It’s always interesting to see how science fiction writers put their own unique spins on stories of first contact between humanity and aliens. Take, for example, Condomnauts (paperback, Kindle), the sci-fi space opera by Yoss, who — in the following email interview that was translated from Spanish by Lily Seibert — explains how his story of first contact is, well, rather intimate.
Photo © Les éditiones Mnémos
To start, what is Condomnauts about?
In a few words and without spoiling anything, I could tell you about the life and adventures of Josué Valdes, a young, multiracial man from Cuba who works as a specialist in a Catalan space enclave of Nu Barsa. But this would be like trying to describe a dog by simply saying that it’s a mammal, quadruped, and carnivore, without talking about how he descends from a wolf, where his allegiances lie, and his many races.
The core premise of Condomnauts is that it develops in the 24th century, a future in which humankind has come into contact with hundreds of alien races who all must follow what’s called the Contact Protocol: when two ships with different species come together, in order to demonstrate peaceful intentions and the desire to conduct business together, a representative from each much have sex with the other.
Among humans, this circumstance has produced the emergence of a new profession: the condomnaut, or contact specialist. Becoming one involves more than simply intention. They require cold blood, the capacity to improvise, and a very strong stomach. They are well-paid professionals who train in specialized schools. Children who possess a certain disposition and aptitude for sexual experimentation train there, and what was once, and still is, considered a terrible and prohibited passion — sexual relationships between species — is now a well-respected talent.
Where did you get the idea for Condomnauts, and how different is the finished novel from that original idea?
I suppose that authors frequently don’t remember how their ideas come to them, or else they make them up. But, at least in this case, I remember very clearly how it all started. The idea emerged in November of 2008, during a fascinating conversation with two Venezuelan friends, Susana Sussmann and Roger Ávila, both authors of sci-fi and fantasy. We were talking about the distinct ways in which different cultures refer to those who explore space — astronauts to Westerners, cosmonauts to the Soviets, taikonauts to the Chinese — and the word “condomnauts” occurred to me. Roger and Susana found it very funny and I resolved to write a book that centered around this concept. I thought a little bit and it immediately became clear that it would have to do with sexuality — very profound, no? — and over the next few months I sketched it out.
I added some healthy irony about the Catalans, as I’ve spent 17 years sending short stories to compete in their UPC awards without getting more than a mention in 2003, while seeing as texts that, in my opinion, had less imagination and literary merit won the competition and the 6000 euros, I simply enhanced their national spirit and their desire to declare independence from Spain. I started writing, and when I finished it, I knew immediately that it wasn’t going to win: it was too critical of Catalanism. But I sent it all the same; it didn’t win.
Finally, the following year, 2010, I got a coveted award for another one of my books published with Restless Books, Super Extra Grande, and Condomnauts was published in Cuba in 2011 with the Editora Abril — who works with the Union of Young Communists of Cuba, to my surprise! — with a cover design and illustrations by Montos, one of the best artists on the island, and my friend Yasmin did me the honor of calling it “the first queer Cuban Science Fiction novel.” Now Restless has published it and I’m anxious to see how North American readers view it…because I couldn’t have written it without first reading authors like Joanna Russ, James Tiptree, Jr. — or Alice B. Sheldon, if you prefer her real name — Zenna Henderson, Ursula K. LeGuin, Pamela Sargent, Nalo Hopkinson, and Eleanor Arnason, who all took on the theme of divergent sexuality in science fiction. There’s also Venus Plus X by Theodore Sturgeon, and Strange Relations and Carne by Philip José Farmer, who all dare to push boundaries of what’s acceptable in the genre.
Condomnauts has been called a space opera. Is that how you see it, or do you think there’s another subgenre of sci-fi, or maybe a combination of them, that describe this novel better? Because it kind of sounds like it might have elements of erotica in it…
For me, the space opera is the most inclusive genre of sci-fi. Galactic empires, a multitude of races, plenty of stellar and galactic scenarios…and there you can set any story. Therefore, Condomnauts is effectively a space opera. But it’s also science fiction erotica, and at the same time science fiction comedy, and “science fiction ethnic,” because the protagonist isn’t named Harry or Rick or Dick nor is he Anglo-Saxon, nor European, nor part of the first world. I don’t really know, nor do I care very much, sincerely: as authors we write the books, and it’s up to the critics to classify them.
It also sounds like it might have a bit of humor as well.
Like I said, I’m very conscious of humor in my novels. It’s not a mistake or done by accident. Three of my idols in the science-fiction genre — Stanislaw Lem, Robert Sheckley, and Douglas Adams — have thoroughly demonstrated that the most serious of matters can be treated with laughs or smiles. And humor, I think, is an inseparable part of the idiosyncrasy of the Cuban people. We joke about everything and everybody, starting with ourselves; an attitude and talent that has greatly helped us survive challenging times.
