Sward and Sorcery

Watership Down by Richard Adams with cover by Pauline BaynesWatership Down, Richard Adams (1972)

A book is a magical thing. Black marks on white paper create words; words conjure worlds. But the sorcery of Watership Down is remarkable even by literary standards. The world conjured here defies expectation and suspends disbelief. Richard Adams took a seemingly ludicrous subject – the adventures of a group of rabbits – and made it something that could grip the imagination and stir the emotions of readers at any age.

He did this by combining two distinct traditions of writing about animals: the realism of Jack London’s Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906) with the fantasy of Wind in the Willows (1908) and Beatrix Potter (1866-1943). Jack London’s animals are real and don’t speak, but Grahame and Potter turned animals into miniature humans, bringing them into our world, taming and civilizing them. Adams does the reverse: he takes us into the world of animals. He kept his rabbits wild and on all fours, sworn to the sward that they create with their teeth, but he used one piece of anthropomorphism. Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig and the other rabbits can all talk. They have a language, Lapine, and communicate with other animals using a “very simple, limited lingua franca of the hedgerow and woodland” (Part II, ch. 20).

How else could there be a proper story? But that one piece of anthropomorphism is actually an umbrella sheltering many other things: intelligence, memory, planning, persuasion, story-telling, the ability to lie, and so on. With language, the rabbits become like a tribe of primitive humans, pre-literate, almost innumerate:

Rabbits can count up to four. Any number above that is Hrair – ‘a lot’ or ‘a thousand’. Thus they say U Hrair – ‘The Thousand’ – to mean, collectively, all the enemies (or elil, as they call them) of rabbits – fox, stoat, weasel, cat, owl, man, etc. There were probably more than five rabbits in the litter where Fiver was born, but his name, Hrairoo, means ‘Little thousand’, i.e. the little one of a lot, or, as they say of pigs, ‘the runt’. (Part I, “The Journey”, ch. 1, “The Notice Board”)

At the beginning of the book, Fiver is the unacknowledged shaman of Sandleford Warren and foresees the doom that approaches it. Unfortunately, few rabbits believe him, which is why Adams heads the first chapter with a quote from Aeschylus, Cassandra’s warning that “The house reeks of death and dripping blood.” Every other chapter has its apposite quote, ancient or modern, poetry or prose, whimsical or serious: Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Napoleon, W.H. Auden, Dr Johnson, Clausewitz, Walter de la Mare and so on. The quotes stitch Watership Down deftly into the literary canon and into history, because the book is, in part, a celebration of story-telling and the possibilities of language.

That celebration is echoed inside the book, because the narrative is broken up by stories of El-ahrairah, the rabbits’ trickster-prince and protector. He’s like Odysseus and Watership Down is like the Odyssey. It’s a cycle of folk-tales in the making. Like Odysseus, the rabbits have to rely on their cunning and their speed, tricking monsters, not directly confronting them. Their own adventures will, in time, be attributed to El-ahrairah. Without writing, they have no history and sooner or later real events will melt into myth. But that’s the natural way: writing is a mysterious and evil thing to those rabbits who can intuit its purpose:

In the livid, foggy twilight, Fiver stared at the board. As he stared, the black sticks flickered on the white surface. They raised their sharp, wedge-shaped little heads and chattered together like a nestful of young weasels. The sound, mocking and cruel, came faintly to his ears, as though muffled by sand or sacking. ‘In memory of Hazel-rah! In memory of Hazel-rah! In memory of Hazel-rah! Ha ha ha ha ha ha!’ (Part II, ch. 26, “Fiver Beyond”)

Like Tolkien in The Hobbit (1937) and Lord of the Rings (1954-5), Adams is writing against the evils of technology and modernity; unlike Tolkien, he lists writing among those evils. A book that condemns writing is a paradox, but Adams is adopting a rabbit’s perspective. Tolkien’s books were, I’d suggest, a strong hidden influence on Watership Down. Rabbits are hole-dwellers like hobbits and the band of rabbits who set out from Sandleford Warren are rather like the Company of the Ring. Adams treats Lapine the way Tolkien treats his invented languages, using it to make us aware of the gulf across which the story comes to us:

With them was a third rabbit, Hlao – Pipkin – a friend of Fiver. (Hlao means any small concavity in the grass where moisture may collect, e.g. the dimple formed by a dandelion or thistle-cup.) (Part 1, ch. 4, “The Departure”)

Meriadoc was chosen to fit the fact that this character’s shortened name, Kali, meant in the Westron ‘jolly, gay’, though this was actually an abbreviation of the now unmeaning Buckland name Kalimac. (Lord of the Rings, Appendix F, “On Translation”)

But I think Adams is more linguistically creative and subtle than Tolkien, whose invented languages still seem like real ones: Welsh, Finnish, Old Norse and so on. Lapine isn’t reminiscent of anything familiar and some of its words – pfeffa, “cat”, and hrududu, “motor vehicle” – are cleverly simple, just the sort of onomatopoeias you can imagine a talking rabbit would use.

Cover of a recent edition of Watership Down

Cover of a recent edition of Watership Down

Lapine is also like Nadsat, the teen-speak invented by Anthony Burgess for A Clockwork Orange (1962). Adams leaves some words of Lapine untranslated at first, letting context give them meaning, sprinkling them through the text and allowing them to sink slowly into the reader’s mind. By the end of the book, you’ll find that you can understand basic Lapine: “Siflay hraka, u embleer rah,” says Bigwig to General Woundwort and the line doesn’t need translation.

General Woundwort is the Polyphemus or Sauron of Watership Down: a rabbit almost as big as a hare, the cunning and vicious megalomaniac who leads the slave-warren Efrafra. His wickedness is on a much smaller scale than Sauron’s, of course, but that makes it more credible and so more powerful. Lord of the Rings is more ambitious than The Hobbit, which is admirable, but also less successful, which was inevitable. Bilbo sets out to slay a dragon, not save the world. The rabbits in Watership Down are unwilling refugees who want to found a permanent warren of their own. It’s a small thing within the wider world, where humans rear giant metal pylons, span rivers with bridges, and speed to and fro in hrududim, but then human affairs are small within the wider universe.

It doesn’t matter: significance is not determined by size, purpose doesn’t have to be blunted by futility. The rabbits’ instincts drive them on and their ambitions are big enough for their abilities. They don’t need more. It’s General Woundwort’s desire to be great that prevents him from being so. He’s the most human of the rabbits and so the most evil: “All other elil do what they have to do and Frith moves them as he moves us. They live on the earth and they need food. Men will never rest till they’ve spoiled the earth and destroyed the animals.” (Part II, ch. 21, “For El-ahrairah to Cry”)

Man’s restlessness and meddling are a theme Adams took up again in The Plague Dogs (1977), a novel about two dogs that escape from a research laboratory in the Lake District. It’s a weak book set beside Watership Down, written more self-consciously and less coherently. Adams doesn’t stitch literary allusions into the story: he nails them in like corrugated iron. But his sympathy for animals is still there and so is his ability to describe the world through their sharper and subtler senses. The rabbits of Watership Down are like a primitive tribe of humans, but you never forget that they aren’t actually human:

A robin on a low branch twittered a phrase and listened for another that answered to him from beyond the farmhouse. A chaffinch gave its little falling song and farther off, high in an elm, a chiff-chaff began to call. Hazel stopped and then sat up, the better to scent the air. Powerful smells of straw and cow-dung mingled with those of elm-leaves, ashes and cattle-feed. Fainter traces came to his nose as the overtones of a bell sound in a trained ear. Tobacco, naturally: a good deal of cat and rather less dog and then, suddenly and beyond doubt, rabbit. He looked at Pipkin and saw that he too had caught it. (Part II, ch. 24, “Nuthanger Farm”)

That’s describing a raid on a farm that keeps pet rabbits. Hazel wants to find some does for the warren at Watership Down, where he and his fellow hlessil – “wanderers, scratchers, vagabonds” – seem to have finally found sanctuary. They’ve come a long way through strange country, but they’ll go further and see stranger before the end of the book. Watership Down is first and foremost an adventure story, but it’s also a celebration of the English countryside: its flowers, trees, birds, streams and rivers; its sounds, scents, shapes; its delights and dangers. The rabbits have their place there, naming themselves from nature, and unlike man, with his stinks and cacophonies, they don’t desire dominion over it.

