This Week in Short Fiction


Thomas Pierce made a name for himself as a talented spinner of strange stories with his debut collection Hall of Small Mammals, and in a new story at The Masters Review, Pierce crafts another weird and wonderful tale—and this time it’s written entirely in questions. “A Rouge Planet” plunges us into a universe where a planet with a face—that’s right, with eyes, a nose, and a mouth that can speak—has drifted into our galaxy, and the story’s narrator understandably has lots of questions:

Are you watching this too? Do you see the face? How come we’ve never even heard of this planet until now? Can you believe this is really happening? When you first heard the news of a planet that’s come creeping into our solar system, a planet with a face, did you assume they meant that figuratively? Does it scare you that they most definitely do not mean that figuratively?

This incessant questioning might get annoying pretty quick, but Pierce impressively uses the questions to reveal information about the planet and about the narrator. Plus, he makes it funny. We quickly learn that the narrator is speaking on the phone to an ex-girlfriend who he still obviously has a thing for. His panicked rhetorical questioning into whether or not the planet has come to kill them, or if the existence of a mouth means that it has a digestive system and an anus, or how long the government has known and kept it a secret, is interspersed with revealing intimacies and inquiries filled with longing. (“Scale of one to ten—how hungry are you? How weak-kneed? How’s your blood sugar? Are you still struggling with that?” “Fatimah, do you know what a pleasure it is say your name again, Fatimah?”) The narrator’s feelings for his ex become more and more apparent, his line of questioning more and more desperate, as the story progresses:

Should you come over? Is this the end? Should we go to bed? Do you still think about me that way? Remember the stars over Lake Sutton? The moon reflected in the water? Do you ever think about that weekend—the little cabin with the cedar plank walls, the toaster that burned every English muffin, those blue moth-eaten blankets, the sound of the mice behind the wall as I draped my arm over your side? If this is really the end, wouldn’t that be a nice place to go? Is your car gassed?

Although we never hear the ex’s answers, we get the idea that the she is traditionally somewhat exasperated by him (there’s a reference to an email she once sent him in which she uses the phrase, “a moment of brutal but necessary honesty”). However, she doesn’t seem to hang up the phone. Why doesn’t she hang up at this crucial moment in human history to be with her husband and daughter? Why does she stay on the phone with her totally desperate and somewhat unhinged ex? At the end, will we cling to anything familiar, even crazed exes, in order to not feel alone?

Or has she hung up long ago and the narrator, like the strange planet, is frantically yelling questions into a void?

“A Rouge Planet” raises many questions—and not just because it’s entirely composed of the interrogative. The narrator’s manifold queries build to unspoken but crucial mysteries about the feebleness of human knowledge and the nature of love. But the most vital question of all is on the essential human fear at the heart of the story: being alone. Although the idea of aliens distresses many, and the appearance of the planet in the story causes panic, what’s scarier? The knowledge that we’re not alone in the universe? Or the possibility that we are?

Technically speaking, does a giant conscious sphere with a face a planet make? Isn’t this more like a massive disembodied head? Do you think it’s lonely? Do you think it wonders what’s the point? Do you think it knows it’s talking to no one but itself? Lacking arms, legs, tendrils, tail, how does it effect movement? Do you think it somehow lassoed itself, gravitationally, into our solar system? Can I come over? Just for a little bit?

Claire Burgess’s short fiction has appeared in Third Coast, Hunger Mountain, and PANK online, among others. Her stories have received special mentions in the Pushcart Prize and Best American anthologies, but haven’t actually made it into one yet. She’s a graduate of the Vanderbilt University MFA program, where she co-founded Nashville Review. She lives in Pittsburgh by way of the deep South and says things on Twitter @Clairabou_. More from this author →