Super Extra Grande (2012 – original Spanish, 2016 – English translation)
Written by: Yoss, translated by David Frye
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 160 (Paperback)
Publisher: Restless Books
Why I Chose It: When I read the back blurb for Super Extra Grande, I saw: “Cuban science-fiction master,” “playfulness and ingenuity of Douglas Adams,” “a distant future […] a veterinarian who specializes in treating enormous alien animals.” That’s right, sold.
In a distant future in which Latin Americans have pioneered faster-than-light space travel, Dr. Jan Amos Sangan Dongo has a job with large and unusual responsibilities: he’s a veterinarian who specializes in treating enormous alien animals. Mountain-sized amoebas, multisex species with bizarre reproductive processes, razor-nailed, carnivorous humanoid hunters: Dr. Sangan has seen it all. When a colonial conflict threatens the fragile peace between the galaxy’s seven intelligent species, he must embark on a daring mission through the insides of a gigantic creature and find two swallowed ambassadors — who also happen to be his competing love interests.
This review doesn’t contain spoilers
Discussion: There’s some aspects to this novella that I found seriously cool, one I thought was cool but wasn’t sure everyone else would, and one I found not-so-cool. Let me go through my reactions one by one.
When I look back on what I read, my favorite aspect (aka the super-cool thing in my mind) was that the narrator is a veterinarian for gigantic alien animals. We’re talking gigantic as in kilometers long, meteoroids are snacks, and dinosaurs are a tad small for his specialty. The opening pages of Super Extra Grande put us in the middle of one of Dr. Jan Sangan Dongo’s jobs where he’s literally wading in a ginormous creature’s colon. Obviously, this is not a glamorous job. Yet as the doctor explains how he came to specialize in it and what giants he’s treated and would like to treat one day, anyone who’s ever had a thought along the lines of “SCIENCE!” will feel a nerdy kinship with this vet. It was clear that because the narrator is a veterinarian, his worldview is colored by his fascination of biology. When he talks about himself, he has a scientific explanation of his own large frame, and when speaking of the seven intelligent species he often will relay tidbits on their reproduction, respiration, life cycles, diets, communication methods etc., with the air of a rambling scientist. Reading about this universe through this lens was delightful. When I look at the author’s bio, I see he has a biology degree, so that may explain this world building, but the science feels approachable. I got flashbacks high school biology (cells, reproductive cycles, and taxonomy), but you don’t need that background to get into the story.
The second super cool thing for me was that this is not a Eurocentric story. All over the cover (back and front) are blurbs reminding us that Yoss is a Cuban science fiction master, thank you very much. This is readily apparent throughout the story. Our narrator was born in a world originally settled by Cubans in “homemade spaceships, trying to enter Yumania illegally” and was born to parents of Cuban, Italian, Japanese, Amaterasu descent. The recipient of both the Physics and the Mathematics Nobel Prizes for proving faster-than-light travel is possible is an Ecuadorian Jesuit priest with the last name González. History books tell of the Ecuadorian government going into debt to run an experimental version of the “González Drive”, and the greatest “in your face” of all time is directed at “gringos” when it’s successful. Of course, the most obvious indication that this was written by a Cuban is that Spanglish, not English, is the common language used between the seven intelligent species.
I have a hard time predicting other people’s reactions to the Spanglish dialogue. Despite my crap grades in the subject, I can easily read and understand the text here (7 years of Spanish classes). What goes for “Spanglish” in books written for English-speaking audiences tends to be mostly English with one Spanish word thrown in, so I liked seeing a proper amalgamation of the two languages. I don’t think it’s that hard to follow, and readers can infer what a character is saying, so my opinion is that the translator (David Frye) did an excellent job. On the other hand, I’m not entirely sure if my background is blinding me to the difficultly for readers with no Spanish skills whatsoever. Here’s a sampling of what you can expect so you can judge for yourself:
“Olvídalo and keep your eyes en la imagen del radar. Ya debíamos haber encontrado the trinket. I’m getting cansado of this business.”
“Job es job,” Narbuk philosophized. “Que worth es, worth es well. Yo hope que el pago is generous, compensate very mucho dirty trajabo.”
“Te voy a dar some ‘very mucho dirty trabajo,’ you half-bit Kant. Keep your trap cerrada, or la próxima it’ll be you down the critter’s gullet,” I threaten jokingly (page 15).
That piece of dialogue is taken from about 5 pages into the story and represents what you can expect elsewhere (this is not a dialogue-heavy novella, but there’s enough). This also illustrates some of the back and forth the vet has with his assistant, Narbuk. Narbuk is his third assistant, what happened to the first two is eventually where this story takes us.
So. Now the part that was my least favorite bit. The narrator tells us he’s not a misogynist or racist. Then, in the course of explaining what happened to his previous assistants, he proceeds to make misogynist and racist statements all over the place. He tells us of Enti Kmusa, his first assistant, an “exotic” beauty, and “my black panther” (page 19). To counteract problems with Enti Kmusa and his clients, he hires An-Mhaly, a second assistant. An-Mhaly is a Cetian with three pairs of breasts, but Dr. Sangan assures us that he is not interested and “call me racist if you must…but the truth is […] I’ve always thought that calling Cetians “humanoids” stretches the meaning of the word too far” (page 22). Meanwhile her breasts are “plump,” “splendid,” and “on gloriously open display” (pages 21-22). Despite this sexist point of view, for some reason his assistants fall in love with our narrator, which he says is his own fault, for showing no interest in them:
I guess there’s some strange part of the female psychology that simply can’t stand being ignored by a male, interpreting is as a personal insult or a challenge they have to confront, come what may, whatever it takes (page 23).
It actually gets worse when he explains how Cetians reproduce, and uses that to explain that An-Mhaly has no value to him as a possible romantic partner. This was “super extra grande” infuriating to read, but I am not sure if the narrator’s huge flaws are a deliberate choice or not. We find out that his first assistant showed such “flagrant xenophobia” he considered firing her, and his third assistant “immediately admitted to being misogynistic.” Maybe the point of all of this is to show that we can figure out how to go to space, but good luck humans on stamping out prejudice and discrimination! This theory is enforced by the narrators final words, but if a comment on human prejudices was what the author was aiming for, it was too subtly done for my tastes and too easily misinterpreted.
Conclusion: Despite my issues with this narrator’s personal flaws, I’d recommend Super Extra Grande. The mix of “whoa that would be cool if that creature existed” mixed with situational awkwardness and science lessons makes for fun reading. If you’re someone who loves their science fiction with strong world building, this one is a good one to try out. As for the sexism and prejudices of the narrator, I can see this as a deliberate choice by the author, although I’m not sure it works entirely. I’m curious about how others who have read this felt about it.