The raucous gull Kehaar, their ally in their struggle with General Woundwort and Efrafra, brings word of far-off places and the mysterious sea, but their world is room enough. It fills their senses, challenges their cunning and ingenuity, sustains them, in the end will slay them. The countryside is the biggest character, as the title suggests, and rabbits were the best way to bring that character into a book. They’re social animals, mostly warren-dwelling, occasionally wandering, and if Adams could suspend disbelief and give them language, he could conjure a world of wonders through their eyes, ears, noses and mouths.

He could and did exactly that with the help of R.M. Lockley, who wrote The Private Life of the Rabbit, the “remarkable book” on which he drew for a “knowledge of rabbits and their ways” (“Acknowledgments”). Rabbits are in fact remarkable animals, but most people won’t realize that until they read the remarkable book called Watership Down. It’s a microcosm that mirrors the macrocosm, both reflecting man and reflecting on our ways. Rabbits “don’t name the stars”, Adams tells us, but in truth they don’t name anything, because Lapine doesn’t exist. It was his great achievement to make that impossibility plausible, turning sward-munchers into adventurers, mystics and dynasts with the sorcery of words:

A few minutes later there was not a rabbit to be seen on the down. The sun sank beneath Ladle Hill and the autumn stars began to shine in the darkening east – Perseus and the Pleiades, Cassiopeia, faint Pisces and the great square of Pegasus. The wind freshened, and soon myriads of dry beech leaves were filling the ditches and hollows and blowing in gusts across the dark miles of open grass. Underground, the story continued. (Part IV, ch. 50, “And Last”)

The Brain in Pain

You can stop reading now, if you want. Or can you? Are your decisions really your own, or are you and all other human beings merely spectators in the mind-arena, observing but neither influencing nor initiating what goes on there? Are all your apparent choices in your brain, but out of your hands, made by mechanisms beyond, or below, your conscious control?

In short, do you have free will? This is a big topic – one of the biggest. For me, the three most interesting things in the world are the Problem of Consciousness, the Problem of Existence and the Question of Free Will. I call consciousness and existence problems because I think they’re real. They’re actually there to be investigated and explained. I call free will a question because I don’t think it’s real. I don’t believe that human beings can choose freely or that any possible being, natural or supernatural, can do so. And I don’t believe we truly want free will: it’s an excuse for other things and something we gladly reject in certain circumstances.

Continue reading The Brain in Pain

Paradigm Lost

Genius schmenius — genetics is sooooo 1950s:

But Paul Martin, a sociologist at the University of Sheffield, UK, is surprised that geneticists are still pursuing this line of research. “I think most people would say that’s the wrong paradigm, when most educational research suggests that social factors are incredibly important,” he says. “Strategically, this seems like something of a throwback.”

Chinese project probes the genetics of genius

See? Sense and decency. That’s because sociology is a proper science. Nearly as proper as psychoanalysis or astrology, in fact.

Rep-Tile Reflections

A rep-tile, or repeat-tile, is a two-dimensional shape that can be divided completely into copies of itself. A square, for example, can be divided into smaller squares: four or nine or sixteen, and so on. Rectangles are the same. Triangles can be divided into two copies or three or more, depending on their precise shape. Here are some rep-tiles, including various rep-triangles:

Various rep-tiles

Various rep-tiles — click for larger image

Some are simple, some are complex. Some have special names: the sphinx and the fish are easy to spot. I like both of those, particularly the fish. It would make a good symbol for a religion: richly evocative of life, eternally sub-divisible of self: 1, 9, 81, 729, 6561, 59049, 531441… I also like the double-square, the double-triangle and the T-tile in the top row. But perhaps the most potent, to my mind, is the half-square in the bottom left-hand corner. A single stroke sub-divides it, yet its hypotenuse, or longer side, represents the mysterious and mind-expanding √2, a number that exists nowhere in the physical universe. But the half-square itself is mind-expanding. All rep-tiles are. If intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe, perhaps other minds are contemplating the fish or the sphinx or the half-square and musing thus: “If intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe, perhaps…”

