Originally published in 2003, under the name Polvo, Yoss’ comedic sci-fi noir detective novel Red Dust (paperback, Kindle) is finally coming to the English-speaking part of the world, courtesy of Restless Books. In the following email interview — which had Spanish translation help from Jenna Tang — the Cuban-born author discusses what inspired and influenced this novel, as well as the new English language version of Miguel Collazo’s The Journey (Kindle), another classic of Cuban science fiction, for which Yoss wrote a new intro.
Photo Credit: © Les éditiones Mnémos
To begin, what is Red Dust about, and when and where is it set?
Red Dust is a story, so to speak, of police science fiction. It is located more or less in the same universe as A Planet For Rent, the first book I published with Restless…although there are certain differences when it comes to worldbuilding, and the events in Red Dust happen after those in A Planet For Rent.
The protagonist, Raymond, although telling the story in first person perspective, is not a human, but a humanoid robot, something “vintage”: he wears a trench coat, uses a fedora hat, and admires Raymond Chandler. He’s one of the many positronic robots, or “pozzies” (“buratinos” or puppetry in Italian, very derogatory from humans). They don’t act according to The Three Laws Of Asimovian Robotics: they’re able to perform violent acts against humans, since they maintain the order at the huge space station William S. Burroughs, enclave of the Galactic Trade Association, the only hyperspace jumping-off point in the solar system orbiting Titan, Saturn’s moon, in a twenty-fourth century in which humanity is one of the minor races that comprise it.
So the whole story can also be considered a space opera, but it takes place in our solar system. Like James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse…although I wrote it a little earlier.
The plot begins when, against all odds, a Cetian criminal, Makrow 34, escapes when he is transferred to the Burroughs, destroying Raymond’s two colleagues, Zorro and Achilles. While analyzing the images, Raymond discovers the mysterious power that helped the Cetian defeat two robots that were stronger and faster than any human: the fugitive is a Gaussian. In other words, he has the psi ability to alter probabilities to his liking and deform the Gaussian bell curve at any given time.
So, in order to capture him and earn the secondname he longs for, Raymond decides to fight fire with fire and look for a human, a three-year prisoner in the Burroughs, the only Gaussian born on Earth in the last 150 years.
Although he refuses at first, old debts to settle with Giorgio Weekman, a trafficker complicit in the Cetian’s escape, end up convincing Vasily Fernández, alias El Fortunado, to collaborate with the police robot: in exchange for reducing his few remaining years in prison, he will help him catch Makrow 34…while wearing an explosive collar that the pozzie can activate whenever he wants. The idea of such a helper was suggested to Raymond by an old 20th century film, 48 Hours, with Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte playing a thief and a police officer who work together.
And, with these premises, it would already be an unforgivable spoiler to talk about the rest of the adventures in the novel. I’ll just say that there’s a visit to a space station in low orbit around the Earth, the Estrella Rom, built by piling up pieces of space junk, to see an old mutant friend of Vasily’s. Also the debt to pay with the Cetian, who gives them information about the possible whereabouts of the fugitive and his cronies; a combat in the asteroid belt between spaceships; and, logically, at the end, the huge and awaited confrontation on the Burroughs between the two Gaussians, Vasily and Makrow. When the second tries to escape to the galaxy through the hyperspace jumping point…
The press materials describe Red Dust as “a bitingly funny space-opera homage to Raymond Chandler.” Did you start out wanting to write a comedic noir sci-fi novel or did you start somewhere else and this is where you ended up?
Actually, I owe the original idea for this story to my colleague Vladimir Hernández. When I first visited his new house in Barcelona, in 2002, he proposed that we do it together. I’ve always been a fan of the noir or hard-boiled genre, especially from Chandler and detective Philip Marlowe, so I accepted without hesitation…I love those kinds of challenges.
Also, since my father, Pepe Sánchez, has always been crazy about the police and espionage genres, I felt like I owed him one of those novels, so I dedicate this book to him. He still says that among all my work, he prefers this novel.
Immediately, with the original idea from Vladimir about the positronic robot investigator with a fedora and a trench coat, I incorporated elements of my universe from A Planet For Rent, the subtopic of the Gaussians, and, guided by the film 48 Hours, I started writing as soon as I returned to Rome, where I lived at the time with my second wife, the cubana Nancy.
