The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery (Atria Books, 2015), 261 pages.

TSOAO Montgomery

I have to admit that it was the subtitle of this book the hooked me: “A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness.” Given my academic background in AI (artificial intelligence), why wouldn’t I want to know how the humble octopus relates to the study of human thought processes? It’s such a key part of the book that the key words appear in the book’s link on Amazon.

However, this book is more than a peek into the possible consciousness (or lack thereof) of a non-human species. Montgomery is an accomplished nature writer (this book lists twenty other books she has written) and is as much about the people she encounters at the New England Aquarium in Boston as a volunteer and, later in the book, the rapture of diving into the underwater realm of the octopus in the wild. These three pieces meld together nicely because Montgomery is such a good writer.

The surprise here is that most studies of potential non-human consciousness consider closely related species such as apes or other primates, or other big-brained and clever species like dolphins or elephants. Invertebrates such as cephalopods, of which the octopus is one, do not get the same amount of research and experimental funding that others do. For one thing, octopuses require expensive tanks, not a simple cage. By the way, it’s never “octopi”…on page 1, we learn immediately that you can’t paste a Latin plural (the “-i”) on a Greek word (eight + feet = octo-pus).

Octopuses also have to be housed alone, because they often fight to the death, even in the wild, and apparently one of the tastiest meals for an octopus is another octopus. The water needs to be chemically balanced just right, and so on. And to top it all off, they only live for three or four years (page 24), so training and long-term study is problematic.

This explains why the octopuses encountered here are always part of, or going to be part of, the ocean display at the New England Aquarium. The obvious drawback is that all evidence for “octopus consciousness” in the book is by necessity anecdotal, and not technically “scientific” in any way.

That’s not to say there’s no science. Octopuses live fast and die young, but they grow faster than almost any animal alive. A giant Pacific octopus can grow from an egg the size of a grain of rice to an adult weighing more than and larger than a full-grown man in three years (page 3). They can open jars, play with favorite toys (page 17), and squeeze through tiny openings (tanks have to be sealed tightly: any crack will tempt an octopus, who are usually accomplished escape artists). One octopus in Bermuda almost made it to the ocean before drying out on the lawn of the research center. I was surprised how long an octopus can survive in the air: 30 minutes before their slime dries out (page 75)—although brain damage begins in as little as 15 minutes (page 182). Some will scramble all over the room to elude their captors, but in most cases, an octopus on the floor is soon a dead octopus.

In addition to the thousands of dollars a setup costs, all could be lost if the pet octopus becomes alarmed and “inks.” In the wild, this screen provides a black cloud to cover a fleeing octopus, but in a tank, there’s nowhere to flee to. The ink poisons the entire tank of water, and often also kills the octopus (page 66). Octopuses have acute vision, and often closely examine visitor who intrigue them (page 202).

Montgomery claims that the octopuses in the book have distinct personalities, which they can express by changing colors and skin textures. The book has a fabulous color section illustrating octopus camouflage and mentions online videos showing how fast they can react to divers or threats. They like some handlers and are distant with others. They squirt some people right in the face, perhaps in annoyance. When a favorite comes and opens the tank, they will caress their arms with their tentacles—but never let an octopuses’ sucker near your face. Each arm sucker can exert up to 30 pounds of force and easily pop out an eyeball (page 15).

The stories of the author’s and other staff’s encounters with the four octopuses in the book (Athena, Octavia, Kali, and Karma) are fascinating. Taken as a whole, they offer a look into what a completely different form of experiencing the world we live in might be like.

Consider brains, for example. The octopus brain is tiny, true, but still has 300 million neurons, more than a rat (200 million; page 49). The complex octopus brain has 50 to 75 lobes, and most of the neurons are not in the brain, but in the arms (tentacles). So octopus intelligence, or consciousness, or whatever it might be, is not concentrated “behind the eyeballs” as it is in humans, but distributed throughout the mass of the body. This revelation, also on page 49, set me to wondering how it might feel to experience reality with a wholly alien way of being. Maybe we would have a harder time communicating with space aliens that we might imagine. The conventional messaging methods based on the “universal language” of math would not work if the octopuses of Tau Ceti start building spaceships and heading our way. Our water planet might look like heaven to them, if they can just get rid of those pesky land beasts with only two arms and two legs.

