The Photic and the Deep: On Sabrina Imbler’s “How Far the Light Reaches”

By Michael Scott MooreJanuary 20, 2023

The Photic and the Deep: On Sabrina Imbler’s “How Far the Light Reaches”

How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures by Sabrina Imbler

“THIS BOOK takes its name from the vertical zones of the ocean,” writes Sabrina Imbler, “which are divided based on how far light reaches.” The photic, twilight, and aphotic zones are well-known divisions of the fishy deep, but what bears repeating is just how shallow the photic, or sunlit, portion is: most of the marine life we think about tends to live and hunt in the first 200 meters. The rest stretches down to an average of 3,700 meters (2.3 miles) and remains more obscure to scientists than the surface of Mars.

We’ve learned only in the last few decades about the blind crabs and weird pallid fish living on hot-vent energy from the mantle of the earth, on the “marine snow” of flesh and waste that nourishes the shadier zones, or on whale falls, the final and dramatic descents of whale carcasses to the ocean floor.

The book traverses all these layers in 10 essays on the mutability of the human self. A trans science writer from Northern California who uses they/them pronouns, Imbler mixes careful fragments of biography with selected bits of marine science to produce a unique and powerful debut, an alluring series of metaphors to describe what it means to be young and trans — and half-Chinese — in the 21st-century United States.

The yeti crab is one example. It’s a small crustacean with furry-looking pincers that thrives in teeming colonies on the edges of hydrothermal vents and nowhere else. One variant called Kiwa tyleri lives near Antarctica:

The entire crab population [near one vent] is packed into a few cubic yards where the waters hover at a hospitable 77 degrees Fahrenheit, a ring of shelter between the freezing cold sea and a column of vent water that can exceed 700 degrees Fahrenheit. The crabs don’t seem to mind living on top of one another.

They also seem to dance — moving in a constant, comical shimmy in the dark — to gather sulfides and bacteria from the vent water and chemosynthesize them into energy.

This deep-sea oasis reminds the author of a queer club night in Seattle during the early days of the Trump administration. In 2016 and 2017, Imbler had just moved to the city and felt alienated, so Night Crush — a monthly event “by queer people of color for queer people of color” — was a source of warmth and life.

Imbler does a good job of building both the crabs’ and the clubgoers’ stories with precise and patient detail, allowing the reader to notice parallels without having to learn some kind of lesson. The method is a high-wire act, with many opportunities to go wrong, but the result is a mixture of excellent science reportage and affecting memoir. In the process, the book punches holes in old tropes of wildlife documentaries that keep suburban viewers engaged around the dinner table with stories of apparently straight, unsurprising family life: the wayward cubs, the hunting fathers, the protective mothers, and the frisky, adventurous adolescents.

Imbler’s project is not far from Olivia Judson’s in her hilarious Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex, which recasts the evolutionary biologist as a newspaper agony aunt, dispensing tips about sex and romance to worms and insects and night-climbing primates. Judson wants her book to sabotage (human) clichés about gender. “Boys are promiscuous and girls are chaste, right? Wrong,” writes Dr. Tatiana. “The battle of the sexes erupts because, in most species, girls are wanton.”

One obvious problem in either book is projection — imposing pet ideas onto the natural world and therefore mischaracterizing it — but both writers solve it with playfulness: objectivity is not quite the point. How Far the Light Reaches is a memoir above all, not a strict scientific investigation.

The chapter “Morphing Like a Cuttlefish” describes some aspects of Imbler’s confusing childhood. “I was good at being a girl,” they write. “I wore bubble dresses, wedge boots, an unseemly number of berets.” But acting like a girl was also a form of camouflage in strait-laced Silicon Valley. The cuttlefish is an incredible mimic, with skin that changes color and texture in seconds, like a flowing-sand painting. The cells of its intelligent skin can flash warnings to enemies or flares of desire to other cuttlefish. So the skin becomes a complex metaphor, not just for gender conformity but for behaviors in love.