To begin with, the co-star, Vasily Fernández, is a clear nod from to my friend Vladimir Hernández: both have that combination of Russian names and Hispanic surnames that were so common in Cuba during the ’60s (Vladimir was born in 1966).
Having fun with this and other winks, in a matter of two weeks I had the first draft sent it to Vladimir…who told me that it wasn’t exactly what had in mind, but since at the time he didn’t have time to make the necessary corrections and changes, since he was engaged in his other work, I should consider the work 100% mine…so I was authorized to do what I liked with those almost 100 pages. So I submitted the novel to the UPC award for short science fiction the next year, in 2003, and it turned out that I was nominated. What’s more, I shared the roster with the would-be co-author Vladimir Hernández, for his cyberpunk novel Interface Dreams.
It was a truly tremendous experience to be together at the dinner offered by Polytechnic University Of Catalonia. And getting to meet Orson Scott Card in person, the guest of honor that year and our literary idol! Besides, for me, I also got to know Miquel Barceló, the organizer of the contest.
A curious fact: as I was writing it, I never noticed that the text also had plenty of comedy. It just came out that way: a robot tries to coldly analyze the events he’s involved in, and at the same time acts like his hard-boiled idols — a robot pretending to be a human who wants to be cool…like a robot! It offers enormous hilarious potential…and somehow subconsciously I decided to take advantage of it. Only when I finished it, on the first revision, I noticed that humorous bias, and felt very satisfied that it had slipped under the “serious adventure”…and then reinforced it a bit. Just a little, I swear.
Yes, in 2002 I had read the tetralogy (in five volumes) of Douglas Adams, whom I continue to admire deeply…but of course, I’ve yet to mention my contemporary favorite (we were both born in 1969) John Scalzi, whom I admire enormously with his saga Old Man’s War. I believe, actually, that he hadn’t even written it then…in 2002 he had only published Agent To The Stars…a novel, of course, that I read many years after having written Red Dust.
So, telepathic influence, above time and space? Why not? After all, we’re science fiction authors; we’re supposed to believe in things like that, no?
So then what writers or comedians do you see as having the biggest influence over the humorous aspects of Red Dust?
This answer probably will surprise you, because I was also surprised to realize, when you asked me: all of my humorous influences for Red Dust were Anglo-Saxons. Some British: First, Douglas Adams and his The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy saga. Second, Charles Chaplin’s movie The Great Dictator. And third, the work of that delightful group of television comedians, Monty Python. But I also have to point out two North American humorous science fiction authors: Harry Harrison, with his delicious parody Bill, The Galactic Hero; and Robert Sheckley, who in addition to collaborating in the saga of the clumsy legionnaire with two right hands, had very important work of his own, especially short stories.
Aside from those people, what other writers do you think had a big influence on Red Dust, but not on anything else you’ve written?
Obviously, my Cuban colleague Vladimir Hernández; in almost everything I wrote between the ’90s, when I met him, and 2005, there is a strong influence of his tastes and his style…let’s say we enjoyed a friendly literary rivalry. But to be more specific, I wrote Red Dust imagining all the time how he would have written it. Of course, it didn’t work. The evidence is that, when he read it, he didn’t like it and made changes that I would never have thought of. And I know that I’ll always thank him for mentioning it in the 2003 UPC. That is why I insist that the novel have the subtitle: “on an original idea of…”
Was Red Dust also influenced by any non-literary influences: movies, TV shows, or video games? You mentioned Monty Python, 48 Hours, and The Great Dictator already.
Obviously, audiovisual references are very important in this novel. To begin with, I cited the film 48 Hours by Walter Hill in 1982, which Vladimir and I still love, with its concept of a rude but honest policeman, a rogue thief with a good heart facing a criminal who’s only worse and worse. Then, John Huston’s 1941 film The Maltese Falcon, for its visual aesthetics.