In the end, you won’t know for sure if the octopus has a different type of mind than humans and vertebrates, or any kind of mind at all. Heck, we aren’t even sure what it is that makes humans conscious, although I think all AI efforts to separate mind from body are misguided. You can make a computer and package it up in a life-like plastic sack and animate its expressions and movements to imitate a human, but at the end of the day, I think you’ll still have a computer packaged up in a life-like plastic sack.

After I read this book, I was even more certain this body-mind-“soul” unity cannot be broken. You want a human mind? Start with a body…

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi (Knopf, 2015), 371 pages.

TWK Bacigalupi

The most profound form of knowledge is self-knowledge. A lot of times, this can’t be taught, and is quite elusive, especially if the realization is immediately followed by an urge to suppress an uncomfortable truth (“I really, really, like meth better than sex.”). So you sort of have to stumble over a revelation about yourself, because a lot of these are things that other people can’t tell you…they can tell you something you don’t know, like that you have smelly feet—if they’re not your friends, they only tell other people—but there are things about your internal workings that no one else knows and even you don’t know until it bubbles up to the surface from the Unknown, often by accident. (Some people might be going “He’s talking about the Johari Window,” and in fact, he is.)

So what is this fantastic insight? I’ll get to that. First, let’s talk about the book that Hugo and Nebula Award winning science fiction author Paolo Bacigalupi has written: The Water Knife.

A water knife, in the book, is a person who enforces, mainly by assassination and quasi-military operations, the will of the woman who controls the water rights of the Colorado River. She is from Las Vegas, and in this future vision of unrelenting drought, her main opponents are from southern California and, to a lesser extent, the “Zoners” from Phoenix (the rest of the state seems to have disappeared). State militias and National Guard units have closed the borders, and the federal government, presumably bankrupt from endless wars or crippling social programs (take your pick), lets these states more or less do as they please.

Rich people have retreated to high-rise and all-but-sealed “arcologies” (MS Word wants me to spell it “archology”) with names like Cypress I, where they live in splendid isolation with recycled water while all the “regular people” try to drink dirt. Actually, the Chinese and Red Cross have installed metered watering places for the locals, but it’s very expensive. As a writer, I understand the need to describe an arcology with the word “arcology,” but after 50 pages of repeating the term, I longed for a neologism for the portmanteau (that is, a new word for a mash-up of “architecture” and “ecology”).

The book follows three people as they wander around this thirsty world: the water knife Angel as he tries to find out if someone in Phoenix has uncovered senior water rights to threaten the claims of the Las Vegas arcologies, investigative journalist Lucy as she wades through endless corpses from the rough water wars that envelop everyone outside the downtown Phoenix arcologies, and downtrodden teen Maria as she and her buddy Sarah try to avoid paying gangs for protection and hook up with some rich guy in an arcology. The story follows them as they come together and uncover a piece of paper than can change the arcology world.

What else can I say? The guy wins lots of awards and is ten times the writer that I’ll ever be. But some things did bother me about the book. Anyone who has ever flown back from San Jose to Phoenix Friday afternoon knows that the entire legal staff of Intel and many other Silicon Valley companies seems to live in Scottsdale. And it’s no secret that Nevada has been trying to weasel more water from Hoover Dam, but those Zoner lawyers are more than their match.

As a recent magazine article reminded me, the first law of hydrology is not “water flows downhill” but “water flows toward money.”

Yet the Scottsdale (and ASU) money has disappeared in this book and, overall, the whole metro area appears to be in the hands of marauding Mexicans. Also, Flagstaff, with Snow Bowl and blinding snowstorms during long winters, apparently has vanished. Why don’t people just take their big honkin’ pickups two hours north and load up with frozen water from public lands? How far in the future is this book set?

The other bothersome thing was this: for the sake of the plot, it is first necessary to have Angel quickly fall madly in love with one of the women and then, also for the plot, it is necessary for him to fall out of love even faster. I blame an editor for this.

Okay, now to the big revelation. I have often wondered why I devour every word of some fiction authors like Preston and Child and Clive Barker and struggle to get into others. With some, if I can just get into the story, all is well. But a few, even if I know they are good for me, I simply cannot plow through. Why?

