize references to landmarks such as the Café Versailles, Flagler Street, and Joe’s Stone Crab, all of which recur as settings in the novel.
Because of its authenticity, reading Sayles' novel will make you a bit world-weary. The amount of sex and shock-violence is as unwavering as the blue color scheme on your Facebook page. And yet, the author manages to salvage a plurality of humor, tenderness, and poetry. At 473 pages, it doesn’t sell you short.
Both Los Gusanos and The Year 200 transcend their respective genres. Neither one is simply sci-fi or pulp fiction. And they are both very Cuban.
The Year 200 will be available for mass consumption in July, and Los Gusanos might be available at your local garage sale.