I first encountered Sabrina Imbler’s work through their chapbook Dyke (geology), a strange and revelatory work that genuinely defies conventional genre categorization. I wrote that the book made science horny, and I stand by it. A writer with penchant for lyrical, almost poetic prose as well as a science journalist, Imbler’s hybrid approach of embedding science and reportage in personal narratives and queer storytelling gives them a singular, striking voice. Their essays for the New York Times and elsewhere have become my favorite works of science writing ever since, because they really do make science queer and trans as fuck — sometimes in subtle strokes and sometimes with more direct allegories and observations.
When I learned they were writing a new book-length project, I was instantly hooked. How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures continues their excellent alchemy of queer science writing and personal narrative. A taxonomy not only of ten varied and complex sea creatures but also of the self, the body, familial and romantic relationships, and gender, it’s one of the best nonfiction books I read all year. I’ll never look at a goldfish — or even the ocean, really — the same.
In the book, sea creatures become iridescent metaphors. Each essay focuses on a different creature, Imbler holding it to the light and turning it to reveal new textures.
In “My Mother and the Starving Octopus,” a Graneledone boreopacifica octopus who refused to eat while brooding becomes a door into Imbler’s relationship with their own mother, marked by body image issues, disordered eating, starvation. In “Morphing Like a Cuttlefish,” the shimmering, shifting cuttlefish morph alongside Imbler’s morphing perceptions of their gender, of what they want. In “Pure Life,” Imbler writes of ocean floor-dwelling crabs:
Caught between frigid and boiling waters surrounded by wasteland, the crabs have nowhere else to go; they must find a way for this one small safe haven to accommodate all who need it.
Perhaps it is not difficult to see from there how Imbler casts a line toward queer spaces — specifically a monthly dance for queer people of color where they seek refuge with friends. But even when the metaphors are this on-the-nose, they do not feel obvious or trite but rather potent, teeming with meaning. Just as the science writing here functions on multiple levels, so does the allegorical work. Even when sometimes language fails, Imbler finds a way in, such as in “Beware the Sand Striker,” a brutal and intimate essay that chronicles a sprawling history of violation of their body at the hands of men, particularly in college when they would drink to the point of blacking out. “I acknowledge this metaphor of predation is cheap,” Imbler writes of the sand striker metaphor of their own making. But they go on to write:
I don’t fault the sand striker for hunger, or for hunting. It works much harder than I do, someone who buys meat already dead and plucked. Part of the reason I find its body gruesome may be a hardwired instinct in the animal in me, an animal that fears snakes and creatures that move like them. When the sand striker snatches a fish and begins to feast, it is not thinking of what the fish is feeling. It has no complex brain and no sense of morality, which means its intentions are never cruel. A worm cannot shirk a duty it does not know. But we can.
Even where the metaphor fails, there’s meaning. This book makes science accessible, but it does not overly simplify anything, reveling instead in complexity, vastness, morphing shapes.
While the writing is confident and sharp, Imbler also doesn’t pretend to have all the answers to the questions they raise. These are always my favorite kinds of personal narrative; the kind that excavate the self but also leave room for the unknown, for the malleable or paradoxical. Not all questions need to be answered, because not all questions can be answered, especially when contending with as complex and slippery of subjects as are touched on here: sexuality, desire, heartbreak, gender. Imbler treats presents their experiences as having just as much wonder, mystery, and layers as the ocean itself — you want to submerge yourself here, even amid uncertainty and darkness.
Science entails rules and specific structures, and that is not lost entirely here, even if it is combined with messier, more pliable language and ideas. There’s attention to scientific detail, to fact, to processes. Embedded in the text are occasional, necessary missives on climate change, on the ways humanity have impacted the ocean and its dwellers. Imbler presents facts with just as much lyricism as the more fluid parts of the narrative. I love a good list, and there are plenty to find here, such as: “A dead whale could be farmed for a number of products — bone carved into corsets, teeth fashioned into the crowns of walking sticks, baleen bent into hoop skirts and umbrella ribs.” Or this listy passage on swollen feral goldfish, grotesque and bouncy on the line-level: “Their gills, once rouged by the ammonic burn of their piss, drink in the oxygen of surging, aerated water. Gorged on algae and worms and snails and the eggs of other fish, their bodies begin to balloon. They swell to the size of Cornish game hens, cantaloupes, jugs of milk.”
They also invent specific forms to adhere to throughout, as with the essay “How to Draw a Sperm Whale” in which a necropsy is performed not only of a whale but of a failed queer relationship. Every essay finds its own distinct rhythm to moving between the creatures and Imbler’s personal narrative. This is indeed queer science, a playful challenging of what science writing can be. Sea creatures: They’re just like us. Let Imbler show you how.