How Chaos Is The Only Sure Thing

From HuffPost:

One day Lulu Miller, the co-founder of the science podcast Invisibilia, was out birdwatching with her father. She was 7 years old and eye level with his “friendly belly,” when she blurted out one of those deep questions kids like to ask: “What is the meaning of life?” Under a hot summer sun, her father’s answer tore open her world. There was no meaning to life, he said. Everything was meaningless. 

So begins Miller’s origin story. That 7-year-old would grow up to become an award-winning science reporter with a mission to tell stories that give meaning to life, to investigate why we are here and how we live out our days. One such story was that of David Starr Jordan, a 19th century taxonomist who sought to bring order to the natural world. He spent decades trying to collect every species of fish, and over the years he amassed a shoal numbering in the thousands. But then the 1906 San Francisco earthquake hit, and his life’s work — stored in glass jars — fell to the ground and shattered. But instead of wallowing in his loss, he did the unexpected. He tried to put his collection back together. He looked chaos in the eye, and said, “I dare you.”

That’s where Miller picks up the story. In her new book, “Why Fish Don’t Exist,” which comes out on Tuesday, she dives deep into the story of a man who believed he could make sense of the chaotic world. She investigates how Jordan was able to overcome not only the loss of his life’s work, but the human loss of his children, his wife and his colleagues who all died too young. Jordan possesses a godlike level of resilience and Miller explores where it came from and how she could learn from him. 

“Why Fish Don’t Exist,” strangely, could not have been better timed, publishing during a global pandemic that also seemingly came out of nowhere and upended millions — if not billions — of lives in unthinkable ways.  

HuffPost caught up with Miller by phone, as she took a walk in her neighborhood in Chicago. This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.  

Where are you right now? What do you see?  

The streets are empty, it’s completely empty because it’s pretty freezing and rainy right now. But I’m all bundled in my kick-ass giant coat and hat and I even see some bark and pine cones and the moss looks extra green because it’s that gray and rainy.  

. . . .

[Jordan] was basically a passing anecdote while I was getting a tour of the California Academy of Sciences, and the little detail was that this guy’s entire life’s work of fish specimens, fish collecting, discovering new species, ordering them, thousands and thousands of jars — a huge amount of it came down in the 1906 earthquake. Shattered, the fish were separated from the names. And as he stood there in all that wreckage, instead of just giving up, he invented this little new technique of sewing a label to a fish so that should another earthquake come, the names would never get separated.

And I don’t know, it just struck me as this little perfect emblem of human persistence and just the refusal to back down in the face of all these huge forces that will always do us in. When I first thought about it, I just was like, “Oh you fool, chaos will keep destroying you.” I don’t know what it was, I just thought he was pathetic. I thought he was an Icarus, I thought he was a fool.

And then I didn’t think about him for years. Then in my late 20s, I had just screwed up a bunch of stuff in my own life and I found myself in my own proverbial wreckage, personally and professionally; I had left radio and I was trying to write fiction and I was really bad at it and I was lonely and I screwed up a whole relationship and I was in a new place, I didn’t really have a community, and I was just alone, and lost. I wanted to keep pining for this person who I really wanted to get back together with but was showing me no signs that he was going to ever take me back. And I suddenly wondered, “Am I being crazy or is this hope and this persistence the kind of faith you need that ultimately wins you, sails you through the storms, like is it actually noble and beautiful?”

And then I thought of this David Starr Jordan guy again and I was like, “I wonder what happened to that dude, because he is the most comic example of this, and did he end up a king with tons of kids and admirers or did he end up alone and poor and a fool?”

So then I set out to — not knowing what else to do — I set out to research his life, thinking I’d write a very short essay and get a little clarity or a little hint of what to do for myself. Then it just spiraled because he had such a weird tale and he was also a profoundly interesting person to study because he left behind so much to go through and he’s funny and he’s kind of evil and it just made him a wonderful person to obsessively research while I wasn’t sure what the heck to do with my life.

Link to the rest at HuffPost

17 thoughts on “How Chaos Is The Only Sure Thing”

  1. The meaning of life is living. Make the most of it.
    No need to get fancy about it.

    I got that from Heinlein’s first novel, BEYOND THIS HORIZON.
    He probably wasn’t the first but he was the first I ran into saying it.

    Still haven’t found a better answer.

    • There is a built in destruct mechanism that is waiting to trap people when they are not paying attention. That is that nihilism spoken by the father to his seven year old daughter.

