Tuesday 13 December 2022

The Tentacle of Empathy

One of the most interesting evolutions within science fiction over the past two decades has been the ways in which non-human consciousnesses are depicted.

(image via Hachette UK)
From the dawn of the genre, there has been a commendable attempt by many authors to expand the definition of what beings are worthy of human-level rights. However, in earlier decades many have struggled to imagine something truly alien; Klingon, Wookie, Kzinti, Gallifreyan, and Melmacian are all only differentiated from humans by body shape and culture. Even the supposedly ancient and unknowable Vorlons of Babylon 5 and the omniscient and omnipotent Q of Star Trek seem to be governed by human emotions such as arrogance, wrath, and loneliness.

We would suggest that over the past quarter century, an increasing societal understanding of neurodiversity has been reflected in science fiction. Starting in the 1990s, the autistic self-advocacy movement (and the associated neurodiversity movement) have helped destigmatize behaviours and problem-solving practices often associated with those who have been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. In essence, this is broadening our understanding of the human experience, and thus promotes human dignity writ large. There is a line that could be drawn between the autistic self-advocacy movement and the broadly positive depiction of non-normative cognition among the Tines and the Focused in Vernor Vinge’s Zones of Thought novels, and the Portids and the Corvids of Adrian Tchiakovsky’s Children of Time books. In essence, science fiction has paralleled the neurodiverse movement in destigmatizing diverse cognition thanks to a small cadre of authors who have been making an effort to get into the heads of intelects that are alien to their own. Whether doing so was intentional or not, it has value, as showing the richness of different forms of cognition helps build empathy.

Ray Nayler’s debut novel The Mountain and the Sea, which hit shelves on October 4, puts this tradition into focus.

Set in the near future, the book weaves between the viewpoints of several characters who are each in their own ways tentatively and clumsily reaching towards a slippery understanding of the role compassion might play in their lives. It’s about trying to grasp a writhing and elusive tentacle of empathy.

The two primary narrative threads follow Dr. Ha Nyugen, a marine biologist making discoveries into the cognition and social behaviours of a newly-discovered species of octopus living near a remote island of Con Dao; and Eiko, an aspiring businessman who is enslaved on an automated fishing vessel.

These interspersed stories act as an emotional yin and yang within the book. Despite Eiko’s tale being one of despair and exploitation and Nyugen’s driven by the hope for discovery, both characters are forced to examine why their lives are lacking and, thus, both narrative threads share fundamentally similar emotional themes.

Eiko’s kidnapping and enslavement is
not fantasy, but rather a reflection
of real-world practices.
We’d recommend Ian Urbina’s
New York Times article series
The Outlaw Ocean, which has
photos from Times
photo editor Adam Dean.
(Image via New York Times.)
Drugged and kidnapped shortly before starting his first, coveted, job out of university, Eiko finds himself trapped on a fishing vessel in the middle of the Pacific ocean, forced to process fish carcasses for mind-numbing hours of back-breaking unpaid labour. This is a bleak setting, in which we slowly learn that there are hundreds of such vessels strip mining the oceans, extirpating all saleable life in the pursuit of short-term profits. Eiko’s personal voyage is mostly in his head, as he begins to analyze the role he had previously intended to play in this exploitative system, and with deliberate effort tries to teach himself empathy in the harshest of conditions. We particularly enjoyed the depiction of solidarity-based organizing among enslaved workers. Nayler explores both the ways in which technology insulates capitalists from the victims of their exploitation, and the ways in which workers are often forced into compliance through inhuman systems. Although Eiko’s chapters are some of the strongest and most affecting content of the novel, they might have been too emotionally exhausting for many readers, if the book hadn’t also been enriched by Nguyen’s story arc.

Her chapters follow a dogged attempt to bridge the gap in understanding and communication between humanity and the octopuses, while she simultaneously grapples with her own quiet isolation. The marine biologist, it turns out, accepted a remote job from the multinational corporation Dianima, which owns and fiercely guards the island of Con Dao. This leads to questions of why the corporation is so interested in the octopuses; and how they might be exploited. Much of Nguyen’s arc is put into sharp relief through the slow development of trust between her and the two people who are also bound to the island by their shared employer: Altantsetseg, a Mongolian security expert and Evrim, the world’s only truly human-level artificial intelligence.

The novel’s depiction of semi-functional future geopolitics and extreme forms of predatory capitalism are sadly believable, but written with interesting nuance. Nayler’s background working in the foreign service has given him a perspective and a knowledge that lends the story credibility.

But at its core, the strength of the novel is in how richly it explores the ways in which humans interpret experiences, how different sensoria and neurological architecture might construct individual understandings of the world, and how artificial intelligences might evolve and what that could mean for their sentience. It’s impossible to know what's going on in another being’s head, nor whether depicting these processes can ever be accomplished, but we suspect that Nayler has done this about as well as possible. The speculation on how octopus intelligence might have evolved, and how their form, abilities, and physical brain shape might perceive the world are meticulously explored. In this way, it could be interpreted as one of the most in-depth examples of the neurodiversity movement reflected in science fiction.

In essence, Nayler seems to be asking how humans might ever be able to build a bridge of understanding with an alien race, when we often can’t even do so amongst our own species. It’s often a heartbreaking novel, but one worth reading and one that’s laced with threads of hope.

No comments:

Post a Comment