Given Mexican author Yuri Herrera’s academic background in political science, readers often expect his work to function as an allegory for social issues. Herrera resists these interpretations. In an interview with Latin American Literature Today, he said clearly, “I don’t write thesis novels. Instead of structuring a novel around pointed critiques or proposed ideologies, Herrera crafts emotional journeys that explore human experiences of political crises. For example, her widely acclaimed film “Signs Preceding the End of the World” follows a young woman who embarks on an odyssey that resembles a migrant’s journey across the southern border of the United States. He refuses to name either country in the novel or provide historical context, instead focusing on the identity conflict of the protagonist.
Herrera’s fifth book, “Ten Planets”, challenges his commitment not to write a “thesis novel”. Translated from Spanish by his longtime collaborator Lisa Dillman, this collection of short stories is Herrera’s first foray into science fiction. Science fiction books often function as critiques of current institutions or as proposals for better institutions. Given the conventions of the genre, it’s hard not to be didactic. Herrera, however, sticks to his philosophy by inventing worlds that allow him to investigate how individuals and societies create meaning for themselves. “Ten Planets” is neither a warning nor a prophecy – it’s a compelling contemplation on the human ability to find beauty in even the most dystopian environments, as well as its tendency to create instruments of oppression.
In each of the novel’s 13 short stories, Herrera creates thought-provoking characters and settings. In “Whole Entero”, an intestinal bacterium spontaneously becomes aware. Imbued with subtle absurdity and humor, the story follows the organism as it contemplates existence. Herrera’s concise and lyrical prose is the driving force behind the story. In a moment of enlightenment, the bacterium eloquently realizes, “No, the grand and the definitive could never be defined by the brief, the simple and the elemental.” Not bad for a single-celled organism.
Other stories are more like conventional sci-fi plays that culminate in a realization of a dystopia. “The Objects” imagines a future in which factory workers can only enter the outside world after transforming into animals. Climbing the corporate ladder means climbing the food chain – floor workers turn into insects while managers turn into lions. The story builds anticipation about the pet of corporate executives, and the surprising ending raises questions about the malleability of individual value.
The brevity of each piece allows Herrera to dwell on these philosophical scenarios without becoming long-winded or dogmatic. Additionally, Herrera interweaves lighter stories full of wonder among more thoughtful stories to keep the tone from getting too serious. After all, celebrating existence is just as important as thinking about it. In “The Earthling”, a lonely astronomer stranded on an alien planet finds joy after finding a canine companion. Readers don’t have to be dog lovers to laugh and cry at the story’s moving conclusion.
A downside to the brevity of Herrera’s stories is that he sometimes feels like he leaves so many of his imaginary worlds unexplored. Each story’s settings are so unique that it’s a shame they aren’t expanded upon. In each piece, Herrera examines only one dynamic within what could be a universe of possibilities. “The Conspirators” presents a fascinating concept: two colonies of humans from different eras on Earth arrive at the same time on another planet. Herrera’s story establishes some of the inequalities resulting from such an encounter, but readers fail to see how these dynamics play out.
That’s not to say that the “Ten Planets” stories have unsatisfying endings. Herrera crafts plots that create and release suspense to powerful effect. “The Obituarist” reads like a masterfully written thriller as the title character attempts to solve a case of stolen identity. In line with the rest of the novel, the story ends not only with a revelation of the culprit, but also with a reflection on the human desire for validation.
The upcoming English release of “Ten Planets” is as much a translation feat as a literary achievement. Lisa Dillman has translated Herrera’s previous four novels, and it’s clear that she has a deep understanding of how Herrera manipulates and extends language. In his translator’s note, Dillman offers an illuminating example: “Yuri has spoken in the past about selecting particular words that he consciously wants to use (or avoid) in a given work. I didn’t ask him if he had done that in [“Ten Planets”]but I was struck by the fact that one of the words he decided to use was ápice, often translated as shred, speck, ounce, inch, bit or iota.
Dillman explains that she chose to translate every occurrence of “ápice” as “iota” because it allowed for more idiosyncratic interpretations, consistent with Herrera’s use of Spanish words in unconventional contexts. Symbolically, she also feels the word fits the novel because of its scientific definition as the ninth star in a constellation. Any text loses some of its meaning once translated, but Dillman’s deliberate and clever work preserves much of Herrera’s magic.
A dominant theme in “Ten Planets” is that existence is the sum of infinite individual moments. Herrera says it eloquently in “Obverse”: “They went through iotas and iotas. Deserts of iotas and valleys of iotas and mountains of iotas. Millions of iotas. The 13 stories of the novel are themselves iotas, shards of human experience.
And just as Herrera and Dillman twist the rules of their respective languages to create new meaning, these stories bend the rules of the natural world and civilization to explore individuals at their deepest, most despicable and more absurd. The result is a compelling collection that asks challenging questions and encourages contemplation. Perhaps the scientific definition of “iota” is more accurate than what Dillman gives himself. The novel, in itself, is not complete: it only has nine of the 10 titular celestial bodies. Readers complete the constellation, bringing their questions and experiences to engage with Herrera’s masterful and thought-provoking stories.
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