Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller

Another one hit way out of the park by Liz. I no longer remember what she said, but I think it involved some superlatives; I bought the book and finally got around to it and now have some superlatives of my own. It was just early April when I read this book, but I’m confident stating this will be the best book I read all year.

Why Fish Don’t Exist is one sort of book I love, in that it involves several threads woven together. In her prologue, Lulu Miller pits our most precious loves against the force of a capitalized Chaos. “Chaos will crack them from the outside–with a falling branch, a speeding car, a bullet–or unravel them from the inside, with the mutiny of their very own cells. Chaos will rot your plants and kill your dog and rust your bike. It will decay your most precious memories…” Etc. Then we first meet David Starr Jordan, as Miller did. He was a taxonomist specializing in fish. An earthquake destroyed his collection of thousands of specimens, dashing them in their glass jars to the ground, separating them from their identifying tags. To which he responded by hand-stitching tag to fish specimen, and starting over. Miller is entranced by this “attack on Chaos.” She struggles herself with the forces that tend to defeat us, and wonders of Jordan: “Who are you?… A cautionary tale? Or a model of how to be?

From here we accompany Miller on her study of Jordan – his life and his thoughts – in search of a model for how to be, how to live with joy and be indefatigable in the face of all frustrations, all forms of Chaos. Why Fish Don’t Exist is thus partly a biography of Jordan and a layperson’s introduction to fish taxonomy and its principles. (The title is not a joke. There are existential arguments and philosophies to be discovered, too.) It’s also part memoir, as we get to know Miller better, the demons she’s faced and the tools she’s used to try to mend herself. Her father is a delightedly nihilistic scientist, with some parallels to Jordan, which is of course fascinating. The book is perhaps most of all an inquiry into Miller’s original concern: how to live and not despair, not choose to die, in such an overwhelmingly imperfect world as this one.

Miller’s writing style is colorful, phantasmagoric, impassioned, with high highs and low lows. She sees beauty and desolation in the world, and describes them evocatively. Among Jordan’s discoveries are

A small lantern fish with glowing spots, “which had risen from the deeps in a storm.” A tiny, rainbow-scaled fish that was found inside the belly of a hake, which was found inside the belly of an albacore. A crimson fish with yellow stripes that they nicknamed “the Spanish flag.”

The only fish he ever named after himself, “breathtaking, absolutely, but frightening, too, in the way of an M.C. Escher drawing.” “Its fins look like dragon wings, serrated and sharp.”

Without ruining too much of the story, I will say that Jordan, like all our heroes, is not purely heroic. He turns out to be in fact profoundly problematic, as our heroes tend to, and so Miller must wrestle with that, too. Chaos again. His methods are ruthless –

He began inventing more aggressive techniques for capturing fish. Blowing them out of the water with dynamite, hammering them out of coral, and perhaps most ingenious, for the “myriads of little fishes” that hid inside the tiny cracks in tide pools: poison.

and he’s harder on people than he is on fish. In more than a few ways I won’t give away here he will disturb our modern sensibilities. He disappoints us, as he disappoints Miller – horribly – but her own perspective never disappoints.

Illustrations by Kate Samworth open each chapter and advance their contents; these lovely black-and-whites resemble woodcuts (if that’s not in fact what they are) and will be part of what makes this book memorable for me. I think Samworth deserved to have her name on the book’s cover.

Transcendent. Best book of the year. Wrecked me, but in the best way. I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time.

Rating: 10 holotypes.

Aurora’s End by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

I am sad to see book 3 of this trilogy go by. Liz, what’s next?

With Aurora Rising, we met our cast of wacky characters, and saw them just begin to fit together. With Aurora Burning, we saw those bonds tighten even as the group began to be split apart by circumstance. Aurora’s End then brings all the dramas and plot conflicts, large and small, to their conclusions. This installment got still more convoluted in its science, and hit that note that sci-fi sometimes does for me, where it made me glaze over a bit: I just let the science go by and trust that it makes sense. It was definitely fun to mix up some timelines, I’ll say that. I am sorry to see it all come to an end, obviously, but I feel really good about where Kaufman and Kristoff left my new friends. There was some trickery right at the very end, but they brought it all around. And they are masterful worldbuilders; I’m going to look into their other work and see if there’s more there for me. This trilogy was such a treat as absorbing escapism, and I really needed that.