      – Heinlein spent his whole life fighting that nihilism, fighting the Nothing.

      Notice the stuff that Heinlein wrote in the beginning versus what he wrote after the war, when things were even more restricted and Victorian than before the war.

      It took him decades of dancing around the restrictions before he could talk more openly about the earlier stuff.

      He would have some MacGuffin for people to focus on while showing what he thought was really important. All to get past the gatekeepers. In some cases he would layer on multiple MacGuffins because he had to get past the book editor and past the growing Critic/Fan base that was becoming more cynical, to reach the the Reader.

      Sadly, people have become polarized over Heinlein, both sides missing the point.

      The people today have not asked the simple question:

      – What would the world be like if Heinlein never existed.

      BTW, when people ask me, “What is the meaning of Life?” I always say, “The meaning of Life is to ask, What is the meaning of Life.” It is that simple.

      • Late Heinlein lost me after NUMBER OF THE BEAST but before then he shined because he dared ask offensive questions. And his answers were rarely politically correct. Then or now. There was no sacred cow he didn’t dare kick. He just did it, as you say, carefully and slyly.

        Every once in a while I think of the economic system he envisioned in BEYOND THIS HORIZON. Economists keep edging closer but then their biases take hold and they veer away.

        • I’m suddenly more curious about Number of the Beast.

          I stumbled across a “found” book they just published by Heinlein.

          The Pursuit of the Pankera: A Parallel Novel About Parallel Universes

          It is the original version of what became:

          The Number of the Beast: A Parallel Novel About Parallel Universes

          They are selling them both as a “Parallel NoveL”, so we can now see Heinlein’s original intent for the story.

          Read the sample or “Look inside” to see what they are doing. David Weber wrote the introduction. It looks like Heinlein was writing a book using other people’s characters, and when he could not get permissions he rewrote as Number of the Beast. They seem to have the permissions now on the restored version.

          I have it ordered but will have to wait for Amazon to ship the books, with all that is going on.

          I want to see what he did, from version to version. It’s like Stranger in a Strange Land was written “long”, then he had to “cut” the story down to size. The thing is, in the process of abridging his own text he also expanded the story. When I read the “uncut” version, the story felt wrong because it was missing key elements that he put in while abridging.

          I’m also reading King’s, the original, The Stand from 1978. I was able to track it down in hardback a year ago and had it on my to-be-read pile when all this happened. I read it in mass market when it first came out, then in hardback when the “uncut” version was published, 1990. The “uncut” felt “wrong” when I read it. Reading the 1978 version now rings all of the right bells.

          I need to understand why each version change feels so different.

          • I’ve never had the urge to reread NUMBER but after all this time my strongest memory is of letdown, of avoiding the obvious outcome of the premise, of impactless meandering, and an unsatisfying ending: a short party scene. What shoud have been a romp through his multiverse ended up muddied and hollow.

            If as you say he couldn’t use the characters he wanted, he could’ve pastiched them, wink-wink nod-nod style, like Robert Mayer did in SUPERFOLKS around the same time.

            It felt self-indulgent and in need of serious pruning. A long ways from MOON, STARSHIP TROOPERS, GLORY ROAD, and even HAVE SPACESUIT.

            I’ll have to check your link.

                • Hmm. Mileage is almost certainly going to vary here. Although I think that both of you will enjoy the Pankera version. (Felix may or may not have a similar issue with the ending, though.)

                  I had it on pre-order, and it must have been in the warehouse before the Amazon policy change; it did get here on the release date.

                  I am manfully resisting spoilers – but, in my honest opinion, the character development of the four protagonists (I envy that juggling ability, I’m having a struggle with just two…) in Number was far richer.

                  Oh, one micro-spoiler – which I think illustrates something about the writing craft. If you remember, right after they landed on Mars, and slept under Gay Deceiver with the radar on, the ladies wake up first, then Jake. Deety turns the radar off, and Jake relays “Zeb, it’s safe.” (Pankera version). In the Number version that same tiny piece of dialogue is “Zeb, it’s safe; her husband left.” My emphasis for the three added words – but makes Jake a far more “playful” character.

                • Felix.J.Torres said: Makes us even.


                  Replying sideways:

                  Writing Observer said: (Felix may or may not have a similar issue with the ending, though.)

