Encounters with the Otherworldly in Yuri Herrera’s Ten Planets

Biz Rasich

“Why must everything come to an end?” wonders a bit of sentient stomach bacteria in Yuri Herrera’s new story collection, Ten Planets. “Why had it begun to begin with?”

It’s a question taken up, in various forms, by many of the stories in this slim volume, which is translated from the Spanish by Herrera’s long-time collaborator Lisa Dillman. I read it on the way to my grandfather’s funeral. Reading it was supposed to be an escape: the collection is almost entirely speculative, and I wanted nothing more than to be carried away by tales of dragons and Martians and ghosts. But, it turns out, nothing could have brought me closer to Earth.

The funeral was a profoundly otherworldly experience that included a reception in something called, with an appropriate science fiction-y flair, the John Paul II Narthex, as well as a poorly edited montage of family pictures set to a tinny, speaker-mangled version of “Chariots of Fire.” Like the ontologically distressed bacterium of the story “Whole Entero,” I spent a lot of time thinking about the beginning and ending of things. And I cried a lot. I cried because I had lost my grandfather and my father had lost his father and one day I would lose mine, too—lost, like a pair of glasses or car keys, and there would be no finding him. He would be permanently misplaced. It felt like a truth too big to stand against.

Herrera’s sentient bacterium, confronted by the simultaneous vastness and smallness of existence, becomes so overwhelmed that she dies of grief. I did not do this; I ate a lot of raspberry jam-filled donuts and came up with names for a line of alcoholic drinks with my uncle (All Y’all Pale Ale, Y’aint Cider, Bless Your Heart Hard Kombucha). And then I locked myself in the bedroom of my Airbnb and re-read this collection, not as an escape but as a way of lingering in that feeling of displacement. In Ten Planets, everything is alien: bodies, landscapes, language, relationships, and even memory itself. They’re all distorted, reformed, unnamed or renamed, and set apart for examination. Nothing, this collection asserts, has an inherent place in the world that we do not give it.

Herrera packs 20 stories into just 100 pages; many are just a page or two long. But they do not hold back. This is an assortment of tiny, strange delights, each uniquely disorienting and charming. In “The Cosmonaut,” a private investigator reads noses like maps. Ghostly spirits wreak havoc in “Consolidation of Spirits” because their disruptions have not been properly scheduled. A set of three especially lucid linked stories, “Flat Map,” “Obverse,” and “The Other Theory,” are scattered through the collection like waypoints as they follow explorers at the edge of the earth. And in arguably the strongest story of the collection, “Zorg, Author of the Quixote,” Herrera  reimagines the infamous Jorge Luis Borges story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” with a young, horny alien independently inventing Don Quixote on a distant planet.

In the tradition of the fantastical existentialism of Borges and Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, Ten Planets uses other worlds to hold a mirror to our own. The questioning eye of this collection ranges widely from religion and imperialism to scientific inquiry and the cultural centrality of sex. And as in Herrera’s short novel Signs Preceding the End of the World, storytelling and language are held above all. Communication is a powerful tool for connection or a powerful weapon for subjugation, depending on how it is wielded. In “The Conspirators,” a colonizing force inoculates the indigenous population against rebellion by taking their language for their own—and with it, their conception of the world. The language and the people who speak it have a nearly 1:1 ratio, the language defining how its speakers think and therefore who they are. In “Appendix 15, Number 2: The Exploration of Agent Probii” this is literalized: the whole planet is populated by people who each speak a language unique to them, making communication impossible except through sex, the new lingua franca. Here, there is nothing of greater consequence than words.

Herrera’s attention to language—what it constructs, what it complicates—is made manifest in his own utterly singular sentences. His prose style is cheekily euphemistic at times but also full of slantwise insight. Alcohol becomes “firewater,” nameless functionaries mere “etceteras,” and sex reimagined as “finding the factorial.” They are little winks, sometimes closer to a pun than a punchline, but always precisely deployed and to great effect. Language is tweaked and stretched at the margins to destabilize our preconceived notions. These moments of renaming work to lift us out of the weight of our associations and disorient us, productively, toward new meaning.

