Utopias are by their very nature fantastical, presenting futures or presents achievable only in alternate realities. A utopia is occasionally something that occurs to humans; more frequently, utopias are created by humanity, often following some kind of struggle. This latter utopia is, at its heart, dialectical; it comes as no surprise, then, that utopias were part and parcel of communist ideology from the beginning. It is in Leninism and its inheritors that Marx’s sense of inevitability—what we might call utopia being something that occurs to us, the revolutionary’s desire to change the path of history, utopia being created by us—that utopian visions find a certain apotheosis.
From the West’s perspective, the denouement of all this was the fall of the USSR. But the word, which literally translates as unraveling or unknotting, means something different to the Soviet idealist: the weakening and eventual collapse of the Soviet Union was the end of that utopian dream; and at the very time when, after decades of stagnation, advancements in automation and productivity hinted at a near future in which it might be fulfilled. This is the context in which Cuban writer Agustín de Rojas wrote his canonical science fiction trilogy. Beginning with Espiral in 1982 and concluding with El año 200 (The Year 200, 1990), de Rojas writes of a future in which the showdown between capitalism and communism has been won by the communists.
Translated into English for the first time in 2016, The Year 200 is set two centuries after that communist victory. Technological advancements mean none need perform menial or subsistence labor, as force-field manipulation and nearly unlimited energy mean all needs, and nearly any wants, are easily met. What remains are three main classes of profession: environmental engineers (enviros), who shape the environments to render pleasing and meaningful experiences; emotional engineers (emos), who tailor the inner workings of these environments and the stories that populate them; and the psychosociologists, whose job is ensuring that citizens’ attitudes and mental health fall within desired social norms. The society created is a curious blend of hedonism and ennui: nearly anything that can be dreamed is possible, yet many lack a motive force to overcome their indolence. On the fringes of society are the “cybos”—transhumanists who have incorporated cybernetics into their biology to enhance their mental and physical capacities—and, on the other extreme, “primitives”—who reject all modern technology to live hunter-gatherer lifestyles in the restored wilds of the world.
The story begins from the perspective of a machine programmed to wait two centuries before burrowing to the surface. Its payload is the capitalist counterrevolution: the consciousnesses of leaders of the former Empire, and the top analysts and security personnel they need to support them. These consciousnesses are transferable, designed to take over host bodies. This disorienting, dehumanizing introduction is exacerbated by the novel’s first glimpses of its human characters, a boy and his mother: as soon as we begin to identify with them, de Rojas infects them and the counterrevolutionaries take over. These capitalists are obviously the enemy, and while the author presents them as facing a number of challenges and pitfalls and faults, we are never meant to empathize with any of them.
It is here that de Rojas’s utopia begins deliberately to crack, however, in pleasantly complex fashion. For we are not presented with heroes of the order; our protagonists make a late appearance, and they are not those who fight to uphold the social collective. They are Maya, the cybo, forced to live on an island by the population who fears her; and Alice, the capitalist agent who has been so abused by her masters that she seeks to work against them, and is as much an outsider as the cybo. Meanwhile, the “normal” characters we do see—the enviros, the emos, and the psychosociologists—are all unhappy; many are profoundly lonely.
The communist revolution succeeded, and human life is one of ease and pleasure, health and wealth. But in de Rojas’s vision these metrics are not enough; the very technology which provides this bounty is also what separates the population from each other. Writing before the rise of the internet, the author presciently predicts a future in which instantaneous communication serves to simultaneously make us more and less connected. Much has been written of late on the “rise of loneliness;” de Rojas saw the writing on the wall two-and-a-half decades ago. As a consequence, his characters are distanced, both physically by the “cybernetic brains” which control their homes and provide for their every need, and socially by the stagnation that has befallen their collective culture. It is only the primitives and the cybos who have any semblance of what may be termed a communal experience. This, then, is de Rojas’s implication: only in the relentless drive forward, or the leap into the far past, can we escape our own technological trap. This might seem too easy a dichotomy, but de Rojas doesn’t give us an easy choice here, either: the cybos share emotional experiences, deep down, but they operate on an inhuman level of rationality; the primitives, meanwhile, occupy a space that is easy to romanticize, but de Rojas instead presents the harsh, violent brutality of their existence in one particularly visceral struggle against an enraged bear.
What sets this novel apart from other visions of the future is precisely this narrative uncertainty: de Rojas is idealistic enough to posit a better life, but not so much that he doesn’t recognize its drawbacks (not least of which is that the population has been so conditioned by two centuries of conflict avoidance that they fail utterly at mounting a resistance against the counterrevolution). In that respect his work is reminiscent of the L. E. Modesitt, Jr. novel, Haze (2010), which presents a similarly socialist future. In that novel, as in this, the ecological balance is very carefully, even forcefully, managed, and sacrifices have to be made for the common good. Both novels rely on utilitarian principles, and neither overlooks the fact that minimizing suffering still means some people must suffer. This is perhaps the greatest point of de Rojas’s work: the clear-eyed recognition that there’s no such thing as a true utopia; there is no perfect future, and hard choices must always be made.