Mathematics unites human minds across barriers of language, culture and politics. But perhaps it unites minds across barriers of biology too. Imagine a form of life based on silicon or gas, on unguessable combinations of matter and energy in unreachable, unobservable parts of the universe. If it’s intelligent life and has discovered mathematics, it may also have discovered rep-tiles. And it may be contemplating the possibility of other minds doing the same. And why confine these speculations to this universe and this reality? In parallel universes, in alternative realities, minds may be contemplating rep-tiles and speculating in the same way. If our universe ends in a Big Crunch and then explodes again in a Big Bang, intelligent life may rise again and discover rep-tiles again and speculate again on their implications. The wildest speculation of all would be to hypothesize a psycho-math-space, a mental realm beyond time and matter where, in mathemystic communion, suitably attuned and aware minds can sense each other’s presence and even communicate.

The rep-tile known as the fish

Credo in Piscem…

So meditate on the fish or the sphinx or the half-square. Do you feel the tendrils of an alien mind brush your own? Are you in communion with a stone-being from the far past, a fire-being from the far future, a hive-being from a parallel universe? Well, probably not. And even if you do feel those mental tendrils, how would you know they’re really there? No, I doubt that the psycho-math-space exists. But it might and science might prove its existence one day. Another possibility is that there is no other intelligent life, never has been, and never will be. We may be the only ones who will ever muse on rep-tiles and other aspects of mathematics. Somehow, though, rep-tiles themselves seem to say that this isn’t so. Particularly the fish. It mimics life and can spawn itself eternally. As I said, it would make a good symbol for a religion: a mathemysticism of trans-biological communion. Credo in Piscem, Unum et Infinitum et Æternum. “I believe in the Fish, One, Unending, Everlasting.” That might be the motto of the religion. If you want to join it, simply wish upon the fish and muse on other minds, around other stars, who may be doing the same.

Guise and Molls

Front cover of Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate: A Natural History, by Jennifer A. Mather et al
Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate: A Natural History, Jennifer A. Mather, Roland C. Anderson and James B. Wood (Timber Press, 2010)

Who knows humanity who only human knows? We understand ourselves better by looking at other animals, but most other animals are not as remarkable as the octopus. These eight-armed invertebrates are much more closely related to oysters, limpets and ship-worms than they are to fish, let alone to mammals, but they lead fully active lives and seem fully conscious creatures of strong and even unsettling intelligence. Octopuses are molluscs, or “soft ones” (the same Latin root is found in “mollify”), with no internal skeleton and no rigid structure. Unlike some of their relatives, however, they do have brains. And more than one brain apiece, in a sense, because their arms are semi-autonomous. They don’t really have bodies, though, which is why they belong to the class known as Cephalopoda, or “head-foots”. Squid and cuttlefish, which are also covered in this book, are in the same class but do have more definite bodies, because they swim in open water rather than, like octopuses, living on the sea-floor. Another difference between the groups is that octopuses don’t have tentacles. Their limbs are too adaptable for that:

Because the arms are lined with suckers along the underside, octopuses can grasp anything. And since the animal has no skeleton, it can flex its arms and move them in any direction. The arms aren’t tentacles: tentacles are used for prey capture in squid, and these arms, with their flexibility, are used for many different actions. (“Introduction: Meet the Octopus”, pg. 15)

Octopuses would be interesting even if we humans knew ourselves perfectly. But one of the interesting things is whether they could be us, given time and opportunity. That is, could they become a tool-making, culture-forming, language-using species like us? After all, unlike most animals, they don’t use their limbs simply for locomotion or aggression: octopuses can manipulate objects with reasonably good precision. I used to think that one obstacle to their use of tools was their inability to make fine discriminations between shapes, because I remembered reading in the Oxford Book of the Mind (2004) that they couldn’t tell cubes from spheres. The explanation there was that their arms are too flexible and can’t, like rigid human arms and fingers, be used as fixed references to judge a manipulated object against. But this book says otherwise:

[The British researcher J.M.] Wells found that common octopuses can learn by touch and can tell a smooth cylinder from a grooved one or a cube from a sphere. They had much more trouble, though, telling a cube with smoothed-off corners from a sphere… They couldn’t learn to distinguish a heavy cylinder from a lighter one with the same surface texture. (ch. 9, “Intelligence”, pg. 130)