Rating: 8 gremps.

Aurora Burning by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

Good thing I got on top of ordering books 2 and 3 in this series; I couldn’t wait long after Aurora Rising, could I! I raced through these 500 pages and I don’t think it’ll be long til I’m in book 3, sadly the last one. Very fine pacing and invisibly-easy-to-read prose make for a lovely indulgent time. I need so much more like this (Liz, keep ’em coming).

Where Aurora Rising offered lots of delightful comedy in between its world-endingly-high stakes, Aurora Burning gets a little more serious. It’s right there in the titles: in book 1, Aurora (and our team, and the plot) were on the upswing, and now we are settling into the action, with increasing temperatures in several senses, and no margin for error. We see the development of one deeply intense romantic relationship, and otherwise a bunch of flirting and sexual tension, because these are just teenagers, folks – something we rarely forget because they behave like teenagers, but also sometimes forget, because they’re carrying the weight of worlds, and it’s really too much for the kids that they are. (Also, I love that everybody just loves [flirts with, has sex with] whomever they please, with little bother over gender. It’s refreshing.) We lose some people (‘people,’ to use the term loosely), and we uncover some damaging secrets. We also gain another sibling: it turns out Kal has a sister, whose personality and values are quite opposed to his own, with several comparisons to the contrasting closeness between twins Ty and Scar. Kal’s sister is the source of pain and anguish, but also some much-needed comic relief.

I don’t want to give too much away, but this middle book of the trilogy ends us in truly dire straits. I’m not sure how long I can hold off on the final installment, Aurora’s End (foreboding, that, although I’ll choose to read it as the end of the series, thank you), although the longer I wait the longer I get to spend in this world before it’s gone…

The Kaufman & Kristoff writing team is outstanding. Pacing and voice are perfect. I disappear into these pages and lose track of the world. I don’t believe I mentioned in my earlier review that there is a fairly sentient, very advanced smartphone-type-devise (a uniglass, here), named Magellan, that has a personality its own and narrates short informational sections as well as speaking to (haranguing) our squad, and this detail is genius. Give me more.

Rating: 8 gifts.

A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow

This delightful little book brought to us once again by Liz. In this, the first in the Fractured Fables series, Alix E. Harrow retells the story of Sleeping Beauty in winning fashion, set in a recognizable modern Ohio but with a portal into magical realms, featuring various strong female and queer characters and general reclamation. It’s dedicated to “everyone who deserves a better story than the one they have,” and feels like a perfect response to the Toni Morrison quotation: “if there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” A Spindle Splintered is just a novella at a hair over 100 pages, and I’m thoroughly entranced; I’ve already preordered book 2 in the series (A Mirror Mended), which should ship to me in June from Gaslight Books.

Sleeping Beauty is pretty much the worst fairy tale, any way you slice it.

It’s aimless and amoral and chauvinist as shit. It’s the fairy tale that feminist scholars cite when they want to talk about women’s passivity in historical narratives. (“She literally sleeps through her own climax,” as my favorite gender studies professor used to say. “Double entendre fully intended.”)…

Even among the other nerds who majored in folklore, Sleeping Beauty is nobody’s favorite. Romantic girls like Beauty and the Beast; vanilla girls like Cinderella; goth girls like Snow White.

Only dying girls like Sleeping Beauty.

In the first page, we learn these things about our narrator, Zinnia Gray: that she’s a nerd who majored in folklore. That she’s dying – has been dying all her life. That she loves Sleeping Beauty even though she knows it’s problematic as hell. In fact, Sleeping Beauty has been one of her life’s great obsessions. The action begins on Zinnia’s twenty-first birthday, when her best friend Charmaine Baldwin (Charm) throws her a Sleeping-Beauty-themed birthday party, in a tower and with an ancient spinning wheel, no less. Charm is a badass lesbian science major and Zinnia’s absolute champion. This twenty-first birthday is especially heavy, because no sufferer of Zinnia’s very rare disease (caused by environmental pollutants) has ever lived to twenty-two. Zin manages to prick her finger on the spindle of Charm’s birthday party prop – no small thing, as it’s quite dull, but she is a determined dying girl – “and then something happens, after all.”

