Ray Nayler, The Mountain in the Sea

Ray Nayler’s new science fiction novel The Mountain in the Sea is a dazzling exploration of the prospects for nonhuman sentience, and of the difficulties we would have in understanding it and relating to it. The main premise (or science-fictional novum) of the book is that a species of octopus has attained a human level of intelligence and consciousness. The octopuses have a language (expressed in varying chromatophore patterns running across their bodies); and together with this basic linguistic ability comes a social structure, a culture with practices preserved across generations, an ability to fix linguistic statements in material media (i.e. forms of writing and what seems to be artistic and/or religious expression), and an ability for both individuals and groups to form and carry out projects over extended periods of time. All of these other abilities are made possible by language. The existence of sapient octopuses is not all that big an extrapolation from actuality, since octopuses are already known to be the smartest invertebrates, with an intelligence level seemingly equal to that of many mammals and birds; and octopuses already use their ability to change color for purposes of simple communication, as well as for camouflage.

This involves issues of both ontology and epistemology. An octopus will experience the world in a vastly different way from how a human being does. “What is it like to be an octopus?” is a much more difficult question than Thomas Nagel’s “what is it like to be a bat?” Octopuses live in the water, rather than on land in an atmosphere; due to their water environment they do not experience the pull of gravity in the same way that we do; they have flexible bodies, without the backbone and skeleton of human beings and other vertebrates; both human beings and octopuses have strong senses of sight, but the other sensory modalities are quite different; octopuses do not have their neural networks centered in their heads in the way human beings and other vertebrates do, but rather their ‘brain’ is decentered, stretched through their entire bodies, with significant concentrations of neurons in their eight arms. For all these reasons, octopuses do not think the way human beings do, and would not have a language easily translatable into human terms. Nayler’s octopuses are aliens, in science fictional terms; we would be wrong to assume either that they lack our mental complexity, or that such complexity can be mapped out in terms of human understanding. The novel shows how difficult understanding an alien intelligence can be. It is a matter of embodiment and emotion, as well as of ideas and “conceptual schemes.” Human beings will not be able to understand such a different sort of intelligence by mere objective scientific observation alone.

The Mountain in the Sea is about the wondrousness of discovering (and potentially contacting) another sentient species, but it is also about the difficulties involved in such a discovery. The novel’s protagonist, Dr. Ha Nguyen, is a scientist specializing in cephalopod intelligence. She comes to a small archipelago off the coast of Vietnam, in whose waters the sapient octopus colony has been found. The archipelago is an oceanic wildlife preserve; all the human inhabitants have been relocated elsewhere, and fishing vessels are not allowed to come near. Ha’s only companions on the islands are Altantsetseg, an ex-military woman in charge of security, and Evrim (pronouns they/them), a genderless android who is the world’s only AI with fully human-level (or higher) intelligence. There is also a Buddhist monastery on the main island, inhabited by robot monks. Over the course of the novel, Dr. Ha attempts to establish contact with the octopuses; she doesn’t want to just decipher their language and map the structure of their society, but most importantly to communicate with them. Indeed, the novel strongly makes the point that understanding, without communication and empathy, is impossible.

The novel is not just about scientific research, however, because such research is never independent from the rest of the world. The archipelago is maintained as a nature reserve by the corporation that owns it, DIANIMA, a multinational primarily involved in the manufacture and improvement of artificial intelligence. Dr. Ha rightly worries that DIANIMA has less than benevolent motives; it wants to study this new form of intelligence in order to profit from it, by transferring its lessons to AI design and construction. For now, the octopuses are under the corporation’s protection; but Dr. Ha worries that at some point DIANIMA will want to vivisect them in order to understand the neural basis of their cognition. For that matter, Evrim is an entirely unique entity, confined exclusively to the archipelago, because their sheer existence has resulted in laws against making any more AIs with a humanlike or human-exceeding degree of cognitive power. Neither the corporation that manufactured Evrim, nor the authorities and populations that fear them, is able to grasp that Evrim themself is an embodied entity with emotions and desires, just as human beings, sapient octopuses, and indeed all other living entities are.

