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 plainly, “I don’t write thesis novels.” Instead of structuring a novel around pointed criticism or proposed ideologies, Herrera crafts emotional journeys that explore the human experiences of political crises. For example, his widely-acclaimed “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 U.S. border. He refuses to name either country in the novel or provide any historical context, focusing instead on the protagonist’s identity conflict.
Herrera’s fifth book “Ten Planets” poses a challenge to his commitment not to write a “thesis novel.” Translated from the Spanish by long-time collaborator Lisa Dillman, this collection of short stories is Herrera’s first foray into science-fiction. Sci-fi books often function as critiques of current institutions or as proposals for better ones. Given the conventions of the genre, it’s difficult not to be didactic. Herrera, however, sticks to his ethos as he invents worlds that allow him to investigate how individuals and societies alike create meaning for themselves. “Ten Planets” is neither warning nor prophecy — it is a compelling contemplation on the human capacity to find beauty in even the most dystopian settings, as well as its tendency to create instruments of oppression.
Within each of the novel’s 13 short stories, Herrera creates thought-provoking characters and settings. In “Whole Entero,” a gut bacterium spontaneously gains consciousness. Imbued with subtle absurdity and humor, the story tracks the organism as it contemplates existence. Herrera’s concise, lyrical prose is the driving force of the story. In one moment of enlightenment, the bacterium eloquently realizes, “No, the grandiose and definitive could never be defined by the brief and simple and elementary.” Not bad for a single-celled organism.
Other stories read more like conventional science-fiction pieces that culminate in a realization about a dystopia. “The Objects” imagines a future in which factory workers can only enter the world outside after transforming into animals. Climbing the corporate ladder means ascending the food chain — floor workers turn into insects while managers become lions. The story builds anticipation about the company executives’ animal of choice, and the surprising ending raises questions about the malleability of individual worth.
The brevity of each piece allows Herrera to dwell on these philosophical scenarios without becoming long-winded or dogmatic. Additionally, Herrera intersperses lighter stories full of wonder among more meditative ones to keep the tone from becoming too grave. After all, celebrating existence is just as important as thinking about it. In “The Earthling,” a lonely astronomer stranded on a foreign planet rediscovers joy after finding a canine companion. Readers don’t have to be dog lovers to laugh and cry at the story’s moving conclusion.
One drawback to the brevity of Herrera’s stories is that it sometimes feels like he is leaving so many of his imaginary worlds unexplored. The settings of each story are so unique that it’s a shame that they are left undeveloped. In each piece, Herrera only examines one dynamic within what could be a universe of possibilities. “The Conspirators” entertains 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 don’t get to see how these dynamics play out.
That’s not to say that the stories in “Ten Planets” have unsatisfying endings. Herrera crafts plots that build 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 concludes with not only a culprit reveal but also a reflection on the human desire for validation.
The upcoming English release of “Ten Planets” is a feat of translation as much as it is a literary achievement. Lisa Dillman has translated all of Herrera’s previous four novels, and it’s clear that she possesses a deep understanding of how Herrera manipulates and stretches language. In her translator’s note, Dillman offers an illuminating example: “Yuri has spoken in the past about selecting particular words he consciously wants to use (or avoid) in a given work. I did not ask him whether he’d done this in [“Ten Planets”], but it struck me that one of the words he’d decided to use was ápice, often translated as shred, speck, ounce, inch, bit, or iota.”
Dillman explains that she chose to translate every instance of “ápice” as “iota” because it allowed for more idiosyncratic interpretations, in line with Herrera’s use of Spanish words in unconventional contexts. On a symbolic level, she also believes that the word suits the novel because of its scientific definition as the ninth star in a constellation. Any text loses some of its meaning when translated, but Dillman’s deliberate, artful work preserves much of Herrera’s magic.
A prevailing theme in “Ten Planets” is that existence is the sum of infinite individual moments. Herrera eloquently puts it in “Obverse”: “They traversed iotas and iotas. Deserts of iotas and dales of iotas and mountains of iotas. Millions of iotas.” The novel’s 13 stories are themselves iotas, slivers of human experience.
And just as Herrera and Dillman warp 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 most profound, most despicable, and most absurd. The result is a compelling collection that poses challenging questions and encourages contemplation. Perhaps the scientific definition of “iota” is more accurate than Dillman gives herself credit for. The novel, by itself, isn’t complete: It only possesses nine out of the 10 titular celestial bodies. Readers complete the constellation, bringing their questions and experiences to engage with Herrera’s masterful, thought-provoking stories.