I also think my passion for Japanese culture, especially for the samurais, is clear in Old Slovoban’s armor. There’s also something with the ship Nostromo in Ridley Scott’s film Alien, also Millennium Falcon from Star Wars, with the concept of Star Rom, the space station made of pieces from other ships. And the stellar combat scene between the asteroids owes a huge debt to the opening minutes of the 1998 film Lost In Space…one of the best cosmic battle films I’ve ever seen.
As you mentioned, Red Dust is about a robot detective. How often, when you’ve told people about Red Dust, has someone said, “Oh, so is it like Blade Runner?”
Would you believe me if I told you that none of my fans has ever said something like that to me? Perhaps because the replicants in Ridley Scott’s film, or in Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, are not actually robots but synthetic humans. And every time I tell someone a brief version of Red Dust‘s plot, I emphasize that Raymond is a robot who already knows he’s a robot, and he didn’t have a deep existential crisis. Who also knowingly looked somewhat ridiculous in those B-movie hard-boiled detective outfits.
And how often did they say, “Oh, so is it like the Ray Electromatic novels by Adam Christopher?”
They’ve never told me that either. However, to be honest, I haven’t read any of those novels. Living in Cuba, it’s not easy to keep up with what’s published in the English-speaking world. A good part of the books simply remain under our radar for decades…until they’re translated into Spanish or someone speaks fondly about the books and risks reading them in English.
Now, along with Red Dust, you also wrote the intro to the new version of Miguel Collazo’s The Journey. For someone who hasn’t read that book, what is it about?
Um, it’s difficult to say. It’s almost like if I ask you “What is The Bible about?” Because The Journey is a book about an enterprise that spans for several generations. But basically, I can say that it’s a chronicle about several descendants of humans, who are no longer entirely human, got stranded on the unfriendly planet Ambar. They arrived in spaceships or machines an indeterminate time ago and began to prepare for what at first seemed to be their return…to Earth? Perhaps, but soon it becomes clear that “the journey” is more than a spatial movement, it’s a complete social and spiritual transformation.
But there’s much more to it than that: it’s an esoteric, psychological, cryptic, mystical book, poetic science fiction bordering on fantasy, a metaphor about the dream of man and the epic of the Cuban Revolution…with its enlightened, its prophets, its traitors, its dictators, its failures, its apathetic, its house-changers and opportunists.
The Journey is, in short, the universe itself…whose force, in turn, changes the reader. I have read the novel at least 8 times…and each time I discover new values. Really, no exaggeration.
You kind of just answered this, but what was it about The Journey that made you want to write the intro?
I suppose that, from my previous answer, many could deduce that I am something like an unconditional fan of the novel, and that I consider it to be the supreme literary paradigm. But in reality it’s not like that, but the opposite: The Journey, rather, is precisely a type of science fiction that I could never write. I’m not very adept with subtexts, suggestions, nuances…precisely because of this I admire Collazo’s ability to handle them. It’s the difference between aesthetic taste and aesthetic judgement: It’s not the kind of science fiction that I like, but it doesn’t prevent me from appreciating its excellence.
On the other hand, Collazo’s first novel, El Libro fantástico de Oaj, which is totally different, a kind of parody of Ray Bradbury’sThe Martian Chronicles, but in which the Saturnians arrive in Havana in the 1950s, and many people don’t want to believe their presence. I personally like it more.
Since my adolescence I admired Miguel Collazo as an author capable of writing in various literary registers: vernacular Cuban humor! Mysticism! Not to mention his other science fiction works, such as Onoloria (fantastic, poetic) Estancias (poetic prose…unclassifiable), or La gorrita del papa (dirty realism). What a variety of literary themes, no? And that is exactly my paradigm as a writer: I write not only science fiction but also fantasy, realism, essay, criticism, and scientific dissertations…or at least I try.
I never met Miguel Collazo personally…but, like in Cuba, where people are so sociable (very hard to refrain from hugging and talking face to face, in this time of Coronavirus and quarantine) that those who don’t know, have heard of, or have ever encountered…it turns out that his widow, Xiomara, a famous puppeteer, was a friend of my mother, Zandra, who was an actress, since they were both young. And that in the ’90s, when I became one of the authors represented by the Latin American Literary Agency, one of the staff there was none other than the wife of Miguel Collazo’s son, whom I was able to meet. So I can say that I was always very close to them…in various ways.