When Imbler starts to date someone in New York, for example, they write:

I spend so much time at their place that I begin wearing their clothes, first as a joke and then by habit. When I go to a bodega in their sweatpants and hoodie, the cashier greets me as if we’ve met before, and I realize I look just like them, a reflection in a trick mirror. As I walk back to their place, I watch myself in the reflective glass of bodegas and bookstores and feel either lust or self-esteem or a strange mingling of both. […] When I take the train home, this time in my own clothes, I wonder if I have developed a pattern of becoming subsumed by whomever I want to fuck.

Imbler’s posture throughout the book is watchful and quiet, intelligent, self-aware, sometimes victimized, sometimes passive-aggressive. The cuttlefish chapter is resonant but reveals a natural weakness in the science writing — a choosiness with fact to serve a chapter’s theme. Talent for self-disguise may be the least interesting part of a cuttlefish, Imbler argues, “because camouflage is a body language deployed against predators that would harm or devour you. Reading a creature through its camouflage seems a misguided attempt to understand its true nature, its whole self.” Exactly right. But Imbler makes the same omission. Defense is only part of the purpose of camouflage for a cuttlefish, which also blends into its surroundings to surprise and kill its prey. This aspect never comes up in the chapter; it doesn’t fit. The rest of the essay, though — about further miracles of cuttlefish skin, about Imbler’s urge to transition — is graceful and perfectly paced.

The chapter “Hybrids” deals with an everyday annoyance for mixed-race kids, the dreaded question where are you from? Some people just want to place a stranger: “‘What are you?’ is an act of taxonomy, even if the asker does not realize it.” On the other hand, Imbler feels the same curiosity:

[W]henever I meet a mixed person who looks something like me, I want to ask them The Question. I want to know what kind of Asian they are. I want to know how their parents met. I want to know what words they use to identify themselves. I want to know how close or distanced they feel to their own whiteness. I want to ask them the questions I don’t want strangers to ask me.

One weakness in the current discourse around identity is that the most superficial, sunlit aspects of the self (politics, gender, race) obsess 21st-century human beings. Adjectives have started to resemble proper nouns (“Black” and, in the meantime, “White” are both in-house style at CNN), and the risk of civil war along divisions in this photic zone has risen dramatically in the United States since Trump. The shallowness is obvious and painful, but it’s hard to know where else to look. Imbler recognizes this contradiction, and the best passages in How Far the Light Reaches paint in the lightless depths.

When a whale dies, as described in one such section, the corpse falls more or less straight to the bottom because whales are heavy; only their living lungs are buoyant. Once they land, the scavenging starts. A single whale can feed a whole region, from sleeper sharks and hagfish to mollusks, from “worms that resemble shag carpets” to “glowing meadows” of bacteria, which have evolved to sip on the last particles of fat and oil in the bones. This nourishment can last for decades, and without an occasional dead whale, it’s hard to imagine how deep-sea communities of sulfophilic bacteria and sightless worms could survive.

In alternating sections disguised as necropsy reports, the same chapter deals with the end of a relationship:

Location: New England Sex: Not for a long time […] History: You and M first saw each other in the library and officially met in a queer theory class (a cliché, obviously). You were ghosted that summer by the first girl you slept with (tacky!), a separation that left you depressed, unsure if you were in love, or if you were gay or straight, because you, young idiot, were under the impression that sexuality could exist beyond the binary for everyone but you.

These relationship confusions alternate with vivid and remarkable descriptions of whale metamorphosis, and the closing cadences are operatic, not just a moving image of a skeleton that becomes a sea-bottom reef but also an aria for the failed affair, which any Homo sapiens can understand: “The anemones had found a home on the remains of a creature once so staggeringly alive that it inhaled metric tons of krill each day and fertilized entire food webs with its waste, its hundreds of pounds of heart beating through the water with no sense of what was to come.”


Michael Scott Moore is a journalist and novelist, author of two nonfiction books about the ocean, including Sweetness and Blood (2010), about surfing, and The Desert and the Sea (2018), about Somali pirates. His first novel, Too Much of Nothing, is set in the fictional town of Calaveras Beach.

LARB Contributor

Michael Scott Moore’s most recent book is The Desert and the Sea: 977 Days Captive on the Somali Pirate Coast (2018). He is a contributor to The New Yorker and New Lines Magazine.


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