It is in service to this last point that we finally find our heroes late in the novel. Both Maya and Alice are willing to sacrifice themselves to end the counterrevolution—in marked contrast to the capitalist revolutionaries, who are quite content to sacrifice one another but always seek to preserve themselves above all else. It is noteworthy that both are female, and one named Maya. On the one hand, de Rojas’s capitalist females other than Alice are masculinized while the society at large that they invade is feminized; the stereotypically masculine drive toward competition is at the heart of the problem. Second, depending on de Rojas’s inspiration, Maya’s nomenclature is either indicative of a misunderstood but advanced culture that fell victim to its own environmental abuse, or the Sanskrit word meaning illusion. Both are applicable, for Maya is metonymous for her misunderstood, advanced class of cybos who are hyper-conscious of the impact humanity has on the planet, and her very identity is itself illusive: she infiltrates the counterrevolution by allowing herself to be captured, and then invades their minds telepathically to destroy them from the inside out. It's a fitting parallel for the capitalist plan which began the novel, and forces readers to consider who and what we can trust when our very senses may fall prey to technological manipulation.
So much for ideas. On the conceptual level, this novel is brilliant. In execution, however, it often fails to live up to its own promise. Large swathes of the novel occur in expository dialogue, much of which is unnecessary. The text is replete with such exchanges:
“And remain vigilant of your own emotional responses; they will surprise you.”
“If only I could anticipate some of these responses …”
“They are different in each person; the only thing you can do is be ready for them …”
Well, yes. Obviously. For such a lengthy novel (640 pages), the fact that we could easily lose ten to twenty percent of the dialogue without missing anything is unfortunate. In addition, de Rojas very consciously enhances the dialectical nature of his utopia by ending every chapter with a pseudo-test which seeks to engage readers on the themes of the novel. Here is part of one such exchange:
4. Do you think about the future?
5. Are you in the habit of evaluating your actions from the perspective of their subsequent effect?
This test will continue later. You may change your answers at any point.
Is de Rojas’s tongue planted firmly in cheek as he self-referentially undermines his art? There is a very fine line between this quiz being an earnest addition to the book and an ironic intrusion meant to displace and disorient readers. One hopes for the latter, but tonally it often feels like the former.
A final point of contention, and one which may not bother all readers: there is a very Bradbury-esque resonance in the language of the novel. I mean this both as a compliment and a critique: the former because of the complexity of ideas and amount of subtext; the latter because de Rojas’s style of writing is unnecessarily obfuscatory. As in many of Bradbury’s novels, I’m blown away by de Rojas’s concepts and hidden depths, but frustrated by writing that often gives the impression of trying too hard to impress. De Rojas seems to delight in adverbial phrases and multi-syllable adjectives which, coupled with an overabundance of exposition and the curious post-chapter quizzes, often makes the novel feel like too much: too many words to say too little; too much attention paid to the unimportant facets of characters we don’t care for and too little attention paid to the worldbuilding and characters for whom we do care; too much preaching to readers.
The ending is a pleasantly circular exercise in just desserts, as the counterrevolutionaries get a taste of their own medicine, but it is also quite literally a deus ex machina: Maya, the pseudo-machine, uses her godlike powers to telepathically take over the minds of the capitalists and causes them to kill themselves. This is partially set up by references to groups of telepathically linked space-farers in the solar system—the subject of de Rojas’s second novel, Una leyenda del futuro (A Legend of the Future, 1985)—and by a few oblique references to quantum gates for transportation of matter, but for a book that takes such great pains to spell out the motivations and thought processes of even minor characters, the fact that these pivotal devices are largely murky and not connected to the character who employs them is a peculiar oversight.
Overall, the book affords an interesting insight into an alternate future rarely glimpsed in the speculative fiction of the West. This translation appears at a timely moment, too, for the body-swapping capitalists and transhuman cybos present sober, complex portrayals of gender fluidity that are still under-represented in fiction. The novel also offers an honest and stark vision of resurgent extremes on right and left, and questions, as more and more of us are beginning to do, whether a new model for society is needed—or is even possible. Readers willing to work through unnecessary dialogue and explanation—and willing to accept an occasionally pedantic and tedious read—will be well rewarded for their effort by a refreshing twist on utopian fiction that questions our basic assumptions about technology and the roles we play in our dominant socio-economic order.