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Yuri Herrera wrote Ten Planets alongside A Silent Fury: The El Bordo Mine Fire. The latter is a reconstruction of a tragedy, told at a slant—eighty-seven dead, discovered almost a week later—and the calumny of blame proportioned on to these victims, the burden of proof transferred to their families, with work and profits accumulating with the owners soon after, and all this ignominy without a single word heard from the labouring miners or their loved ones. Ten Planets is a collection of twenty short stories about otherworld planets, dystopias, sentient parasites and houses, jailed monsters, maps, non-reproductive genitalia, infectious languages, and spaceships that run on pedals. The first book is fiction, the second “nonfiction.” The first a series of wonderous microcosms; the second a record of complicity and silence.

Herrera says in a conversation, “as I was rewriting El Bordo Mine Fire, or turning the dissertation [1] into this narrative, and I was so worried about being faithful to the sources and being faithful to the language that existed in these documents. That demanded a lot of precision, but also, a lot of limiting of myself. So, at the same time, I started writing these stories in which I would, yes, do whatever I wanted to do, and it was a good balance.” Ten Planets, then, is not the obverse of A Silent Fury: The El Bordo Mine Fire, the obverse of non-fiction, or realism, or a tragic accounting, but its complement. “For me,” Herrera says, “science fiction and fantasy are synonymous with literature” (not as a subgenre, as he goes on to say, but as an activity and a practice), “—with writing—because this is how I started writing as a kid,” (and as the childhood play of discovering the frisson of imagining new worlds). Herrera refuses to formally separate the two works as two differing styles or kinds of writing, seeing realism and science fiction as doing the same imagining, only that science fiction does the imagining more explicitly.

The practice of imagining and of writing, for Herrera, takes place in tandem, and the emphasis on imagination is part of a tradition he pays homage to: the Latin American avant-garde, particularly authors like Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortazar, Juan Rulfo, and Jose Donoso, reliving a particular relationship to surrealism and the dream-like “marvellous” that Andre Breton championed. [2] Herrera quotes, alludes, and mediates their works. “Consolidation of Spirits,” a short narrative about a bureaucrat (named Bartleby) maintaining accounts on a planet of ghosts brings Melville’s refusenik into conversation with Rulfo’s ghost town in Pedro Paramo; “The House Taken Over” rewrites Cortazar’s short story of the same name, filling it with sentient smart technology that adapts to the occupants best interests, deciding for them till the last horrific minute; the one-page short “Living Muscle,” with its texture of a planet of flesh, recalls the sealed-off creature of The Obscene Bird of Night, as does the brutal story of artistic creation through torture in “Art Monster”; least obliquely, “Zorg, Author of the Quixote” riffs of Borges’s Pierre Menard, author of yet another Quixote—except Zorg’s sexuality is central to his writing. These are not surrealism’s outtakes, nor Breton’s sense in which writing is “receptacles of so many echoes,” but a conscious rewriting of science fiction tropes into surrealism’s canon. This, too, is tradition—insofar as it confounds distinctions between high and low cultures, bringing artificial intelligence, portal magic, space operas, detective stories and other genre contraptions into its bulbous body. This is Herrera’s architectural style, which takes the strange and symbolic to make science fiction stranger than itself. You’d think that a narrative about a spaceship couldn’t efficiently be about desire as a perpetually moving machine, replete with an energy-producing bicycle and rough sex, but for Herrera it is.

But a claim to surrealism is fraught with internecine tensions—and imperialist ones. From surrealism, one is coerced into magic realism, and for what? Latin American science fiction writers deplore this pipeline of literariness, Sabrina Vourvoulias saying “Magical Realism is wonderful … the only thing that isn’t wonderful is that all Latin American and/or Latinx writers are expected to write it and not any other flavor of fiction.”

Despite this, as part of the same discussion, other writers like Silvia Moreno Garcia seem to agree with Herrera, adding that the sharp divide between the fantastic and the mundane is muted in Mexican literature. Moreover, the act of translation itself seems to Carlos Hernandez to transform ideas into “fantastic” and “hyperbolic” ones. In translating Herrera’s Ten Planets, Dillman too concurs with this, in a manner. In the translator’s note, she remarks on the many ways in which Herrera uses a word (“ápice,” translated as “iota”) in the text: “They are literalized, embodied, materialized, demetaphorized.” Is the fantastic then collateral to the act of translating, or is it an unintended revelation inherent to the text and the genre contraption merely its emphasis, or is it merely a default setting for the ignorant, unable to see anything but the hills with eyes? What then is the contemporary relationship between science fiction and surrealism? Like Dillman adds in the translators note of the collection: “Is this ‘really’ sci-fi? Who cares?” All I can say is that there definitely is a relationship. Kafka meets Octavia Butler (“The Human Zoo”) and Borges meets Ursula Le Guin (“Zorg”). The spaceship meets the census taker meets the dragon and onward.