Zin has an adventure in another world, side-by-side a plucky princess named Primrose. They aim to avoid not only the spindle of a spinning wheel but an unwanted marriage; they travel to take on a wicked fairy who is not who she seems; and they learn that they are but two in a whole galaxy of doomed or cursed or dying princesses or girls or women, who would all like the chance to rewrite their own stories. This is not “one of those soft, G-rated fairy tales, stripped of medieval horrors,” but rather “the kind of tale where prices are paid and blood is spilled.” Except it’s also a tale of empowerment and badass womanhood, of female friendships and love, and it ends in a joyful go-forth sort of moment. And it’s hilarious: Zinnia as narrator is wry, sarcastic, vulnerable, irreverent, just someone I’d love to know. (Dying girls sometimes use humor as a shield. “I personally feel that accepting my own imminent mortality is enough work without also having a healthy attitude about it.” And what of it?)

I am extremely excited about the next installment – I was afraid A Mirror Mended might take on another standalone fairy tale rewrite, but this is indeed the continued adventures of Zinna Gray, “professional fairy-tale fixer and lapsed Sleeping Beauty,” and I can’t wait.

Rating: 8 stones slick and dark with blood.

Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Big winner from Liz again; this was just the absorbing, sci-fi-fantastical otherworld I needed in between heavier reads. Before finishing it I’d sat down and ordered the other two books in the trilogy (from my local online* bookstore, Gaslight), and I wish they were here already.

Aurora Rising is set in 2380, and begins at the Aurora Academy, where students graduate into the Aurora Legion – sort of a United Nations made up of both humans and alien species, to peacekeep throughout space. These teams are made up of teenagers, because the physiological challenges of deep-space Fold travel are only for the very young. (This will add to the drama.) Chapters are told from different points of view, but we begin with Tyler Jones, prettyboy and star student, top of his class in the Alpha track. Alphas will head up their squads; they are strategists and leaders. Tyler was poised to get to cherrypick his ideal squad and likely get the choicest mission assignment, but things went a little sideways, and he found himself saddled with odds and ends instead – happily, including his twin sister Scarlett and their shared best friend since childhood, Cat. (Scarlett is the squad’s Face, or diplomat, multilingual and people-skilled. Cat is their Ace, or pilot, as cocky and short-fused as Aces are stereotyped to be.) They get sent on a terrible mission to start their new careers: boring, distant, low-consequence. Or is it?

Tyler’s accidental misadventure, which cost him his pick-of-the-litter squad, was rescuing “the girl out of time”: Aurora (or Auri) has been in cryo-sleep for two hundred years. She was en route to the colony where her father lived, but the ship never arrived, and she is its sole survivor. Her father’s colony has been erased. And some very dangerous people seem to care very much what happens to Auri. Luckily, she falls in with this ragtag squad of losers: Tyler, Scarlett, Cat, Finian (nonhuman, the group’s differently abled Gearhead), Zila (socially awkward, or possibly sociopathic, Brain – responsible for scientific and medical expertise), and Kal (their Tank, or warrior, of a much-maligned alien species recently considered an enemy of the Terrans, or humans). Together they form “the strangest group of misfits that ever trekked across an abandoned alien planet beset with creeptastic plants and besieged by military forces,” which is a great line. I’m pretty intrigued by the intersection of plant life, beauty, and horror.

Thick greenery blooms from its eyes, its back is covered in a tangle of beautiful flowers, and when it opens its mouth to snarl its defiance at him, I see reddish-green leaves all the way down its throat.

