We always think of space as being the final frontier, but the Earth’s oceans are so unexplored that they may be an undiscovered country, teeming with new life, new civilizations. In the following email interview, author Rae Mariz discusses how building on the possibilities of this idea led her to write the new sci-fi / cli-fi novella Weird Fishes (paperback, Kindle).
I always like to start with a plot summary. So, what is Weird Fishes about, and when and where does it take place?
Weird Fishes takes the…I don’t know if you’d call it analogy…but the common observation that “we know more about outer space than the deepest ocean” and flips it around. If we know nothing about what lives down there, then what’s down there isn’t likely to know much about us, right? So, Weird Fishes takes place in the deep Pacific Ocean where a cephalopod scientist has a close encounter with “alien technology” and constructs a protective organic mech suit so she can be the first of her kind to ascend to the surface and discover what lives up there. And to, you know, prevent the planetary ecological collapse those aliens appear to be causing.
It’s never really specified when this is all taking place, but a lot of details place it in a modern day / near-future setting. It could all be happening right now.
Where did you get the idea for Weird Fishes? What inspired it?
There was a scene in David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II where the whole premise of the story, almost the entire shape of the narrative, came to my mind’s eye as I watched the bright lights of an undersea research vessel crest a sea-ridge. The whole episode about The Deep inspired it, probably. With Attenborough’s voice saying things like, “A giant black void larger than all the rest of the world’s habitats put together. Alien-like creatures produce dazzling displays of light… This language of light is so widespread here that these signals are probably the commonest form of communication on the entire planet.” I was like…wow, if this is the baseline normal for most life on the planet, then we’re the aliens, the outliers. And probably not the ones with the authority to tell the story of what life on this planet looks like — what is it that makes us think our experience of life is the only one that “counts”? I immediately knew the perspective(s) the story would be told from, the relationship this unknown undersea civilization would have to the world around them, all of it. There were a lot of surprises I discovered in the process of writing it all out, but it was a rare case of having an entire story delivered to me by watery muses…in Attenborough’s dulcet tones.
I recently looked over the stream-of-consciousness outline I wrote in February 2020 before I started drafting…and that single page of notes has everything laid out, character details and dynamics. How it was going to end, even though I wasn’t yet clear on how we were going to get there. But, yeah, all there from the start. It’s weird.
So is there a reason why the main character, Ceph, is squid-like as opposed to fish-y or crab-y or clam-y? Besides wanting to make him different from Iliokai, who’s a mermaid.
Quick correction. Ceph is not a dude. One of the surprises I learned in the process of writing the scenes is that in Ceph’s squid-y society, offspring are genetic clones and all female when they hatch. One of Ceph’s sisters is undergoing the natural hormonal process to become a male when the story takes place, but Ceph herself is an adult female, a sister, a scientist, who doesn’t fully conform to society’s elaborate reproduction rituals. That stuff wasn’t in the outline. I was surprised to find my alien invasion story had a Little Women subplot, quite unexpectedly.
I apologize to Ceph for misgendering her.
But yes, there is definitely a reason why she’s squid-like. Octopus cognition is fascinating and has already been studied and described as being as close to an alien mind as we’re likely to get. The species has been around for 298 million years (330 million years if a fossil found last spring is the real deal). It takes more imagination to believe that a highly-evolved octopod wouldn’t exist in the deep ocean with that unfathomable amount of time to potentially develop, right? Don’t quote me on numbers, but the first hominid appeared in the fossil record when? Like 4.4 million years ago? And now we’re walking around like the apex of evolution alongside orangutan, chimp, and gorilla cousins (for now; all are critically endangered due to habitat destruction) so I didn’t think it was hard to imagine that a hyper intelligent species of octopus could be sharing the seas with the species of cephalopods we’re more familiar with. The big joke is that Ceph’s kind of seafolk also categorically disregards the sentience and intelligence of their fellow octopodes — not to mention crabs, clams, or fish. They definitely wouldn’t consider humans to be sentient creatures. So alien, yet so similar.
Also, Iliokai isn’t a mermaid. She’s a rare marine mammal who — when her kind has been sighted by sailors or from the shores throughout the centuries — has often been misidentified as a mermaid in human folklore. Or selkies and sirens…or seals and manatees. Unlike Ceph, she’s seen and interacted with people before. But people assume Iliokai is either a non-existent fantastical creature or merely an animal, not the emotionally complex protector of the oceans. The voice of the sea.
