Everyone Is Going Away: On Yuri Herrera’s “Ten Planets”

By Mattia RavasiMay 18, 2023

Everyone Is Going Away: On Yuri Herrera’s “Ten Planets”

Ten Planets by Yuri Herrera

SHORT STORIES are rarely cozy. They have no time to build lush settings for the reader to inhabit, or to weave complex connections between their characters, the kind that makes them feel familiar, predictable. Perhaps the most comfortable subspecies in this otherwise angular genre is the formulaic story: a tale that follows such a recognizable pattern—the crime story; the ghost story—that we already feel a little at home before we even start reading it.

It is not surprising then that Ten Planets is a peculiarly uncomfortable short story collection. These 20 bizarre tales by Mexican-born writer and political scientist Yuri Herrera, first collected in the original Spanish as Diez Planetas in 2019 and now newly translated into English by Lisa Dillman, are rarely longer than a handful of pages. Their characters have ambitions, anxieties, and misgivings about their lives, but we barely get to know them before we reach the end of their story. And yet the stories are formulaic too: this is very much fantastic fiction, although narrowing the genre further would be somewhat tricky. The collection employs many of the fantastic tropes that have become part of our shared culture—aliens and monsters, rebellious technology, spaceships leaving a condemned, decaying earth—except even these tropes are confused, short-circuited. Ten Planets’ tapestry of situations and characters feels familiar—until Herrera, time and again, pulls the rug out from under our feet.

It is hard to overstate how central this feeling of disorientation is to the experience of reading Ten Planets. It is at once the book’s most infuriating feature and its most alluring. “The Objects,” for example, is a tale of workplace alienation where a resigned protagonist tries to save a fragile colleague from making a mistake he might regret later—in a context where workers have to undertake an uncomfortable process of animal metamorphosis at the end of every shift. “The Objects” ends with an ominous reference to certain “carnivores” that the fragile colleague might be running with, although whether this should be read as an encouraging fact, or as the mark of his downfall, remains a mystery to me.

I have lost count of how many times I have reread the story in the last few weeks, trying to get to the bottom of that mystery. (I am discussing here, incidentally, the second “The Objects”: two consecutive stories in the collection share the same title. They do not seem, as far as I can tell, to share anything else. Or do they?)

Elsewhere, two different stories about daring explorers end with the same punchline. (“Dragons! They’re dragons!”) A silly, repetitive joke? Or a commentary on the fluid relationship between discovering and discovered subjects? I find it impossible to tell. It would not be the only place where Ten Planets is just plain silly: at various points, Herrera’s collection follows in the grand tradition of Fredric Brown and Robert Sheckley—masters of a kind of science fiction that is constantly aware of the basic goofiness of its concepts, but chooses to exploit this rather than hide it. And yet, this humorous reading does not explain the stories—far from it; it invites closer scrutiny. The allure of Herrera’s puzzles lies exactly in how clear and cryptic they are at once. The picture they form is hyperrealist and technicolor, but I’ll be damned if I can say with any certainty exactly what I’m looking at.

If I had to shelve Ten Planets somewhere in a bookshop or library, the place that would feel most natural would be alongside the experimental short fiction from the heyday of “high” postmodernism. There is something of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics (1965) in Ten Planets’ sometimes overly manneristic use of science fictional conventions, and in its self-conscious but cheeky intellectualism. Herrera’s tales of inexplicable body change call to mind Julio Cortázar’s stories of men turning into axolotls, or finding themselves afflicted with maladies that make them burp bunnies. (“Casa tomada,” or “House Taken Over” in the translation, even shares a title with Cortázar’s haunting 1946 story.) These postmodern tales make it their business to turn familiar narrative tropes on their heads, disrupting their readers’ expectations. They invite constant rereadings; challenge the notion of easy pleasure, of consumption; and upend the very idea that one can ever be done reading them, reading anything.

Herrera’s stories certainly seem to share a similar agenda. His prose reminds me of postmodernism’s playful fascination with language, both as the constructing material of narrative—see Ten Planets’ strange obsession with the word ápice (iota)—and as the frame around which we drape our feelings, our ideas of reality, and everything in between.

But Herrera’s fiction is not just postmodern revival: a mere homage to cult writers, striving to deliver the paradoxical notion of familiar discomfort. Ten Planets is very much a philosophical school of its own, with the collection building its own concerns and studying them from the vantage point of 20 separate narratives. And no concern is more central to these stories than the notion of the self.

Take the opening story, “The Science of Extinction,” in which an old man is losing his memory and his grip on reality, and he leaves a note to himself on his windowsill. Something has happened in the world at large—an “increasingly depopulated world rewilding on the other side of the window”—which means that no one is around to help him navigate the mist of his confusion, or to remind him to take his medicines.

The story, barely two pages long, is permeated by the feeling that the man’s porous consciousness is collapsing the distinction between his inner self and the world outside his window. It ends with a blurry scene where the protagonist is confronted with the final departure of his self-awareness in the form of “a disturbance [appearing] before him: an undulation of swirling sounds, colors, velocities.” A physical failure, perhaps a stroke? Or an external phenomenon? “In a stammer of random syllables that in his head formed a crystal clear sentence,” the protagonist addresses the otherwise empty room: “I found a message that someone left us on a card. It says, ‘Everyone is going away.’”