What with sibling antics (Tyler and Scar), bestie vibes and hijinks (Scar and Cat), romantic and sexual tensions (several), awkward geekiness (several), and extreme danger and high stakes, this novel offers a charming blend of pathos, angst, and superlative, laugh-out-loud comedy. I stayed up to unhealthily late hours because I couldn’t put this book down; I was completely absorbed and in love with our dear, silly, impassioned young heroes. Also, check out this Princess Bride reference.

“Anyway, are you sure you’re not making them up? They sound ridiculous. I mean, hairy dirtchildren who fly spaceships and have almost identical DNA to you lot?” I scoff. “I don’t think they exist.”

And that’s when a snarling, furry pitch-black humanoid thing with jagged yellow teeth that would put an ultrasaur to shame comes screaming out of the undergrowth and straight for my face.

(Chimps, if you were wondering.)

There is so much to love here. The worldbuilding is on point (and if I recognize certain elements from The Expanse, what of it?). The characters are darling; who could resist such a motley band of misfits? The action is riveting. I’m hooked; give me more. This first installment ends a little cheesy, but I’m well hooked all the same. Stay tuned for book 2. I don’t think it will take me long. Thanks as ever, Liz!

Rating: 9 costume changes.

*local online? They’re working on a brick-and-mortar, which I badly want, so I buy all my books from them! Cheers, Justin and Ethan!

“The Future of Work: Compulsory” by Martha Wells

A very short story, but a satisfying little fix for my need for Murderbot. And actually, this one would make an excellent introduction (and clearly is designed for those unfamiliar with the character, as it economically sums up the needed background in a way that is not at all awkward – no small feat). It’s just a very quick episode, and I think early in SecUnit’s governor-module-free life. It’s still working out how it feels and thinks, because “apparently getting free will after having 93 percent of your behavior controlled for your entire existence will do weird things to your impulse control.” Also, “What’s the hurry? I can always kill the humans after the next series ends.” Which is kind of perfect as an encapsulation: the humor, the darkness, and the entertainment addiction. I love it.

Real quick and easy; think about checking it out here.

Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells

This is book six, the final to date, in the Murderbot Diaries series. I am very relieved to learn that there are three more books to come, because I am not done with this fascinating character.

Fugitive Telemetry takes place between Exit Strategy and Network Effect, and I was not prepared for this and really missed getting the next installment in the story as developed in the latter, but there’s still a lot to love here. Murderbot is living uneasily on Preservation Station, and there has been (gasp) a murder, which never happens here, and therefore the regular security forces aren’t really equipped for an investigation. Our favorite bot construct gets drafted (that is, asked nicely by Dr. Mensah) to help out, but (predictably) it doesn’t love working with the security forces, and the feeling is mutual. Murderbot has also been asked to not hack any systems, a promise I’m a little surprised it keeps; this hamstrings its investigative efforts somewhat, and takes us into the realm of more classic detective work. That’s the premise of an excellent review by NPR of this book, and indeed they’ve done so well with it that I’m linking you there in lieu of my own longer review. Check it out: “Murderbot meets Miss Marple in Fugitive Telementry.”

I love everything that happens here, but I remain anxious for a sequel to Network Effect. I want more Amena and more ART and more Murderbot in general. I’m just glad it’s happening.

Rating: 7 limbs.

Network Effect by Martha Wells

I love the promo copy from Tor’s publishing page enough to let it kick off this review:

You know that feeling when you’re at work, and you’ve had enough of people, and then the boss walks in with yet another job that needs to be done right this second or the world will end, but all you want to do is go home and binge your favorite shows? And you’re a sentient murder machine programmed for destruction? Congratulations, you’re Murderbot.

Come for the pew-pew space battles, stay for the most relatable A.I. you’ll read this century.

I’m usually alone in my head, and that’s where 90 plus percent of my problems are.

When Murderbot’s human associates (not friends, never friends) are captured and another not-friend from its past requires urgent assistance, Murderbot must choose between inertia and drastic action.

Drastic action it is, then.