But we must believe Herrera when he defends himself: “I should clarify that I don’t write thesis novels. That is, although I think clearly about certain ideas with respect to the workings of political life in my country, my novels don’t attempt to extract their narrative from it.” Herrera’s stories are contained, a collection like an album—seemingly connected, not only thematically—in the manner of a curated exhibition, the author guiding your gaze, providing cues. The art is framed and the cues are visual, for each of these stories depict whole varied worlds, so much so that some narratives together form a diptych, others a triptych, broken by a strangely singular story of vivid images. The story, its response and corresponding idea do not require the author’s biographical intrusions to be understood (which is perhaps apt for a translation, and the authors’ later awareness of it being read by a significant audience in translation). [3] It is also important to add that the stories are themselves concerned about the ambiguities of conveying meaning, or so to speak, say that language is bad at communication.

In “Appendix 15, Number 2: The Exploration of Agent Probii” every single inhabitant on a planet speaks a personal and unique language, communicating only through copulation. The linguist, Probii, in trying his hand at phatic sexual sophistication with an inhabitant, offends so greatly that his throat is summarily slit. In “The Conspirators” language is a cipher and also a vaccine that stops the colonized inhabitants of a planet from rising together in insurrection. These stories about language are the most self-conscious in the collection, writing that includes its instability, its Sapir-Whorf-ness, its seductive power, and its uselessness. In other ways, the entire collection is about writing, whether as rewriting, as making art, as propaganda, as play, as othering, as imposition. Writing as polysemy; writing as technology. If Silent Fury is about writing as precision and control, leaving enough gaps to let the silence speak, Ten Planets is about writing literalized as excess—something that all too often gets out of hand and slips away.

Writing as technology becomes part of other technologies in Ten Planets; this is what makes it science-fiction and also makes it stranger than fiction. In any case, Herrera has no faith in technology’s prowess, in “the silence of organs and the systematic ruction of objects,” as he says in “Objects”. From its first story, Herrera’s technological advancement records colonization, instrumentalization, alienation, and incredible solitude.

A truck passed, picking up every organic waste and all pieces of objects that weren’t fulfilling some specific function, even a stupid function.

Worse, technology makes anything transcendent impossible—at least to the sentient tapeworm in “Whole Entero”:

 […] on glimpsing the divine solution, she discarded it instantly, convinced that if she could articulate something so immense, if there existed an instrument—words—with which to formulate it, then that thing was impossible […] the vespertine coliform fell ill from sadness and, without realizing, was extinguished forever.

Most of these stories reveal existential conditions of isolation, of men left alone writing to themselves, of aliens experimenting on a lone human specimen, of art created in jails, of workers turning into rats when they’re not productive, of walking alone across climate dystopias, and of the constant search for something to break through that glass. “Ha! All that technology to measure solitude,” says the cosmonaut after his space run. How much of these stories have emerged out of the pandemic, how much out of writing a restrained record of men trapped under earth, how much out of conditions of immiseration that have existed for a long time, how much under conditions of witnessing imperial order being imposed, and how much of it from a tongue-in-cheek sense of contained helplessness?

Herrera has written novels about it. Herrera has written novels about not writing it. Herrera is still writing, using technology to measure solitude.

And don’t think I’m doing it for you. I’m doing it because I know what happens when you find what you’re looking for.

Notes

[1]The work, Silent Fury: The El Bordo Mine Fire, is adapted from a dissertation submitted as part of his political science doctorate program from University of California, Berkeley in 2009. It was published in Spanish as El incendio de la mina El Bordo (2018), almost ten years later, and in 2018, was also published as an English translation. [return]

[2]Andre Breton, Manifestos of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1969). [return]

[3] Ten Planets has, at the time of writing this review, been shortlisted for the Ursula K. Le Guin Prize (2023). [return]



Shinjini Dey is an editor, writer, and reviewer. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Review of Books, Analog Fact and Fiction, Decolonial Hacker and many others. She can be found on Twitter at @shinjini_dey.
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