                  I’ve noticed the same thing with his other books, that Heinlein didn’t like endings. He liked telling the stories, then wraps up the endings almost as an after thought.

                  Read the interview with John Barnes where he mentions Heinlein’s juveniles:

                  John Barnes: Patterndriven

                  That tells me that the endings were not the point of his stories.

                  The other point you made about Heinlein adding stuff:

                  I noticed in him abridging Stranger in a Strange Land that even though he was “cutting” he kept adding detail and story. That’s why the “uncut” version felt “wrong” because it was missing the added detail of the abridged version.

                • A lot of Heinlein endings are really transitions to a new status quo or a different life.
                  Most of them are lessons.
                  Maybe what annoyed me about the ending of NUMBER is that it felt like the ending to Heinlein. Or his career. Like “It was a fun ride worth celebrating but now I’m done. ”
                  Unlike the rest of his books, it doesn’t point to a future, it does leave you wondering what comes next.
                  It is very unlike the bulk of his work and, as far as I’m concerned, it *was* the end of his career as I liked it., anyway.

                  The books that followed were very different and more theme than plot. Try contrasting JOB to MOON or HORIZON or STRANGER. I found it empty and too unsatisfying.

                  The wordsmithing was, if anything, better than his early works but the story itself…
                  His early books I reread regularly; four, even five times, and I always find new tricks and twists in his worlds. Especially in context to the present.

                  The latter ones?
                  No urge.

                  I had a similar experience with Tolkien: I read LoTR in one week. Twice in tbat time. Ever since, everytie I go back I barely get started. I still appreciate what makes it great but it stops me cold.

                  Same with late Heinlein: It’s like he went litfic.

                • I’ll have to read the late Heinlein again, then read Beyond This Horizon, to compare. Maybe I can get a sense of what he was trying to do. When I do, I suspect the context of when he wrote the two ends makes all the difference.

                  The world had utterly changed in just forty years.

                  Before the war, anything was possible. Everything that Campbell and Heinlein did was aspirational, trying to encourage people to think beyond their limits. And it worked. We moved so far so fast because the kids who read Heinlein saw no limits.

                  By the 1980s everyone was cynical. We have reached the point now, another forty years later, where all of the discussion of Campbell, Heinlein, etc…, have completely lost the context of the world they lived in.

                  The critics are literally seeing only half the story, and “interpreting” him to fit today, rather than “reading” Heinlein in the world that he came from.

                  I still use Lost Legacy as the baseline for what he was doing. When he wrote the juveniles he was using the tactics of speaking directly to the kids because they weren’t jaded yet. By the 1980s, even the kids were jaded, so he was doing something very subversive in the late books that I haven’t figured out yet.

                  I think I saw the phase shift in society. Before the 1970s science books were written to illuminate something new, replacing an older out of date science book. Starting in the 1970s science books became consumer goods, endlessly regurgitating consensus science. Science became dogma. Kids who went into Engineering and Science started doing it only for the safe jobs not to build a society. The Science kids got hit the worst. Nowadays Wall street specifically harvests Phd “rocket scientists” to develop their bizarre products.

                  But I digress.

                • Horizon is a perfect example of Heinlein’s sly MO.
                  To many critics, It’s just another pulpish action piece. They totally ignore the worldbuilding, dismissing it as utopian when its merely different, with a different social contract. Second class citizens are hardly a sign of utopia. They ignore the economic system. They ignore the second half entirely. And they ignore the ramifications of the ending.

                  It was his first novel and all his tricks were already there. I just wish somebody would make it a streaming mini-series. All it needs is updating Hamilton’s game design job to online gambling game design.

                  Everything else holds up.
                  Even better today than even a decade ago.

                  I love it for various reasons, starting withit being my first Heinlein read. Before I learned of his rep.

                • Just finished reading Beyond This Horizon, again. It’s been over forty years, and now I get it. So many things have snapped into place.

                  Thanks for focusing my attention.

                  What’s interesting, is when I check Panshin, and his understanding of Beyond This Horizon, he completely missed the key points. His whole thesis falls apart with this insight. He completely missed how Heinlein was constantly riffing off George Bernard Shaw’s, Back to Methuselah.

                  BTW, Over the past ten years I tracked down most of Heinlein in hardback. I read all of them in mass market, when I was a kid. Strangely, I had missed Farmer in the Sky and Double Star. How?, but I digress.

                  Elliot01 said: This is the skinniest thread I have seen here.