In exploring all these entanglements, the novel considers multiple forms and degrees of sentience and intelligence. Evrim speaks English, but Dr. Ha still must concern herself with their otherness as well as with that of the octopuses. Other, subsidiary plot stands bring in additional complications. DIANIMA also sells other sorts of artificial minds (both embodied and not) with varying capacities. One of their products is virtual companions, known as “point fives” (or halfs), who are tailored to the needs of the particular people who purchase them. You get a sort of friend or partner, who you can make visible whenever you want via 3D projection, who looks and sounds human, and who is smart enough that you can confide in them and discuss problems with them. It’s just like having an intimate partner, except that they never have demands and desires that contradict, or exist independently of, yours. Then there are economically motivated AI systems, that again can understand spoken language, and that run things like factories and fishing ships. One subsidiary thread of the novel concerns Eiko, who has been kidnapped by human traffickers and set to work as a slave on an AI-controlled fishing vessel. Even if you successfully rebel against your human oppressors, you may well still be stuck under the control of such an AI. Another thread of the novel concerns Rustem, a hacker who is skilled at breaking into AI systems; he is hired by mysterious forces who want to hack into and take over Evrim. His work is premised on the idea that AI systems, no matter how organized, intelligent, and advanced, are always programmed with “portals” or backdoors that allow them to be taken over and controlled — any sense of freedom is just an illusion.

The Mountain in the Sea does not answer all the dilemmas that it poses; it is all about probing the questions it asks as fully as possible, and also about the limits of our ability both to understand and to act. It is also about the extent and the limits of empathy, and how it can survive against the background of a human society still dominated by greed and by severe power imbalances. Have human beings ever encounter a different society that they did not destroy, or at least subsume? If Europeans have done this to other human ethnic groups, the what can we expect in the case of an encounter with an intelligence, and a collective society, that is not human at all? All the narrative strands are woven together, and the novel reaches a point of narrative culmination and conclusion — if not an intellectual conclusion to complex issues that it works hard to keep open. The novel is quite lucid, and at the same time beautiful and strange. It demonstrates the point that I first learned from Seo-Young Chu’s important book Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep?: that the “cognitive estrangement” central to science fiction is a matter of content, rather than one of form. The Mountain in the Sea is emotionally compelling, but its ideas continue to reverberate in your mind after you have finished reading it.

Jean- Luc Godard, 1930-2022

RIP Jean-Luc Godard.

I can truthfully say that no artist or writer, in any medium, has had anywhere near as great an influence on my tastes and interests, and indeed on my life altogether, as Godard. I first encountered his work as a freshman in college (1971-1972). One evening, I went (pretty much at random, without any idea of what to expect) to a screening of PIERROT LE FOU. I was entirely shaken up and flabbergasted by seeing it (I am not sure I am using the correct words; most accurately, I was bouleversé, a French word that doesn’t have quite the right nuance in English translation). It was confusing, yet compelling; it echoed all sorts of movies that I had previously seen, but also seemed entirely fresh and new. I really didn’t know what to think, or how to parse the experience of seeing this film. So a few weeks later, they were showing another Godard film, and I went to see it. It was WEEKEND. This time, I felt like my head was going to explode. It was like being thrust into an entirely new and different universe.

Seeing those two Godard movies, at the age of 17, was a conversion experience, a rebirth — or at least, the closest I have ever come to such things. Those movies completely remade my aesthetic, and indeed existential, sense of myself, and of the world. They turned me into a cinephile, and ultimately into a film studies professor. And they colored my view of all other things — my other sensibilities, aesthetic attractions, philosophical interests, and so on. Godard’s movies, more than any other works of art, helped make me into the person I still am, today.