Here it is! This, the fifth in the Murderbot series, is a full-length novel, some 350 pages instead of 150-175. Wells delivers: this is everything that’s good about books one through four, but bigger and more of it. No, that’s not to be taken for granted. Sometimes the novelist can’t wrangle the short story or vice versa. But Murderbot is every bit as compelling for a novel as it was in novella form, and this scale offers more room for the plot (in both senses!) to grow in some excellent ways.

Murderbot is back on Preservation Station with its new …family? of humans. (It would never use that word, but I will.) It’s still working out its feelings about humans, and its own humans in particular, and trying to figure out where it fits into the world and the human society it’s presently allied with. It still doesn’t know what it wants out of life, which is one of the drawbacks of self-determination. And the human society, and the (real) human family, are still working out how Murderbot (or SecUnit, as they call it) fits in, too. Dr. Mensah, from book one, is Murderbot’s closest human friend, and also its patron (legally, in fact, its owner), and the two of them have a pretty good understanding, but not all of Dr. Mensah’s family has accepted the bot construct’s role. There are some tensions. Dr. Mensah has a teenaged daughter, Amena, who offers another set of challenges: Murderbot’s own eye-rolling attitude up against that of a teenaged human makes for some pleasing gentle conflict; and they share as well an earnest sweetness that they like to hide behind rough edges.

Murderbot and some of Dr. Mensah’s family and friends find themselves on a ship that gets kidnapped, basically, and taken through a wormhole… the space-science stuff can get a little away from me, but it’s okay. There’s a mystery; there are unknowns. There are bad guys – the corporates, as usual, but again unknowns as well, including possibly alien remnants. Murderbot is as usual (in its exasperated tone) having to try to save the day and keep everyone safe, even those who are dismissive of its abilities or foolhardy or otherwise frustrating. What’s gradually changing, though, is Murderbot’s relationships with these humans. It really cares; they care about it. Some of them even trust it.

Spoiler-free: the stakes rise when we begin to suspect that another character from a past novella is behind the kidnapping. Also! Near the end, a new character enters the scene who I am very excited about.

The character Murderbot remains the best part of these books, which is a fine strength to have, since these are the Murderbot Diaries and its first-person POV is the voice of the series. Our hero is sarcastic, bitter, both immature and ultra-competent; soft-hearted but outwardly prickly; it is simultaneously scornful of humans and (in the entertainment media series it so loves) sort of adores them. Its voice is often hilarious, self-deprecating and petty. “I wanted to pick it up and have an emotion over it like a stupid human.” “Target Two whispered something, which FacilitySys rendered as ‘What are you?’ I said, ‘I’m a Shut Up or Get Your Head Smashed.'” It’s interesting what it does and doesn’t know; it finds some words baffling, like foolproof (why isn’t it smartproof?), and gets anagram and acronym confused. When it has emotions, it sometimes has to go face a wall for a little while.

Murderbot still has trust issues, and who can blame it? Many of its humans are just now learning how bad things can be for a SecUnit. “(If there’d been a SecUnit in the colony, there probably would have been a compelling reason why it had to stay behind on the dying planet.) (I don’t actually believe that.) (Sometimes I believe that.)” It learns that “the organic parts of my brain were doing a lot more heavy lifting than I gave them credit for.” And it’s learning some significant lessons about trust and friendship (which will give it emotions).

Some reviewers see Murderbot as being possibly edging toward a romantic entanglement. I do not read it that way. But book six will take us where it will.

This was a really good installment in the series; I was very pleased to spend more time with our grumbly construct, and equally pleased to see Wells’s competence with the longer form. Psyched for book six; just sorry that that one is, to date, the last of the series.

Rating: 8 lines of code.

Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

Book four of the Murderbot Diaries is proceeding pretty much as I’d hoped. We’ve got some returning serial characters, and further development of the idea that bots are people, too. Check out that blurb from the front cover: “One of the most humane portraits of a nonhuman I’ve ever read” (from Annalee Newitz). I wholly agree, and think that that’s one of the great victories of this series. Murderbot is drily funny, self-deprecating, sarcastic, deeply feeling and resistant to the truths of its own emotional self, and who among us hasn’t wished we were a little more stoic, a time or two?