The problem isn’t simply that their arms are too flexible: their arms are also too independent:

Maybe the common octopus could not use information about the amount of sucker bending to send to the brain and calculate what an object’s shape would be, or calculate how much the arm bent to figure out weight. Octopuses have a lot of local control of arm movement: there are chains of ganglia [nerve-centres] down the arm and even sucker ganglia to control their individual actions. If local information is processed as reflexes in these ganglia, most touch and position information might not go to the brain and then couldn’t used in associative learning. (Ibid., pg. 130-1)

Or in manipulating an object with high precision and accuracy. An octopus can use rocks to make the entrance to its den narrower and less accessible to predators, but that’s a long way from being able to build a den. It is a start, however, and if man and other apes left the scene, octopuses would be a candidate to occupy his vacant throne one day. But I would give better odds to squirrels and to corvids (crow-like birds) than to cephalopods. Living in the sea may be a big obstacle to developing full, language-using, world-manipulating intelligence. The brevity of that life in the sea is definitely an obstacle: one deep-sea species of octopus may live over ten years, which would be “the longest for any octopus” (ch. 1, “In the Egg”). In shallower, warmer water, the Giant Pacific Octopus, Enteroctopus dofleini, is senescent at three or four years; some other species are senescent at a year or less. Males die after fertilizing the females, females die after guarding their eggs to hatching. In such an active, enquiring animal, senescence is an odd and unsettling process. A male octopus will stop eating, lose weight and start behaving in unnatural ways:

Senescent male giant Pacific octopuses and red octopuses are found crawling out of the water onto the beach [which is] likely to lead to attacks by gulls, crows, foxes, river otters or other animals… Senescent males have even been found in river mouths, going upstream to their eventual death from the low salinity of the fresh water. (ch. 10, “Sex at Last”, pg. 148)

Female octopuses stop eating and lose weight, but can’t behave unnaturally like that, because they have eggs to guard. Evolution keeps them on duty, because females that abandoned their eggs would leave fewer offspring. Meanwhile, males can become what might be called demob-demented: once they’ve mated, their behaviour doesn’t affect their offspring. In the deep sea, longer-lived species follow the same pattern of maturing, mating and senescing, but aren’t so much living longer as living slower. These short, or slow, lives wouldn’t allow octopuses to learn in the way human beings do. The most important part of human learning is, of course, central to this book and this review: language. Cephalopods don’t have good hearing, but they do have excellent sight and the ability to change the colour and patterning of their skin. So Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) suggested in his short-story “The Shining Ones” (1962) that they could become autodermatographers, or “self-skin-writers”, speaking with their skin. The fine control necessary for language is already there:

Within the outer layers of octopus skin are many chromatophores – sacs that contain yellow, red or brown pigment within an elastic container. When a set of muscles pulls a chromatophore sac out to make it bigger, its color is allowed to show. When the muscles relax, the elastic cover shrinks the sac and the color seems to vanish. A nerve connects to each set of chromatophore muscles, so that nervous signals from the brain can cause an overall change in color in less than 100 milliseconds at any point in the body… When chromatophores are contracted, there is another color-producing layer beneath them. A layer of reflecting cells, white leucophores or green iridophores depending on the area of the body, produces color in a different way: Like a hummingbird’s feathers, which only reflect color at a specific angle, these cells have no pigment themselves but reflect all or some of the colors in the environment back to the observer… (ch. 6, “Appearances”, pg. 89)

“Observer” is the operative word: changes in skin-colour, -texture and -shape are a way to fool the eyes and brains of predators. The molluscan octopus can adopt many guises: it can look like rocks, sand or seaweed. But the champion changer is Thaumoctopus mimicus, which lives in shallow waters off Indonesia. Its generic name means “marvel-octopus” and its specific name means “mimicking”. And its modes of mimicry are indeed marvellous:

This octopus can flatten its body and move across the sand, using its jet for propulsion and trailing its arms, with the same undulating motion as a flounder or sole. It can swim above the mud with its striped arms outspread, looking like a venomous lionfish or jellyfish. It can narrow the width of its combined slender body and arms to look like a striped sea-snake. And it may be able to carry out other mimicries we have yet to see. Particularly impressive about the mimic octopus is that not only can it take on the appearance of another animal but it can also assume the behaviour of that animal. (ch. 7, “Not Getting Eaten”, pg. 109)