And you kind of already answered this, but is there also a reason why Weird Fishes is set underwater as opposed to on land or in the sky? Aside from having to change the name to Odd Birds or Silly Rabbits? Or did I just blow your plans for the sequels? I did, didn’t I?
No, you didn’t ruin any future plans, but there is a twist in the story that reveals who the titular “weird fish” actually are. It’s an interesting question though, because the ocean setting isn’t arbitrary. I’m not sure I can get into it without spoiling, but the story couldn’t be set anywhere else. The ocean is the Earth’s largest ecosystem and in the course of the characters’ journey we’re shown the ways the land and the sky are all a part of it. So, short answer, yes. There is a reason why it’s sea-centric.
It sounds like Weird Fishes is a combination of hard sci-fi and climate fiction. Is that how you’d describe it? Because anytime someone has underwater people who are squid-like, as opposed to humanoid or fish-y, it makes me think of H.P. Lovecraft, though Fishes doesn’t seem like it’s particularly Lovecraftian.
No, there’s nothing Lovecraftian about Weird Fishes, as far as I know. That subgenre emphasizes the horror of the unknowable and incomprehensible, right? Yeah, no. Weird Fishes delights in the unknowable and incomprehensible, not scared of it at all. I know that’s the basis of a lot of “sci-fi thrillers” set in space or in the deep dark ocean…they often play on those existential fears of not knowing what’s out there and go looking to find something creepy in the void.
I instead set out to tell what I thought was going to be a very straightforward sci-fi story, based on the “first contact” narrative structure: protagonist “discovers” the existence of alien intelligence or an alien intelligence discovers them. Those stories often pre-suppose that colonization is part of “human nature” Or in the second “alien invasion” instance, they pre-suppose that colonization is part of any advanced society’s nature. I don’t have that worldview, so it’s not reflected in the story being told in Weird Fishes.
And I think that might be what makes the story feel so unusual, so unlike what you might typically expect to read as hard science fiction. It’s based in marine biology and ecosystem science, and offers up a mind-bendy conception of time as whirlpools and theories of time-travel. Standard sci-fi elements. So I describe it as sci-fi, but maybe the integration of mermaid folklore and depiction of a not-necessarily mechanistic universe nudges it out of the category for some people. I’m not sure. But I love sci-fi that explores communication and miscommunication with alien intelligences, and am drawn to the underlying themes in “first contact” narratives in particular. How the realization that we’re not alone in the universe has the potential to alter humanity’s perception of itself, “what it means to be human,” or that when the clouds darken and mysterious dangers hover over world capitals, we’ll all band together to face a global threat. Even if that doesn’t feel particularly realistic presently while witnessing responses to the current existential threat of industry-driven climate breakdown and ecosystem collapse…or multiple waves of a global pandemic — not seeing a lot of banding together yet, are we? — there’s still something appealing about that storyline. Weird Fishes is a thought experiment imagining what might it take to get characters from seemingly different worlds to realize that they’re part of the same world. Because that’s what needs to happen for them to save it.
Now, unless I’m wrong, Weird Fishes is your fourth novel or novella after Ruin and Charm, The Unidentified, and Forest Primeval, though you’ve also published a narrative non-fiction short story collection called Getting Caught, a biography called Akay And His Friends, and wrote the bedtime stories in Stranger Than Imagination, a book of animal illustrations by the artist Moki.
Mm, yeah. I applaud your attempts to make sense of my creative output; everything is tangled together. Ruin And Charm and Forest Primeval aren’t yet available to readers in a published form, but they’re the inspiration to some of my illustration and textile work featured on my website. Not everything is available to English-language readers either, so it’s hard for someone to get an overview of what I write.
Got it. So, are there any writers who had a big influence on Weird Fishes but not on anything else you’ve written?
Weird Fishes…yeah, it’s a weird book. Even if it doesn’t seem to resemble my other published works, it makes total sense that I wrote this book. It has all the things I love to play with in my stories: non-human perspectives, collective protagonists, misfits finding family, storytelling traditions, deep time and generational sagas…often told in highly stylized language and with unconventional story structures. The Rae genre, for sure. Not sure which writers had an outsized influence on this one in particular, but I can detect traces of writers like Ted Chiang, Becky Chambers, Carl Sagan, and Ursula K LeGuin. Their warm-hearted philosophical explorations were in the creative waters while I was working on this, definitely.