Today, there are other movies I value more highly (Godard wasn’t on my ten-best-of-all-time list that I sent off to Sight and Sound). I continue to love Godard’s early films, but I feel much more ambivalence about his subsequent work (always worth seeing, always producing insights, and yet also leaving me cold in other respects — I think that Godard’s modernism remained attached to an older world, in some ways very distant from the concerns of the 21st century). But for all that, I remain at heart Godardian; or, to put this in a different (Badiou-style) language, I cannot help but remain faithful to the Godard-event.

(first posted on Facebook, but re-posted here)

Neon Yang, The Genesis of Misery

Neon Yang’s The Genesis of Misery is an intriguing and twisty space opera. Yang is a nonbinary speculative fiction writer from Singapore.

The book is apparently the first volume of a trilogy, the idea behind which Yang has described on twitter as “Joan of Arc, BUT GUNDAM”. That is a pretty accurate characterization. We have a galactic empire, with travel between star systems provided by wormholes. But it all has a basis that seems more religious than scientific — in this way, the novel tends more towards what is sometimes called “science fantasy” than towards “hard” science fiction.

The novel’s backstory is that, centuries ago, when human beings first explored interstellar space, they became mentally and physically ill as a result of contact with, or contamination by, what they call the “nullvoid”, which seems to be something like the “quantum foam” or “dark energy” of spacetime itself. The nullvoid first foments madness, and then causes physical deterioration. The first human beings to explore interstellar space were also betrayed by their spaceship’s AI. which (HAL-like) sought to pursue the mission by killing all the human beings conducting it.

But the human explorers were saved by the intervention of some apparently godlike agency called the Larex Forge or the Demiurge. The survivors of the mission, now remembered as “Saints”, or as the eight Messiahs, were blessed by dream visions, which taught them how to manipulate certain materials known as “holy” stones to fend off the nullvoid. The various types of holy stones now run nearly all human technology; AIs of any sort are banned. The result is a despotic galactic empire dominated by the two (secretly conflicting, or jockeying for power against one another) authorites of Church and State. There are also enemies, known to the Faithful as Heretics, who deny the divine and seek to find scientific explanations for all these phenomena (and also seem to be less phobic about AI). The Faithful and the Heretics are engaged in a perpetual war.

As for the spaceships — or at least the space warships — in the novel, they are all more or less giant mecha (hence the Gundam premise). The are described, at least on the Faithful side of the confilct, as “seraphs” or “archangels.” A pilot is ensconced in a ship, and binds with it so that they feel like the the ship’s limbs are extensions of their own (except they often have six or eight limbs instead of four). Space battles (of which there are a good number in the course of the novel) are an odd sort of physical combat. Nothing happens at a distance. Instead, the mecha ships grapple with one another, their limbs physically bashing and trying to cut into one another. Not having been a gundam/mecha fan in my childhood, I am not really sure about the emotional resonances of all this; I am sure there are aspects of it that I am not catching. But the space battles are described grippingly enough that it still works for me without this extra layer of understanding.

The novel’s protagonist is a young woman named Misery Nomaki, presumably the novel’s Joan of Arc analogue. I love the twist of having her first name be “Misery”. She’s a young queer woman from a mining colony moon in some distant star system. She starts hearing voices and hallucinating apparitions that claim to be divine, and that prophesy her status as the next Messiah. She also has the power of being able to manipulate, with her mind, all the “holy” stones on which the civilization runs. Initially, Misery is really punk in sensibility. She’s been screwed over by everyone, and she hates it. She comes to the capital of the Empire, cynically determined to use her special abilities to get ahead. She assumes that her hallucinations and powers are a fraud, the result of nullvoid contamination; this means that her life will not be long, but in the meantime she hopes to do as much as she can.