[Side note: something new has just occurred to me. I think Murderbot and Reacher have a few things in common. Both try to mind their own business, but both are helpless to resist helping dumb humans in need, even as they feel exasperation about it. Both have superhuman abilities, not only in physical fighting but in quick calculations on the fly and strategic thinking. (Only Murderbot has a good explanation for these qualities.) Both have a tendency to be delightfully deadpan. Both try to slip out into the night when things get wrapped up. They’re both sort of knights-errant, preferring not to hurt innocent bystanders but reasonably quick to upgrade (downgrade?) a person’s status to hostile as situations develop. These are qualities I appreciate, and I think there’s a definite parallel here that helps explain my love for both rogue elements.]

“Ship’s drones gathered to watch me, confused as to why I was going out the wrong door and beeping sadly about it.” Even the drones are given emotions: confused, sad. The idea of humanizing the nonhuman feels like a helpful step in rehumanizing each other, too. These books star a murderbot who is not human though it has ‘organic parts,’ and who is not legally recognized as a person in most of the worlds it travels in, but it has human friends from a world where bots and human/bot constructs are legally recognized. Can it even see itself living in this new way? In the midst of a fight to the death, our protagonist offers a deadly CombatBot the option to be free from outside control. “…dodging projectiles, it was hard to come up with a decent argument for free will. I’m not sure it would have worked on me, before my mass murder incident. I didn’t know what I wanted (I still didn’t know what I wanted) and when you’re told what to do every second of your existence, change is terrifying.” These are weighty questions, and Murderbot is an excellent guide to them: snarky, hard-shelled, but soft and melty on the inside.

I continue to love the thread in which Murderbot is an entertainment media addict, too. Aside from being unexpected and hilarious, as it was from the outset, it also offers opportunities to think about its future career options (recall I just recently noted its wisdom in critiquing narratives), as well as how stories and characters speak to us, and what they can stand in for. Here, a human friend asks Murderbot what the media does for it, why it loves its favorite show so much (that’s The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon, which I sincerely hope will appear as a spinoff someday). This allows it to think about its own possible personhood, and empathy. There is a lot going on in this series of slim scifi novellas, a lot of reach. I am increasingly excited about the progress to come. (I am also feeling pleased with some of my own predictions.)

I hope Martha Wells is off somewhere writing more Murderbot right now. I expect to get through the last two books soon.

Rating: 8 hard currency cards.

Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells

Book three of the Murderbot Diaries keeps us right on track, and they’re so slim and easy to read, it takes willpower not to binge them. Our murderbot takes on a new name for this adventure, and a new self-designed mission; both of these are outside the normal range for murderbots (or SecUnits, for security units). But our SecUnit is special. In some ways, this episode resembles the last, in Artificial Condition: the murderbot hitches a ride, hoping to quietly take in some shows and maybe a little light reading and be left alone until arrival at the next place where it hopes to do a little research, solve a mystery. But it gets 1. recognized by a bot it didn’t anticipate and 2. tangled up in the plans and lives of a group of humans it regrets feeling something for, and therefore 3. roped into protecting them – like in its old life, but on its own terms.

The pattern here continues to develop an important point: bots and SecUnits are rather closer to being “people” than we are originally led to believe, meaning they have loyalties, feelings, and personalities. This allows for some ideas about liberties, responsibilities, and “human” rights (which in this world may need to apply to some beings that are not strictly human). It also makes me look forward to what is to come. Our murderbot (of the several names, now) will carry on, growing into its own. It will continue to meet more characters that will test its understanding of bots (etc.), and eventually I imagine it will have to redefine that understanding, as I am doing as reader. I can’t wait for more adventures. And I love the murderbot’s sense of humor and irony as much as ever.

Another fun twist in this novella was the murderbot – an avid consumer of serial entertainment shows, remember – forming some opinions about what would and wouldn’t make good entertainment feed narrative. I’d love to see it get into the writers’ room!

This was book three and there are only six; I’m already sad. One of these is a full-length novel, though? That will be fun!

Rating: 7 core samples.
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