Book Review: The Year 2002016-07-12
The Year 200 by Agustín de Rojas
Translated by Nick Caistor and Hebe Powell
Published July 12, 2016
There’s a reason that Agustín de Rojas is described as the grandfather of Cuban science fiction. I read all 500+ pages of The Year 200, in an excellent new English translation by Nick Caistor and Hebe Powell, in one awestruck weekend. Set in a future that I absorbed whole-heartedly, written in a racing prose that felt wholly original, this is a novel that only occasionally slows down for the inevitable world-building of the future-imaginary. The fact that I skipped over those few passages mattered hardly at all. The stakes were high, the plot twists were unexpected, and the vision was compelling. I couldn’t put it down.
The Year 200 is set in a utopia. The people of earth live comfortable lives managed by machines. Each home is controlled by an artificial intelligence who handles the residents’ material comforts. All information and the majority of governance is controlled by a central archive, also artificially intelligent. People work, primarily, in two professions: the management of human emotion, and the management of the natural world. People work hard, are responsible, are self-absorbed. Close, long-term relationships are considered unhealthy. Psychosociologists do their best to prevent it, but suicide is a permissible choice.
On the outskirts of the utopia are marginal communities. The primitives (bear with me), who live lives free of all machines, are a perhaps-uncalled-for throwback to Yevgeny Zamyatin. The Groups live extraterrestrially and are telepathic. The cybos, who also live elsewhere, are computationally enhanced. It is the presence of these marginal groups, the prejudices they awaken among normal folk, that suggest a crack in the utopian vision.
There’s always a crack in the utopian vision.
As is to be predicted, The Year 200 is a chisel set precisely in that crack. The hammer, less predictable, is a trio of power-hungry politicians who have travelled into the future in order to take control of human civilization. Two hundred years in the past, these politicians foresaw the end of the empire that they had built and the rise of the communist order. So they jumped ahead, but they foresaw wrong. The Year 200 is the story of their unravelling. It is the story of what happens when totalitarianism – as fascism, as communism – fails. It is about the other futures that rise up in their place.
The Year 200 has its weaknesses. The sexual violence is unnecessary. The primitivism is uncompelling. The motivations of the trio from the past are confusing: did they really think that the future would be so easy to dominate? That society would fit so neatly in the palm of their hands? Their plan is, essentially, impossible to execute.
The Year 200 works, though, on a higher plane: as a self-reflexive critique of the inevitability of our own futures; as a commentary on our own fears. In 1989, one year before the novel was first published, the Berlin Wall fell and the future changed before our eyes. Yet the fears we had then, of artificial intelligence, of environmental collapse, of sexual liberation, of genetic manipulation, have become more pronounced, and the future feels just as terrifying and just as inevitable. The wisdom of this novel lies in the possibility that these fears too may be smaller and more historically bounded than they appear.