  2. Felix, allynh, thanks for a very interesting discussion of Heinlein.

    I think I need to reread Beyond This Horizon (and check what Panshin said, though I never thought highly of his work*), maybe try again some of the late Heinlein that I didn’t like and buy Pankera. Unfortunately, the last is only available in out of stock hardback at so I may have to jump through the hoops to get the US Kindle version.

    * it’s possible that I’m prejudiced against writers who stop part way through a series when I’ve already invested the time in reading the first three books.

    • I’m starting to think Heinlein’s relevance is only going to keep on growing with time, unlike many of his contemporaries. His big award winners have always been seen as enduring but a lot of his shorter works haven’t really received the attention they deserve. Part of it, I think is tbe accessibility of his prose and plots that hide some truly “dangerous” thoughts. He played with a wide range of ideas, sparing nobody. Even in his earliests, like THE ROADS MUST ROLL, and LET THERE BE LIGHT. Not unions and not corporations. And Waldoes aren’t the only future tech he properly predicted.

      All it takes is for one of his books to be adapted to streaming.
      As long as they keep Paul Verhoeven a hundred mikes away from the filming they’ll do fine.
      (Although I can only imagine the crapstorm if they do Wyoming Knott correctly.)

    • Mike,

      If you are trying to order through Amazon UK, wait a bit. I know that Pankera is out in Amazon here in the US. At some point it should be available in the UK. Check the publisher site on occasion.

      CAEZIK SF & Fantasy

      You can see what happened, Panshin got too self critical with his own work. Think of the centipede when asked which foot he starts with first, and he ends up tripping over his own feet.

      King fell into the same trap when he was teaching at University. Once he tried to teach how he wrote, it messed him up.

      If you read the intro to Damon Knight’s book on writing, you will see that he did not “know” how to write. He learned by trial and error, like riding a bike. People who write by the seat of their pants come at the process as experiential, not a “taught” process. Everything he mentions in the book becomes ad hoc rules, he is essentially “guessing” and making generalizations to teach the class.

      – Knight always said that he could see if something was Science Fiction, but could not “tell” you what it was.

      There are clear “rules” for writing fiction. They have been taught at the University of Oklahoma for close to a century at their Professional Writers’ Program, but most people never “learned” those rules. They would study novels, and using trial and error, try to duplicate what they “saw” on the page, without knowing that there are simple rules.

      The Techniques of a Selling Writer by Dwight Swain, is a clunky book, but the information is there. Swain came from a different era. He is speaking in a “sales” patter, being a huckster. Each time I read his book I shout, “Who are you selling this too, just tell me what I need to know.” Of course he never listens, so I have to keep reading through his patter.

      – Whenever I talk about this with people who write by the seat of their pants rather than having learned a system, they usually get upset.

      Jim Butcher and his Dresden Files series is a clear example of using Swain’s Motivation-Reaction Units(MRUs), and Scene-Sequel. The prose is a joy to read.

      Not everybody who uses the system does it as well, just as some coders write cleaner code than others, using the same rules. The code compiles, but it’s not always clear how it works.

      Code Quality

      Jack Bickham taught the course, but I end up skimming some of his novels. I suspect that he is using the system correctly, just not telling a story that I want to read.

      That’s the key to remember:

      – The system works, but it does not guarantee people are telling a story people want to read.

      BTW, this is basically the same system that A.E. Van Vogt learned by studying the books by John Gallishaw. Nobody understood what Van Vogt was saying because he boiled down the system into his own personal language.

      Two writers of Westerns, William Foster-Harris and Stanley Vestal, who learned from Gallishaw started the Professional Writers’ Program at the University of Oklahoma. They taught Dwight Swain, who taught Jack Bickham, who taught Dorothy Chester, and she taught Jim Butcher.

      What’s interesting, is that they each wrote books about the system, and did not write consistently even in their own writing books. They spent so long teaching it in class, that they never learned how to write the system down.

      They also seem unaware of the many Story forms that are taught by other people: Three Act Structure(Syd Field’s Paradigm, Snyder’s Save the Cat, The Rule of Four, The Rule of Three), Fichtean Curves(Basic, Right-Hand-Rule, Left-Hand-Rule), Flashback, Picaresque, etc…

      I need to write The Rules at some point, and publish them in what I think is a coherent fashion, so that like with Van Vogt, people will mutter and shake their head saying that, “He’s lost it,” but I digress.

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