How about non-literary influences; do you think Weird Fishes was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Aside from Blue Planet II, there are a bunch of other documentaries, podcasts, and misremembered science facts from research articles I’d happened to click on that influenced Weird Fishes.
I don’t see a lot of clear influences from other creative media, though sometimes — often times — I create something “in reaction to” certain media or trends. Spite is an awesome energy source for the creative engine. Weird Fishes might’ve been spawned as a response to the overabundance of fear-mongering deep ocean sci-fi films; The Meg and Underwater, stuff like that. I want to watch things that explore the darkness in the deep or the emptiness of space, but seriously, why is the “something down there / out there” always trying to kill and eat you? (Same complaint that zombies are always ruining my apocalypses.) The movies that stray from that, like Arrival and Contact…maybe a little bit of The Abyss…you’ll see some of that scientific heart in Weird Fishes.
Sci-fi and cli-fi stories like Weird Fishes are sometimes stand-alone novels and sometimes part of larger sagas. So, what is Fishes?
It’s mostly a stand-alone……but often something I write inspires the next thing I write — though probably in a way that no one apart from me can see the connection. Weird Fishes is kind of a spin-off of one of my not-yet-published novellas. From just a few random lines I wrote in Forest Primeval. In that story, all the fantastical creatures from European folklore are crowded together like refugees in the last remaining old growth forest on the present-day border of Poland and Belarus. “The folk” and their magical items can only be found in old growth forests, so since those habitats are largely gone, only the stories about them seem to be left. But they’re still there, just cramped and irritable in Białowieża Forest. A character mentioned the same situation happening to “the seafolk of the deep waters” and that’s where the “finding the real story” in mermaid lore came into Weird Fishes as well as the explanation for why there don’t seem to be any new stories of mermaid sightings…the clogging of the time gyres keep them trapped in the past.
So I see the connection between the two novellas, but anyone else looking at this very sci-fi underwater thing and the twisty roots and writhing black soil of this folktale “retelling” would be like what? But I see them as parts of a larger saga. “The Folk” cinematic universe. I have at least three more settings to explore modern day habitat destruction and the secret histories of specific cultural folklore, but Weird Fishes is meant to work as a stand-alone. I’m the only one with the crazed eyes and red yarn and push-pins trying to show all the connections.
Earlier I asked if Weird Fishes had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But I’d like to flip things around, if I may, and ask if you think Weird Fishes could work as a movie, show, or game?
If Weird Fishes were a movie, it would have to be entirely CGI. It could be totally possible with the technology, but it still might not work for film audiences. All of Ceph’s skin-color patterns and maybe even gestures would have to have subtitles? Though it would be something incredible if that stuff could be communicated and understood visually by a human audience. Probably hard to follow interactions without David Attenborough telling everyone what’s going on though. How could Ceph’s chemical communication be rendered on screen? No, there are a lot of storytelling tools available in written fiction that maybe don’t translate to film. It would be visually stunning though. I want to see The Mother.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Weird Fishes?
There is a creature Ceph and Iliokai find in the deepest, deepest ocean trench called The Mother and she is glorious. It’s not something reviewers can talk about without spoiling, so she’s rarely mentioned. But she’s down there. Come on, everyone. Read Weird Fishes so we can discuss the ending.
Finally, if someone enjoys Weird Fishes, which sci-fi / cli-fi novella or novel of someone else’s would you suggest they check out and why that one?
Oooh, good question. For cli-fi, I’d suggest they check out the other titles from Stelliform Press. Their focus is on speculative climate stories that reshape culture/nature relationships through the stories we tell ourselves / each other. If that’s what readers find refreshing about Weird Fishes, Stelliform has a growing catalog of good stuff.
And for sci-fi…like I said, I feel like there’s a lot of science fiction that plays with similar themes to Weird Fishes, but I’d recommend Semiosis by Sue Burke if they haven’t already read it. The story follows generations of settlers trying to integrate into an awe-inspiring alien ecology where the plants are sentient (and trying to figure out if the people should also be regarded as sentient beings even though they’re nothing like plants). It’s wonderful. And left me warily reconsidering my relationship to our houseplants in the same way I hope Weird Fishes leaves readers reconsidering their relationship to the ocean and each other. [For more on Semiosis, check out this interview with Sue Burke.]