I used to pick up a novel and flip to a random page. If all seemed well, I bought the book. Then I wondered why I bogged down by page three. But now I think I have it figured out!

The very first post I wrote, on What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund, noted how important the start was:

“All books open in doubt and dislocation” (page 60). You have to orient the reader immediately.

and

[W]e can be submerged (at least in good books) so deeply in the text that we are unable to “bring our analytical minds to bear upon the experience.” [page 9]

Here’s the payoff (drum roll, please): I want the story to start immediately so that my “analytical mind” is not engaged and scattered all over. If the tale is couched in pretty writing, I struggle to get past the beginning and into the story proper. Here’s an example taken from the last two books I’ve written about.

(By the way, I also wrote in that initial essay that I wanted to “connect the books I read, whether fiction or nonfiction, with other books.” Now I’m actually doing it.)

Here are the first 108 words of The Water Thief:

There were stories in sweat.

The sweat of a woman bent double in an onion field, working fourteen hours under the hot sun, was different from the sweat of a man as he approached a checkpoint in Mexico, praying to La Santa Muerte that the federales weren’t on the payroll of the enemies he was fleeing. The sweat of a ten-year-old boy staring into the barrel of a SIG Sauer was different from the sweat of a woman struggling across the desert and praying to the Virgin that a water cache was going to turn out to be exactly where her coyote’s map told her it would be.

As I read this, I went “Sweat? He starts off talking about sweat?” Then my mind reeled from thoughts about onions (I got sick eating caramelized onions once) to Mexican checkpoints (I remember that checkpoint down by Sierra Vista near Tombstone) to SIG Sauers (Tony Walker liked SIG Sauers) to coyotes (I found a coyote dead in the desert once).

I can’t help it: that’s how my nerd-mind works. So much for losing my “analytical mind” in the story.

Now, here’s the first 141 words of The Forgotten Room:

It was perhaps the most unusual sight ever beheld on the august and stately grounds of the Glasgow Institute of Science, founded in 1761 by grant of charter from George III. A large podium, studded with microphones, had been erected on the Great Lawn, directly in front of the administration building. Before it had been set some three dozen folding chairs, on which sat reporters from local newspapers, the Times of London, Nature, Oceanography, Time magazine, and a host of others. To the right of the podium were two television cameras, one from the BBC and the other from CNN. To the podium’s left was a large wooden scaffold, upon which sat a large, strange-looking machine of dark metal: a cross between a cigar tube and a pincushion, about thirty feet long, with a bulky attachment protruding from its upper edge.

I’m not sure why my mind does not wander off to George III (why would it?) or the print media or TV stations (too common?). Or cigar tubes and pincushions for that matter. But for whatever reason, this to me is one unified scene, where the other is not. I’m locked into this story—right here, right now—and I want to go on.

As I wrote last week:

I find rich prose and allusions in the narrative slow me down (I can give examples when I write up Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife) as my mind follows each link to consider their implications.

Just tell me the story!

(As a final aside, I grew up in Elmsford, NY with a family known as the Batchie family. When my mother got angry with one of them—and she spent much of her time being angry at almost everyone in town at one point or another—she would fume about how they had changed their name from Bacciagalupe, the same as the landlord on the Abbott and Costello TV show (pronounced “Boch-a-ga-loop” on the show). When you’re a Galasso, as she was, renaming options are more limited: Gal-ass? Glass? Also, her name meant “chicken farmer,” which is not as mysterious or threatening as the “kiss of the wolf” Bacciagalupe meaning.)

The Forgotten Room by Lincoln Child

The Forgotten Room: A Novel by Lincoln Child (Doubleday, 2015), 290 pages.

TFR Child

I am a great believer in coincidence, or, as Kelly Bundy used to say on Married With Children, co-inky-dink. So when I finally read this book (I read all books by Preston and Child, or Preston, or Child) between our return from Europe and our trip to Newport, Rhode Island and the east coast, I was pleased to see this book was set in Newport. I had bought the book when it came out in early May, dragged it through three countries in Europe in June, and read not a word until we were ready to leave for our trip east.

What could be better? A book set in Newport as you are planning a day touring the “cottages” of the obscenely wealthy like the Vanderbilt’s ostentatious Breakers and the Wetmore’s more modest 57-room Chateau-sur-Mer.

