BOOK REPORTS FOR ADULTS: “Super Extra Grande” by Yoss
Renowned author Emilie Buchwald once said, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” In our series Book Reports for Adults, we hope to make up for all those parents who turned on Seinfeld instead.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that…
Super Extra Grande by Yoss
Why you should read Super Extra Grande: It is a science-fiction book from Cuba. While that might not immediately grab the average reader, as modern Cuba hasn’t been the hotbed of either science or fiction, let alone science fiction, one of the more intriguing developments following the Cuban Thaw of 2014 has been the unique literary world that’s recently blossomed in the land where sci-fi and fantasy were banned for decades.
Or, if you’re simply one who enjoys an impeccably fleshed-out ‘galaxy of the future’ (including impeccably fleshed-out descriptions of weird alien mating styles), then this book is for you.
Book size: Short, with a caveat. Clocking in at a tidy 145 pages means one could read this book in a single day, but being that its conversational language is Spanglish (a hodgepodge of Spanish and English words/phrases), one’s progress may be hampered depending on their familiarity with the Spanish words and phrases used (i.e. how much you want to engage with Google Translator during your reading experience).
The Book Report, and What I Learned:
The Plot, Mostly Spoiler-Free:
A few thousand years in humanity’s future, Dr. Jan Sangan is a ‘veterinary biologist,’ whose specialization is the enigmatic gigantic fauna that populate the various planets of the Milky Way galaxy. However, he doesn’t glamorize his station in life (nor does he shy away from discussing his sexual life: “…even though I looked like a human-troll hybrid I had more sex than I ever dreamed of during those years”), as the story opens to find him boring through the rectal cavity of a Tsunami — a massive, two kilometer long sea worm — to find a piece of lost jewelry.
In fact, the first forty-four pages of Super Extra Grande are spent entirely in the bowels of the gigantic worm…
Nevertheless, through Dr. Sangan, we come to learn impressively cogent details about the time in which he lives, the various other alien races that populate the galaxy, and technological advancements such as the Gonzalez Drive (the propulsion device that allows for faster-than-light travel). Not to mention, the doctor’s varied interpersonal relationships, both professional and personal (i.e. sexual).
Then, right when one begins to wonder if there is an actual plot to the book or if you’re simply devouring Yoss’ clever and engaging galaxy-building, Dr. Sangan is called on a rescue mission he alone is qualified to make: Both of his previous assistants — while attempting to solve a tense repopulation settlement issue of the Massai people on the planet Canaan — have disappeared on the planet Bobdingang, and it is believed their ship may have been eaten by a Laketon; a giant, amoeba-like creature so massive that it is theorized to impact the rotation of Brobdingnag whenever it moves.
Dr. Sangan is the only person in the entire Milky Way galaxy qualified to attempt a rescue of his former employees…if he can find them.
Dr. Jan Sangan (né Jan Amos Sangan Dongo). The self-titled “Veterinarian to the Giants,” Sangan, our human narrator, stands a full 7’11” tall and proclaims himself to “…have the body of a troll. And a face not even a troll would touch.” He is obviously intelligent, yet at times both sexist and racist.
Narbuk (né Narbuk-Alr-Quamal-Tahlir-Norgai). Dr. Sangan’s current assistant and a Laggoru, a reptilian race with six hearts, retractable steel claws, and somewhere in the vicinity of six to eight genders. They are carnivorous, only eating what they kill themselves (though Narbuck is herself a zoophobic vegetarian), and lack the ability to lie or joke (so naturally, they’re a big hit at parties).
Enti Kmusa. Enti is a human female and a direct descendant of the Maasai people who was born on the planet Olduvaila. Tall and skinny with a shaved head and filed teeth, she was at one time an assistant of Dr. Sangan. Then she professed her love for him, and he fired her.
An-Mhaly. An-Mhaly is a Cetain, a creature with pupiless yellow eyes, skin that turns mauve when excited, a retractile spiny crest on top of her head, a three-forked tongue, and six large breasts. Tall and beautiful, she too was a previous assistant of Dr. Sangan, who also professed her love for him (within hours of Enti Kmusa doing the same thing). She was fired as well.
Other Species. For those keeping track at home, three species have been listed so far; but there are four more that make up “The Lucky Seven,” the seven galactic species of intelligent life that have achieved faster-than-light travel. In addition to Human, Laggoru and Ceitan, there are the Juhungan, Amphorian, Kerkant and Parimazos.