So aside from those funny people, are there any authors, or specific stories, that had a particularly big impact on Condomnauts but not on your previous novels, Super Extra Grande and A Planet For Rent?
I was saving a pair of names to answer this question; the novel ¡Tierra!, by Stefano Benni, an absurd little gem; and all of the works of Cuban humorist and film director Eduardo del Llano Rodriguez, contemporary and friend of mine. If Super Extra Grande is a comedy, and Condomnauts is a farce, it’s mostly due to the two of them.
How about movies, TV shows, or video games? Did any of them have a big influence on Condomnauts?
I confess that I don’t dedicate a lot of time to video games, or else I couldn’t write. But my wife’s 13-year-old son, Alain, is a die-hard gamer; I call him “peripheral gambler” because at times it seems like, other than the mouse, keyboard, and other accessories, he’s part of the house computer. He spends so many hours connected. And I enjoy watching him play over his shoulder, and having him clarify any terms that I don’t understand; he speaks English almost as well as me because of it.
I could also cite a few influences in my novel: the game and later animated movie Ratchet & Clank, and the video games Spore, Stellaris, and Civilization, mostly for their amplitude of settings and races, above all.
There are certain themes that can be translated into songs, and others no. To me, Condomnautssimply seemed too long to sing.
[But] Tenaz unfortunately disintegrated in 2016 after thirteen years, for eight of which I was the lead vocalist. Though I haven’t ruled out returning to be part of a similar project in the future. You’re never too old for rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t know, if we had continued the band, if one day Condomnauts would have been converted into song. Perhaps in the next project rock project I’ll have a chance to explore it, who knows?
Now, Condomnauts was written in Spanish, and translated into English by David Frye, who also translatedSuper Extra Grande and A Planet For Rent. In that process, did David ever suggest any changes, something that would work better for English-reading audiences than Spanish-reading ones?
David always suggests changes in the translation, and I accept most of them; his comprehension of English is much, much superior to mine. I can’t remember all of them but, for example, the naciborg, the condomnaut with German origins who in the English version is named Kurt, was originally called Helmut in the Spanish version; there’s a whole passage in which I repeatedly make a play on words with “el yelmo de Helmut” that David thought was excessive. It made sense, as “Helmut’s helmet” in addition to being too alliterative was a bit monotonous.
A Restless editor also suggested various changes to make the novel a bit more “politically correct”: for example, to not be so derogatory when referring to Karlita, the overweight girl from Barrio Ripio, the marginal zone of CH — a very clear reference to Habana City — where the protagonist Josué Valdés was born and raised; he thought that morbidly obese people in North America would be offended. So what I did was increase Karlita’s bodyweight. If a person who weighs 220 pounds is offended to hear “fat piece of shit” directed at a person who weighs 440 pounds, will they still be offended if I say that Karlita weighs 660 pounds? This isn’t a bodyweight that most people consider to be common among people. And if this bothers anyone, send me your photo with your exact body weight in the margins and if it exceeds 660 pounds I’ll return the book with my autograph and apologies. But I didn’t want to get rid of the character or slim her down because someone felt called out. Literature can’t make everybody happy! And if a minority .01% of people feel attacked, that’s too bad for them. Lose weight, I guess. Obesity is a big problem in the United States, so I’ve heard.
It is. Anyway, as you know, a lot of sci-fi novels are not self-contained stories, but are parts of larger sagas. Is that the case with Condomnauts, is it the first book in a series, or is it a stand-alone novel?
I’ve written various sagas but Condomnauts is a stand-alone novel; I never considered turning it into a series nor did the story continue past this book. Although, of course, if HBO decided to film a series I could set my mind to creating new adventures for Josué Valdés. Little else stimulates the creativity of an author more than the promise of a check with several zeros. And the knowledge, also, that readers are anxious to follow the characters’ paths.
Finally, if someone’s enjoyed Condomnauts, what sexy sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?
I mentioned a few authors, but here are a few more: The Left Hand Of Darkness by Ursula K. Le LeGuin; The Female Man by Joanna Russ; Venus Plus X and Cuerpodivino by Theodore Sturgeon; Ring Of Swordsby Eleanor Arnason; Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson; Strange Relations, Carne, and The Lovers by Philip José Farmer. There’s also his Venus In The Shell, which is frankly pornographic.
And my novel Pluma de leon, pure erotic science fiction — which my mother says it’s disguised pornography with long philosophical discussions — was published in Spanish in Cuba and Spain, and I strongly hope that it will be the next choice of Restless Books and the next marvelous translation of my friend David Frye. One can dream, and in the meantime do a little bit of self-promotion, no?