Collazo, like you, was Cuban, and wrote science fiction. Is there some quality that you think defines Cuban sci-fi, something that sets it apart from, say, Italian sci-fi or Japanese sci-fi or Iranian sci-fi?
I think Cuban science fiction writers have the advantage of having drunk from both the classic Anglo-Saxon science fiction of Bradbury, Asimov, Clarke, Pohl, and others, from whom we learned bold ideas and the attractive treatment of characters and situations, and from the Soviet school of the genre: Iván Efremov, Alexander Beliaev, the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Sergei and Alexander Abramov (they were father and son), Iliá Varshavsky, Anatoli Dnieprov, Victor Kolupaiev, Vladimir Savchenko, Olga Larinova, Albert Valentinov, and a long etcetera almost unknown to English-language readers. Add to that “broth” our “creole seasoning”: the ingredients of the shot of humor, the parody, irreverence, self-irony or the ability to laugh at oneself, imitation, they all make up Cuban science fiction. It’s hard to imitate, as it’s mockery with a distinctive stamp, cheerfully third-world.
You mentioned earlier that Red Dust takes place after A Planet For Rent, but in the same universe. So then do you think people should read A Planet For Rent before they read Red Dust?
In my opinion, the public should read A Planet For Rent first and then Red Dust. If it were a TV series, it could be said that Dust is a spin-off of Rent: in the same universe, different characters and problems. And a few decades later, too.
In a similar vein, are you thinking that Red Dust will also be the first of many adventures for Raymond the robot detective? After all, Chandler wrote seven novels about detective Philip Marlowe.
Although it may be disappointing to some, I don’t think there will be any sequels to this story of Raymond, the robot detective. Why? I consider myself one of those lucky writers who enjoys the process of writing itself more than saying “I have written.” And a good part of the pleasure I get from that process is playing at being omniscient, creating a new universe, making a new world for almost every story. If it were up to me, Raymond’s story would never have been inserted into the universe of A Planet for Rent, but would have had its own world…but Vladimir liked it so much that he convinced me to “repeat myself.” And I must admit that he was right: I like the result.
But, in general, I’m not one of those authors who launches into sagas of several novels with the same setting. I think that until now, I’ve only done that three times…with the diptych Al final de la senda and El advenimiento (both are still unpublished in English): with A Planet For Rent and Red Dust; and, still in the works at the moment, although I already published the first one, Ingenieros y Jenízaros (only in Spanish, in Cuba) with a trilogy, of which I just finished the second one, La escuela del camino, and I’m already working at my desk to start the third, Proscritos y embajadores…
Outside of science fiction, I have another heroic fantasy trilogy, La Ciudad de Sal, of which I have already published (only in Cuba) the first book, El mercenario y el desierto. The second installment is about to appear, La ciudad y el torneo, and in a couple of months, I should at most finish the third and the final, El guerrero y el mago.
Anyway, you know…never say never. Who knows? Yeah, although I think it’s unlikely that Red Dust becomes a bestseller to the point of allowing me to buy a private jet or a house with a pool…I’m not saying that we can’t have more of Raymond’s adventures, which are already outside our solar system. With or without Vasily Fernández: a writer who owes his audience, after all. And his family, who also have to eat…
Finally, if someone enjoys Red Dust, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next and why that, and then, after that, which novel of Miguel Collazo’s would you suggest they read and why that?
I would recommend Super Extra Grande and Condomnauts, [click here to read my interview with Yoss about Condomnauts], both of which have been published in English by Restless Books, in excellent translations by David Frye. For Super Extra Grande, with his Spanglish, it satisfies me even more than my original version! They are novels full of Latin humor, of irreverence, also unconventional and markedly third-world space operas.
As for Miguel Collazo, of course, I would highly recommend the hilarious El libro fantástico de Oaj. This year, in fact, in the Ambar Collection, the one dedicated to fantasy and science fiction put out by the Cuban publishing house for children and young people, Gente Nueva, should have appeared in its second edition, with a prologue of mine…but with the Trump administration’s blockade and the shortage of paper almost paralyzing the Cuban editorial effort on the island, in this 2020…a pity, no?