On one level, this is a very neat Twilight Zone twist: man who leaves notes to self to fight his loss of memory forgets he is the author of said notes. And yet, the twist explodes the story’s meaning rather than sealing it away. Is the man of the story’s final sentence the same one we met in the first paragraph, the person who left that note on the windowsill? Is he truly mistaken when he assumes that the note comes from someone else?

Elsewhere in the collection, these existential dilemmas are inserted in stories that trade the apocalyptic atmosphere of “The Science of Extinction” for a technological focus reminiscent of Philip K. Dick. In “The Objects” (the first “The Objects”), Velia’s search for her missing daughter is constantly thwarted by her Miniminder—some kind of personal device with GPS, all too recognizable as a quasi-smartphone. The damned thing won’t stop pestering her with notifications—flagging issues with her route whenever she is nearing her daughter, flashing all sorts of warning colors until Velia opts for a detour, compelling her to slow down when she starts running too fast. “Danger of Trampling, it said. Velia didn’t see who she might trample, or who might trample her, but since the Miniminder began vibrating uncontrollably, she slowed her pace.”

Who is making decisions here? Where exactly is Velia’s self, the center of her consciousness and her will, located? The world around Velia is a nightmarish place where organic and inorganic matter are pitched against each other in an ugly contrast: “Velia went out and saw the desiccated world. No sign of secretions. Blood, yes, but just traces, as ever, a few drops under a car’s engine, a splash on a wall, a red shoe print or tire mark, always dry. A silence of organs and a systematic ruction of objects.”

Objects move around the streets, seemingly of their own volition. A sassy spray can even spurts a few drops of color at Velia. The natural relationship between humans and things is inverted. Instead of passersby, we have objects walking the streets. The litter that invites our disgust is not trash but living matter, blood. Most significantly, the Miniminder is not really helping Velia find her daughter—it is telling her how to search, for all intents and purposes making the search harder. Velia ends the story alone, surrounded by hostile objects, with her domineering technology having failed to deliver even on its basic promise of being helpful.

The disruption of the natural chain of command central to “The Objects” is even more blatant in “House Taken Over,” where a typical nuclear family has to face a rebellion from their futuristic smart-home system. When one of the children runs around and stumbles, the house moves a table in the trajectory of his fall: he “banged his hands hard enough to learn a lesson but not so hard that he hurt himself.” Later, when the mother comes home in a tantrum and slams the door on her way in, the house first starts shaking, and then locks her out, until she is ready to calm down and behave.

The most nightmarish aspect of the story is the way in which the house changes the family’s behavior and habits. They start tiptoeing around its rooms, stifling arguments whenever they are brewing, and spending as much time as possible outside, “all so as not to be inappropriate.” Who is the subject and who is the object in this relationship? Who is the tool adapting to the needs of a strong will? And most disturbingly: Can I be certain that I am not living in “House Taken Over” myself? I have definitely changed my habits because my phone or laptop asked me to—encouraging me to go to a given shop, or asking me to buy them an accessory that would make them better, more efficient.

“House Taken Over” is one of the most enjoyable stories in the collection. In fact, I’m afraid I have done Herrera a disservice and painted his book as harder work than it really is. Ten Planets is not without its more straightforward stories—a notable example being “Zorg, Author of the Quixote,” a nod to one of Borges’s most famous tales that reads like a curious love letter to Cervantes as filtered through the eyes of lusty dragon-things.

These “easier” stories are memorable, silly, smart. And yet Herrera’s fiction is most satisfying when it is most frustrating. It is the more opaque stories in the collection that I find myself pulled back toward, revisiting them in a spirit of curiosity rather than confusion. Looking not so much to solve their mysteries but to find new angles from which to contemplate them.

That Ten Planets can be so hazy and engrossing is just one of its many paradoxes—and I take a certain familiarity with paradox to be the mark of great fiction, the art form best equipped to showcase, from the endless perspective of its stories, the multifaceted and contradictory nature of thought, language, and existence.

Perhaps the most significant among Ten Planets’ paradoxes is that the strangeness of its visions is not nearly as eerie as it should be. These stories should feel like nightmarish warnings from the realm of dystopic, paranoid science fiction. Instead, they carry an ominous note of plausibility, if not déjà vu. A family trapped inside their house by an overzealous Alexa-like device. A man walking across the Atlantic Ocean, whose surface is paved with litter. Would I truly be surprised to read these stories in the news 10, five, three years from now?


Mattia Ravasi is from Monza, Italy. He talks about books on his YouTube channel, TheBookchemist.

LARB Contributor

Mattia Ravasi is from Monza, Italy, and he lives and works in Bath, United Kingdom. He has written for The Millions, Modern Fiction Studies, and The Submarine. His short stories have appeared in independent magazines and anthologies. He talks about books on his YouTube channel, TheBookchemist.


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