In the last few years we have been learning an enormous amount about intelligence among animals. In particular, we’ve found that octopuses are startlingly smart. They use tools, they invent hunting techniques, they invent disguise techniques, and they are curious and playful. They do this entirely on their own, without the benefit of parents or society. They pack it all into their one to two year lifespans. Their cognitive architecture is utterly different from that of vertebrates, never mind mammals, never mind us. They have more neurons in their arms than in their brains, and that lets them do extraordinary things with their bodies, things that animals with central brains and skeletons could never manage. The Australian philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith uses them as examples of alternate paths to consciousness, as described in “Other Minds: the Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness” (2016).
So now Ray Naylor has taken on octopus sentience in his debut novel, “The Mountain in the Sea” (2022). The great SF writer Theodore Sturgeon had a rule for his stories – “Ask the Next Question”. Given some premise, what are its implications? Naylor asks – just what it would take to level up octopuses? It has to be something that allows them to pass what they learn from generation to generation. They might already have language. Do they need a real society? A writing system? Then how could humans understand signs from beings with utterly different senses and world-views?
Beyond that, he asks “Who would be most interested in such creatures?” Scientists, of course, so his protagonist is Dr. Ha Nguyen, an Australian expert in cephalopods. Who else? He has a global software enterprise called DIANIMA, that builds AIs for use in every industry. AIs are now used in place of ship captains, and one plot line considers the brutal workings of an AI-driven fishing factory ship. DIANIMA hears rumors of the octopuses at an island nature reserve off the coast of Vietnam, and promptly buys it. They claim that they can better manage it than the poorly-paid park rangers. That’s actually true, since the rangers let desperate fisherman poach the reefs all the time. The company clears all the people out of the island and brings Dr. Nguyen and a security specialist there, along with their crowning achievement – a beautiful, Turing-test-passing android. Then there are others who are not about to let humanity exterminate these sentients the way they have so many other species, and those plot lines converge.
Naylor himself has an interesting background. He has been in the US State Department for many years, most recently as the environment, science, and health policy officer at the US consulate in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). This is his first novel, but he’s been putting out SF shorts for a while, most recently in the Nov ’22 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. His story there, “The Empty” is a nice near-future account of how to economize on senior care.
I can’t say too much more about this novel without spoilers, but can say it has a distinct poignancy. Half of SF is about aliens, and here we are living next to them. In that sense this book is just like Ted Chiang’s striking short story “The Great Silence”. In it a Puerto Rican parrot asks why we spend so much effort on the radio telescope at Arecibo when the parrots are right here. They won’t be for long, and for matter Arecibo is gone now too, so our chances are slipping away.
Octopuses are the most adaptable of creatures, but they too are under threat. Contact with them can be opening and uplifting, as Peter Godfrey-Smith found, and as Craig Foster also discovered in the documentary “My Octopus Teacher”. They may look hideous and monstrous to land vertebrates like us, but share with us an internal consciousness that non-sentient Nature will never provide. It’s us, and the octopuses, and the parrots, and the chimps, dolphins and elephants against the uncaring atoms of the universe. There are lots of aliens right here, and they should be our allies.