Review by Sophie Develyn
Yuri Herrera (translated by Lisa Dillman), Ten Planets, And Other Stories (February, 2023)
Ten Planets is a real trip. Yuri Herrera’s expansive, delicate world building makes the slim book seem bigger than it is – because of how far and fast the stories go. These winking, disassembling stories are sci-fi at its most playful, twisting, exciting, so there are times when one’s hand could stand to be held longer. Though never lost, we are perhaps, sometimes, temporarily mislaid. Herrera’s humans, aliens and monsters all share a common yearning: for touch and for meaning. We are brought into the hearts and minds of almost unimaginable creatures in this way, on the heels of a mass, planet-wide experience of lost and restricted touch.
In ‘Consolidation of Sprits’, Herrera’s protagonist Bartleby steps up to the task of middle-managing the restless spirits of the deserted cities of Earth. He is an unfussy man with a paper-and-pencil patience for the paranormal, which dovetails beautifully with the gooey horrors of the poltergeists in his care: “At five o’clock, you may expand to your heart’s content, however horrifically you wish.” Something delightfully Vonnegut-esque in his briskness, in the representation of his voice, ‘his ready ears and witness-bearing’ and in his final (blissful) ascension into their ranks, to keep doing his little jobs on into eternity, to his heart’s content.
‘The Conspirators’ nests conspiracies inside conspiracies, even the narratives are nested inside one another: the story begins with a flashback to a secret meeting within a secret meeting, the first meeting having been called to discuss an anti-insurrection vaccine – rolled out by the Others to the Ones, the subjugated first wave of people to colonise this planet: ‘I get your scepticism, but that’s exactly what gives them power.’ The second meeting is an even more secret one about the people at the first one. This style along with the vaccine idea creates a spiralling feeling. If even your own indifference to an oppressive structure – a deeply private and internal last-ditch form of resistance – is suspect, where does it end? Protagonist Pel resists this undermining, feeling that something about it all ‘doesn’t add up’ and receives intense and unwelcome attention from the group – ‘All eyes, brows, hairs and skins were on her, and all ears auricled around towards her.’ Returning to the conversation within which this meeting is remembered, Pel and Professor Cradoq speak in a hushed and conspiratorial tone about the meeting and the veracity of the vaccine:
“Let’s say that it is.”
“But how is it possible that no one knows how they do it?”
“We do know. Or, at least, I do.”
The whole thing feels intriguing, secretive, layered, on every level. Underneath the truth of the vaccine is another, stranger truth, that the vaccine is ‘our story, the one we tell ourselves to justify generation upon generation of submissiveness.’ It is true then, in a sense, the story does the same job as a physical vaccine, even though it has no material substance. The reader neatly spirals back out of the story-inside-the-story, and perceives the whole thing from the outside: something that works like a vaccine, or a conspiracy, to invisibly transform your internal world.
There were a small handful of moments I waited for those hazy, shifting, sudden shocks of clarity in Herrera’s worlds to materialize and they did not. I felt this particularly at the end of the second ‘The Objects’ story, where people transform into animals when they leave their office building. The final moment feels as though it’s supposed to be very meaningful, objects coming in from the outside – people transformed into objects, perhaps – and the narrator’s companion, Rafa, waiting in an empty office to do away with his non-existent ‘carnivore’ bosses. The story is sensual and visceral in its exploration of the sensations of being a rat and a flea and the junk-heap city they live in, so this ending surprised me by somewhat slipping away.
‘Flat Map’ is particularly strong, with its companion story, ‘Obverse’, neatly flipping its perspective. In ‘Flat Map’, the dragons were real, a fabulously cinematic image – ‘…before they saw a scaly tail appear and the man himself disappeared into nothing but an iota. “Dragons! They’re dragons!” A twist that references the unexplored parts of medieval maps where ‘here be dragons’. In ‘Obverse’, the explorers head off the other side of the map, descending over the edge of the earth, to discover a civilisation of people who look at the explorers and shout, ‘in terror: ‘Dragons! They’re dragons!” In these two stories, dragons are conjured in all their terror and, at once, reduced again to nothing. They are simply a term for the terrifying things that crouch in the darkness beyond the edges of what we know.
In her note on the translation, Lisa Dillman expands on some of the word choices made consistently within the collection. One word that I was interested to read about was ‘iota’ which crops up everywhere. Dillman explains that in the Spanish the word can be translated as ‘shred, speck, ounce, inch, bit or iota.‘ The meaning of ‘iota’ in these stories felt like a kind of spiritually significant molecule: something that everything can be broken down into, or something that can be used to make anything, absolutely anything, new.
“They travelled iotas and iotas. Deserts of iotas and dales of iotas and mountains of iotas. Millions of iotas.”
“He died like a branch, slowly, bowing imperceptibly, iota by iota, seated at his desk.”
Whenever the word comes up in these wild, meticulous, thoughtful stories, it feels like a little rip in the fabric of reality, showing the wiring underneath. We are all made of the stuff, Herrera seems to say, that everything is made of. The ultimate dissoluble boundary that exists at the heart of our molecular structure, specks and bits. It could be called ‘mind-blowing’ if, instead of an explosion, a mind could be blown rather more like a dandelion clock.
Sophie Develyn is a short fiction writer from Bristol. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University and is currently cooking up a novella. Her work has appeared in Five South Literary Journal. Find her at @sophicathrinlou on Twitter.