However, the Newport in the pages of Child’s book was very different from the touristy 4th of July weekend  crowds in Newport.  True, it is early autumn in the book (p. 8), but I can’t believe that the visitors all evaporate after Labor Day. We arrived on the same bridges as the protagonist, the “enigmalogist” professor Jeremy Logan, and took the same turns to reach Bellevue, the main street of mansion-land. But every inch of the way we battled family SUVs loaded with beachgoers, pokey oglers in pricey cars (perhaps yearning for the pre-income-tax days of yore that made much of the opulence possible), and exasperated locals stuck among the sluggish flow.

One last comment on Newport: after you’ve been to Windsor Castle and the Louvre and the Vatican, you can see the faux-royalty effects that the rich of America were striving for. But in my eyes, they are clearly derivative and poor imitations. The closest I came to feeling anything authentic was in the wood-carved rooms of Chateau-sur-Mer, done by the Italian Fellini. (Sometimes I feel I am betraying my peasant roots just by knowing this junk…unless you believe that crazy story about the Goralskis and the Romanovs and why my father’s side of the family is sprinkled with names like Anastasia and Nicolas… then again, I named my son Alexander…)

Anyway, the wise Professor Logan is summoned to a think tank called Lux, housed in a gigantic old mansion with east and west wings located (in the book) somewhere around the beaches on the southern fringe of Newport. Logan used to work there, until asked to leave, and there are still people around who are no happy he’s been invited back to solve a mystery. Exactly who is openly or covertly against him is a large part of the tension in the novel.

What mystery has Logan been summoned to solve? One of the senior computer science researchers has committed suicide in a very gruesome way, after babbling about hearing voices telling him to do things. After some sleuthing, it turns out that the old man was being eased out in favor of his young assistant and assigned to the renovation of one of the wings. Right before his death, the dead man had uncovered the forgotten room of the title, undisturbed since the 1930s, full of odd scientific equipment from the period of unknown purpose.

And so the enigmalogist has a real enigma on his hands. It’s not even clear how the sealed room was entered or who worked there, and it takes some more detecting to uncover the original blueprints, now in the hands of the beautiful and sexy (of course) woman who has inherited the firm.

I told you I have read all of Preston and Child’s works. I have to say, unfortunately, that this novel is really not up to the level I’ve come to expect from them individually and especially as a team. The main character is okay, but the situations are predictable and the payoff somewhat of a let-down after the terrific buildup. All of the thriller tropes are present: the strangers out to kill Logan and make it look like an accident, the strange old man who holds the key to the mystery, the femme fatale who turns up dead at exactly the wrong time, and the use of the machine in the forgotten room, which, when revealed, made me go “Oh. That’s it?” I think I expected more.

So this book is definitely worth reading. But I wouldn’t recommend it to people who are just getting into the novels of Preston and Child. It’s an okay read, but not up to the best work of either of them. Go back to Relic or, better yet, Still Life with Crows, which might be the best novel they’ve done individually or as cowriters.

This book should be characterized as science fiction (the focus of the fictional treatment revolves around of some aspect of a scientific field of inquiry). But it has many elements of a murder mystery whodunit and half-a-dozen “evil government” thrillers.

One other thought before I leave you. As I record my thoughts on the books I read this years, especially the novels, I am starting to realize a lot of things about my preferences that I “semi-knew,” but never examined in any detail before. I would rather have a book that starts with a slow build than one that – bang! – jumps out to an action start and then sags as the true story begins. I prefer linear, un-adorned prose rather than flowery, metaphor laden “pretty writing.” No deep literary fiction pour moi, please.

I do not have a metaphorical bone in my body, literally. (This seems like a statement that Ludwig Wittgenstein might be proud of: exactly what does it mean?)

I find rich prose and allusions in the narrative slow me down (I can give examples when I write up Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife) as my mind follows each link to consider their implications.

Just tell me the story!

I also find that I like being back into a routine. Between May 31, when we flew to London, and July 6, when we got back from New York, a total of 37 nights, I slept in my own bed 9 nights. My wife, who took professional development courses, was home only 5 nights. I look forward to a renewed cycle of read/think/write, which is sort of my own version of eat/pray/love. I’m lucky that my job requires me to do those same things, but on the topic of computers and computer networks.