Regular readers of the blog will know that I’m a big short story guy, and I have much more patience with weirdness in short form than in novels. So when I was perusing the Ursula K. Le Guin Prize shortlist and saw Ten Planets by Yuri Herrera, translated by Lisa Dillman, I figured it was the perfect excuse to dip into some Latin American literary sci-fi/fantasy.
What I didn’t notice at the time, and what might’ve kept me from giving it a try, is that the collection is almost all flash fiction. While I love short stories, I rarely find favorites under 2500 words (roughly 8-10 pages), and even more rarely have something under a few pages stick with me. But with 20 stories jammed into just over 100 pages, Ten Planets is very much a flash collection, with just four stories coming in over six pages.
As one may expect given the length, there is little attempt at characterization in most of the stories. Rather, they focus either on strange concepts—often with unusual vocabulary chosen to increase the reader’s sense of disorientation—or simply take a couple pages to set up a clever twist that leaves the reader smiling on the final paragraph. While I expect many typical readers to enjoy the twist at the end of “The Earthling,” the one that had me smiling was the ending of “Obverse,” one of three Flat Earth stories, and one that has a particularly excellent resonance with the one that came before it.
Beyond that? Some of the conceptual stuff landed for me, but most of it didn’t. I actually understood the references in “Zorg, Author of the Quixote” and appreciated the alien take on classic stories. I found “The Obituarist” an interesting exploration of legacy and the burning desire to know how you will be remembered. And I was pretty engaged in the second of two unrelated stories titled “The Objects,” in which a large corporation literally transforms their low-wage workers into vermin when they’re off the clock.
But I couldn’t bring myself to care about the sentient stomach bug, or bickering amongst spirits, or revolutionaries and spies I know nothing about on a planet I also know nothing about. It’s not that the stories were badly written—it’s clear that the author is skilled, and that the experiments with perspective ways to distance the reader from the ordinary were quite intentional—it’s that they just didn’t give me much to hold onto. The bulk of the stories in the collection felt like solid 3.5-star pieces: an interesting-but-not-revolutionary smart house story, a flash with alien descriptions that ultimately resolve to something familiar, introduction of a bizarre and fantastical ability to tell a story of the time its revelations ought not be shared, etc. They’re not bad reads. Unfortunately, they’re just not especially memorable ones.
If you handed me a story from Ten Planets at random, I’d likely enjoy it in the moment and forget about it soon after. Perhaps that’s as much on me as a reader as it is Herrera as a writer—I have well-documented struggles connecting to flash fiction. Unfortunately, it means I didn’t enjoy Ten Planets much as a collection. A solid 3.5-star story is all well and good. But twenty in a row without really finding something to love makes for a frustrating reading experience. I’m sure this is the right collection for many readers, but it was not for me.
Recommended if you like: literary speculative flash fiction.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Five Short Stories, Magical Realism, and POC Author, and is also Published in 2023 by an Indie Publisher.
Overall rating: 12 of Tar Vol’s 20. Three stars on Goodreads.