The Super Extra Grande. These are the fantastical, gigantic animals that populate Yoss’ galaxy and which are the focus of Dr. Sangan’s personal fascination (and his gainful employment). We see a variety of these alien animals throughout the book, from the aforementioned Tsunamis and Laketons, to a much smaller Grendel, a creature only twenty meters from claw to claw. A particularly spectacular specimen is the concholant: a living, silicon-based Dyson sphere, which wraps itself around asteroids and eats them.
The Themes and Ideas:
It’s a big world out there, but we can work together to explore it. Our protagonist is constantly reminding the reader that despite humanity’s previous status at the top of the food chain, that once lofty position has since eroded away. Fortunately, exploration is what everyone is focused on, and due to the massive scale of the galaxy, The Lucky Seven is forced by practicality to work together in relative harmony. Why fight each other over land disputes when you can just go find a new planet?
We are all just people. At the end of the day, every member of every species in Super Extra Grande is simply trying to get through the day, whether it’s attempting to fish a bracelet out of a giant sea worm or prevent an interspecies war from breaking out. Sometimes, we’re rebuffed for reaching out to someone and sharing our affections for them, like both of Dr. Sangan’s prior assistants. Other times, we just want to fight off a cat-sized parasite found inside a juggernaut on the planet Colassa. You know…people things.
And people can change. There’s a subtle undertone of sexism and racism at various points in Dr. Sangan’s early expositions (particularly when he is introducing the reader to his previous two assistants), an animosity and guilt in certain descriptions that fuel the kind of “I’m not ___ist, but” statements we all know too well#. By the end of the book, though, our protagonist has moved beyond these petty thoughts to embrace all his diverse galaxy has to offer, so much so that he admits “…to my own surprise, I’ve discovered that sometimes different is synonymous with interesting. That getting along and living in harmony takes more than tolerating difference. You have to go a little bit farther, you have to enjoy the diversity.”
Language as a way to communicate beyond what is written. Narbuk and Sangan talk in layers of language, eloquently depicted through the use of Spanglish, which require the reader to delve into the meanings of the words and phrases; giving them an extra merit and consideration than if they were simply presented in English. It also hints at the cultural state from which the author and his book originate, where sci-fi is used as a layering tool to express those concepts that would most likely be rejected, even unapproved, in any other format:
In Cuba…it is normal that if one deals directly with the most critical points of the ‘real world,’ the official response will be, in fact, intolerant: If one does not draw an optimistic panorama, one will be accused of being a defeatist, of siding with the enemy, etc. So Sci-Fi then becomes a code, not only to evade censorship, but also to try looking beyond the everyday.
Classic sci-fi tropes, used for a greater purpose.
Yoss employs many classic sci-fi hallmarks in the book, but the one that makes the whole book possible is the faster-than-light travel mechanism, the Gonzalez Drive. This device enables humanity to reach for the stars and make new friends. However, it also turns out to be the elemental reason Dr. Sangan is so damn tall (his parents, both respectable scientists in their fields, found that exposing children to an excessive amount of weightlessness caused a lengthening of the bone). Meanwhile, Spanglish’s glorious ascent to become the genre-favorite ‘unified language for all species’ is revealed to be no more than the humbling result of humans being so physically ill-equipped to speak the languages of the other alien species that said aliens have adopted Spanglish so we don’t make such a hash of theirs when we attempt to speak it.
According to Cuban science fiction writer Yoss, the galaxy of the future will be a wild place, where we each have our own niche to fill (regardless of species, race, or preternatural gigantism).
Part to Quote So People Will Think You’ve Read It:
Collaboration is by far the better policy. In the Milky Way, there’s more than enough room for everybody.
Side Effects of Reading Super Extra Grande May Include:
A yearning desire for more of the galaxy Yoss has created.
If you liked…
…Yoss’s writing style, read his only other book in English, A Planet For Rent, which consists of a series of interconnected stories that present a much bleaker picture of the future of humanity than the one presented in Super Extra Grande.
…Creative galaxy and worldbuilding, look no further than Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. Depicting the decline of humanity in the far future after it has reached itself out to the stars, this classic of science fiction should be required reading in every high school across the nation.
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