Strange encounters with alien places and intelligences are the staple of science fiction and fantasy, yet it’s not only in fiction where these can be explored. Many recent popular science books look with great sensitivity and imagination at forms of intelligence on Earth that have been overlooked in the past and at the real environments, in so far as we know them, across the solar system and the galaxy. Three books I’ve recently read are wonderful sources for helping us imagine what it’s like to confront the often ignored intelligence of octopuses and trees and the far flung worlds of space that we can only dream of experiencing.
The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben
Peter Wohlleben, a German forester, brings us into a world of trees that depends on subtle forms of cooperation rather than the Darwinian survival of the fittest that dominates so much thinking about nature. In The Hidden Life of Trees he records the ways in which he gradually shifted from a traditional forester’s view, evaluating the value of trees only for their commercial use as harvestable timber, to a deep ecological view focusing on the innumerable ways trees communicate with and support each other. Anyone who has stepped into a healthy, living forest immediately has a sense of complex life, and writers like Richard Powers in his novel Overstory have helped communicate that rich experience in fictional form.
Wohlleben explains how trees support each other through electrical impulses transmitted through their root systems, share resources to help each other through times of stress and depend also on symbiotic relationships with other species, such as insects and birds but most of all fungi. For fungi also spread their networks extensively underground, intertwining with tree roots. These help transmit signals from one tree to another, through what one researcher now calls the “wood wide web.” Trees depends on communication beneath the ground to help one another prosper. Communities of trees tend to grow at the same speed and to survive together because of these methods of transmitting information and nutrients. But they have many other survival skills as well.
They have to be able to count and recall, for example, the number of warming days in spring so that they will know the best time to allow their buds to bloom out. If they responded dumbly to the first major change in temperature, they might lose their great burden of new life in a sudden freeze. They also have numerous defenses against insect predators. When attacked by parasites, trees give off chemicals that not only deter the insects but also float on the wind to their neighbors, stimulating them to produce the same resistance to fight off a threatening species. The Hidden Life of Trees is full of detailed insights about how forests grow and interact with other species to sustain themselves. This was one of the first popular books to reveal the complexity of forest life and begin to change the human relationship with these complex beings.
Under Alien Skies by Philip Plait
Philip Plait, writing for years as the Bad Astronomer, has always had a gift for describing the abstractions of astronomy in vivid detail. In Under Alien Skies, he puts the reader directly in the scenes of extreme environments, ranging from the Moon and Mars to far-flung galaxies and supermassive black holes. His aim is to give you a front row seat in deep space exploration, and he succeeds brilliantly. Starting each of his ten chapters with a science fictional vignette, he captures the most arresting details of what it’s like to experience an alien world. He gives an immediate sense of what stepping on the Moon is like, or seeing the red Martian sky turning to blue at sunset, or floating in a balloon gondola in the atmosphere of Saturn, detailing the scientific reasons for each phenomenon his space tourists encounter. I’m drawn especially to the later chapters, where he leaves our solar system, and heads in a fictional spaceship for a globular cluster, the nebulae and the most fearsome destination, supermassive black holes. The captain of FTL spaceship has a wonderful theatrical flare in revealing the marvels of the Orion Nebula, among others, by switching the viewport to capture different wavelengths of light, including many that are beyond the visible range of human sight.
“Your mind is afire. The previous view of the nebula, the molecular cloud wall—that was a gorgeous spectacle, ostentatious and splashy. But this? This, for all its lack of flamboyance, has a far, far bigger impact on you. This has dignity, timeless import, a connection to your distant past and the galaxy’s future. You’re standing witness to the birth of a solar system.”Under Alien Skies, Kindle edition, Page 238
Under Alien Skies is a sourcebook of ideas for science fiction writers and readers alike and will help readers rethink what they know of deep space exploration.
The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery
Of all the strange encounters detailed in these books, Sy Montgomery’s experience with octopuses is perhaps the strangest of all. As she puts it, for most of us an octopus is not like other animals we encounter but rather an alien from a distant and menacing galaxy.
“A lion is a mammal like us; an octopus is put together completely differently, with three hearts, a brain that wraps around its throat, and a covering of slime instead of hair. Even their blood is a different color from ours; it’s blue, because copper, not iron, carries its oxygen.”The Soul of an Octopus, Kindle edition, Location 211
Far from being put off by the strangeness of an octopus, Montgomery recounts her plunging into the water to let herself be touched, and hence tasted, by the animal through its many complex suckers. First in the huge tank of an aquarium, and later in the wild, she records each remarkable experience of coming into close contact with these intelligent beings and coming to appreciate their individuality. The first octopus she encountered was named Athena by the staff of the aquarium where it lived, and for Montgomery getting to know her led to a new way of thinking and of imagining what radically different minds might be like. With its multiple brains and widely distributed neurons, an octopus can multitask with ease, focusing equally on each of its separate activities carried out with different arms. An octopus can change color and shape as it responds to its environment and various threats or the availability of prey. It processes a flood of information from touch and taste through every part of its skin, as well as the visual images it receives through its almost human-like eyes.
Montgomery goes beyond the idea that octopuses are simply intelligent beings with a form of consciousness to the idea that they also have a soul, that is, a separate indwelling consciousness that observes the flow of thoughts and sensations but is somehow apart from them. She supports this idea by recounting her numerous direct encounters with these animals in the wild as well as in aquariums. I’m not sure I accept what she says, but I am convinced by the vivid immediacy of her many encounters and the extraordinary intelligence and personalities of the octopuses she came to know. Ray Nailor paid tribute to this book in his afterward to The Mountain in the Sea as one of the sources that made his novel possible. It’s a remarkable narrative and well worth reading to understand something of the range of intelligences and forms of consciousness that we are only now exploring here on Earth.