In the course of the novel, however, Misery has a conversion experience. She has a mystical vision of union with the cosmos, and as a result comes to believe that all the things she has cynically pretended to be are in fact literally true. She is now confident that she actually is the Ninth Messiah, called by the Larex Forge to liberate the Empire from the destructive threats of the nullvoid and of the Heretics. United with her archangel mecha, she thinks she is invulnerable and can win every space battle. She and her lover Lightning (the ferocious sister, and bitter opponent, of the current Emperor) resolve to save the world (or worlds) together.

And this is where questions of narration come into play. Misery’s story is told in the third person, but very vividly, in the present tense, and with the narrator closely identifying with Misery and expressing her inner feeelings. (There are short sections called Interludes, narrated more objectively, and containing information that Misery doesn’t necessarily know; but these constitute less than 5% of the text). The narrator is themself a character in the narrative, however, as is revealed in a Prologue and Epilogue framing the main story. To avoid spoilers, I won’t reveal who the narrator is, though this does prove consequential for the narrative as a whole).

When Misery has her conversion experience, the content of her thoughts changes, but the style of narration does not. So, as we move from Misery’s punk cynicism to her absolute militant fervor, we are inclined to still give her the credit that we did from the beginning. We are strongly seduced into completely identifying with Misery’s zealotry; but at the same time, I also started to feel an uncomfortable, nagging sense of doubt. Things just don’t feel quite right. Indeed, Misery herself starts at some point to feel that things aren’t quite right — albeit for different reasons than the reader feels this. Misery never doubts her religious certainty, but she begins to doubt to what extent the universe really conforms to that certainty. I cannot be more specific about this without recounting the ending of the novel in detail; there’s a surprising shift of perspective there that puts a new light on everything — but that I remain uncertain about, and that will only be resolved one way or the other by the succeeding volumes of this trilogy. The official publicity for the book states that the trilogy as a whole is “a story about the nature of truth, the power of belief, and the interplay of both in the stories we tell ourselves.” This self-reflexivity is entirely merited in the current volume, since the novel both solicits our belief in the protagonist and in her beliefs, and yet steps back and makes us question that at the same time.

I will end with some more general points. The Genesis of Misery — like a lot of recent speculative fiction — presents a world, or a cosmos, in which queerness is taken for granted and not stigmatized. A good number of the characters are (by our early-21st-century standards) queer or trans in one way or another, but (unlike today) this is entirely normal or expected within the world of the diegesis. I am inclined to see this as a kind of utopian element; however these novelistic worlds are messed up and oppressive in all sorts of ways, gender identity and sexual orientation are not parts of the problem. Writing speculative fiction in this way does two (seemingly incompatible) things at once. On the one hand, it gives readers plenty of opportunities for identification, rather than demanding default identification with a white, cis, heterosexual protagonist as older genre fiction all too often tended to do. At the same time, and on the other hand, struggles for gender equity and sexual equality are not in any way the focus of these novels, because the struggles have already been resolved, and in an entirely liberatory way; this leaves the author free to both be affirmatively queer, trans, or non-binary, and yet at the same time to address all sorts of other issues as well.

This leads me to larger questions as well. My friend Jason Read wrote on Twitter, just this morning, that: “The cultural domination of fantasy over science fiction that we are currently living through just seems to be symptomatic of the broader turn towards fascism.” He is especially thinking, I suppose of current television blockbusters like the prequels to Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. I am inclined to agree with Jason for the most part: it just seems reactionary to me that so many speculative fiction works focus on Kings and Emperors, rather than on bureaucracies and spy systems, as both forces of oppression and ideals. I will always prefer science fictional approaches. But at the same time, this domination of fantasy over science fiction in recent years does not just apply to hegemonic media, but also to written speculative fiction by so many queer, trans, and nonbinary authors, and to many nonwhite authors as well. I am not sure what to make of this. I do not accept the explanation that this simply means the rejection of dominant Eurocentric instrumental reason in favor of older and non-Western ‘ways of knowing.’ But I do not have a good counter-theory, either. The Genesis of Misery deals to a certain extent very thoughtfully and self-reflexively, but my questions remain.