Ten Planets locates us in worlds have been cleared out to make way for new models—fumigated or taken over by trash or, in some cases, intentionally abandoned. Characters move through disintegrating and vacant landscapes. Silences are not only heard but felt. One of the most tender stories in the collection, “The Science of Extinction,” sees a man losing his grip on language and memory and becoming unknown to himself. Emptiness is everywhere, and meaning, if it is to be made, must be drawn out of thin air and gripped tightly against the wind.

In many cases what fills in these landscapes is a hollow bureaucracy, the dehumanizing arm of the state—sometimes horrifying, sometimes hilarious. Whether distantly controlling the “promotions” of the louses and rats who wish to become dogs and cats or, at the very least, squirrels in “The Objects (#1)” or satirized through the officials who try to rationalize away the ghosts of “Consolidation of Spirits,” it is invisible, faceless, and impossible to resist. It can be felt perhaps most insidiously in the tracking Miniminder device of “The Objects (#2),” which steers a woman who has lost her daughter directly into the path of a garbage truck collecting objects that have outlived their usefulness.

But despite their isolation, connection is still possible—necessary, even. In “The Last Ones,” a man floating in a single-person ship through the vacuum of space chances, impossibly, upon another spaceship, piloted by a woman who rescues him. “‘We’re going to make it,’” Herrera writes. “It was a fragile and beautiful plural.”

One word Herrera invokes over and over again is “iota.” Characters live and die iota by iota; they are “deotafied” and “reotafied” on other planets; they traverse countless iotas and spend countless iotas apart. (In her fascinating translator’s note, Dillman talks about Herrera’s choice in Spanish, ápice, its numerous connotations, and why she chose iota in particular.) Herrera could have easily focused on the vast distances that separate us, the enormity of time that minimizes us, and the immensity of all that we do not know and do not understand. But instead he focuses on the way everything big is made up of quite a bit of small, and all the ways we are closer than we are apart. What matters is not the looming apocalypse but our little attempts at making meaning in the face of it.

In the moment, the ritual of the funeral felt almost meaning-adjacent, like a word said so much it starts to feel like a foreign object on the tongue. Like the bureaucracies that undergird this collection, I was experiencing the architecture of mourning without quite getting face to face with mourning itself. I watched myself hit the high notes in “On Eagle’s Wings”; I watched myself watch the priest pouring the communion wine; I watched the camera pointed at my head dystopically livestreaming the whole thing. During the homily the priest seized the opportunity to remind us all that death could come at any time. The Lord giveth; the Lord taketh away, he kept saying. I wanted to shout at him: Why do the grieving ones need to hear that? Don’t we know that? Don’t we know that the most?

After boarding our plane home, we were stuck on the tarmac for hours. I was seated a few rows behind my parents. Impatience bubbled in my gut. My grandfather had had 42 million minutes (iotas?) on Earth and I was losing 180 of mine to a ground stoppage in the Denver airport. Every so often I glanced up to see my parents leaning across the aisle to each other, playing cards. I thought about Zorg, the young alien trying to write his masterpiece. He is terrified that his editor will think nothing of his work, that it will be too sentimental and small. But his writing, as Herrera conceives it, is the kind of storytelling I think we are all trying to do with our lives: “Zorg wrote stories about fantastical beings trapped in one way or another by bodily limitations, geographical limitations, epistemological limitations: people who were always doing battle and almost always losing but who from time to time managed to break through these limitations and then beautiful things occurred.”

On the plane I watched my mother stick out her tongue in concentration while she reshuffled her cards, watched my father wiggle his knees as he examined his. They reached across the gap between them and touched. I felt a little pulse in my chest (love) and knew that mingled in with all the soft papery old people handshakes and funereal pasta salad, there was profound gratitude that I had people to lose, and that I was here in the first place to lose them. Other people began and ended so I could begin and end. It was the truth; I wouldn’t stand against it.