But octopuses also change their skin to fool the eyes and brains of prey. The “Passing Cloud” may sound like a martial arts technique, but it’s actually a molluscan hunting technique. And it’s produced entirely within the skin, as the authors of this book observed after videotaping octopuses “in an outdoor saltwater pond on Coconut Island”, Hawaii:

Back in the lab and replaying the video frame by frame, we found how complex the Passing Cloud display is. The Passing Cloud formed on the posterior mantle, flowed forward past the head and became more of a bar in shape, then condensed into a small blob below the head. The shape then enlarged and moved out onto the outstretched mantle, flowing off the anterior mantle and disappearing. (ch. 6, “Appearances”, pg. 93)

It’s apparently used to startle crabs that have frozen and are hard to see. When the crab moves in response to the Passing Cloud, the octopus can grab it and bite it to death with its “parrotlike beak”. They “also use venom from the posterior salivary gland that can paralyze prey and start digestion” (ch. 3, “Making a Living”, pg. 62). But a bite from an octopus can kill much bigger things than crabs:

Blue-ringed octopuses, the four species that are members of the genus Hapalochlaena, display stunning coloration. Like other spectacular forms of marine and terrestrial life, they have vivid color patterns as a warning signal. These small octopuses pose a serious threat to humans. They pack a potent venomous bite that makes them among the most dangerous creatures on Earth. Their venom, the neurotoxin tetrodotoxin (TTX) described by Scheumack et al in 1978, is among the few cephalopod venoms that can affect humans. A variety of marine and terrestrial animals produce TTX [including] poisonous arrow frogs [untrue, according to Wikipedia, which refers to “toads of the genus Atelopus” instead], newts, and salamanders… but the classic example, and what the compound is named after, is the tetraodon puffer fish. The puffers are what the Japanese delicacy fufu is made from. If the fish is prepared correctly, extremely small amounts of TTX cause only a tingling or numbing sensation. But if it is prepared incorrectly, the substance kills by blocking sodium channels on the surface of nerve membranes. A single milligram, 1/2500 of the weight of a penny, will kill an adult human… Even in the minuscule doses delivered by a blue-ringed octopus’s nearly unnoticeable bite, TTX can shut down the nervous system of a large person in just minutes; the risk of death is very high. (“Postscript: Keeping a Captive Octopus”, pg. 170)

It’s interesting to see how often toxicity has evolved among animals. Puffer-fish and blue-ringed octopuses may get their toxin from bacteria or algae, while poison-arrow frogs get the even more potent batrachotoxin from eating beetles, as do certain species of bird on New Guinea. Accordingly, toxicity is found in animals with no legs, two legs, four legs, six legs, eight legs and ten legs (if squid have a poisonous bite too). Evolution has found similar solutions to similar problems in unrelated groups, because evolution is a way of exploring space: that of possibility. And it is all, in one way or another, chemical possibility. Blue-ringed octopuses have found a chemical solution to hunting and evading predators. Other cephalopods have found a chemical solution to staying afloat:

Another substance used to keep plankton buoyant is ammonia, again lighter than water. Ammonia is primarily used by the large squid species, including the giant squid (Architeuthis dux), in their tissues, although the glass squid (Cranchia scabra) concentrates ammonia inside a special organ. The ammonia in the tissues of these squid makes the living or dead animal smell pungent. Dead or dying squid on the ocean’s surface smell particularly foul. The ammonia in these giant squid also makes them inedible – there will be no giant squid calamari. (ch. 2, “Drifting and Settling”)

Other deep-sea solutions from chemical possibility-space include bioluminescence. This is used by a cephalopod that was little-known until it was used as a metaphor for the greedy behaviour of Goldman-Sachs and other bankers:

…although they do not have an ink-sac, vampire squid have a bioluminescent mucus that they can jet out, presumably at the approach of a potential predator, likely distracting it in the same way as a black ink jet for a shallow-water octopus or squid. Second, they have a pair of light organs at the base of the fins with a moveable flap that can be used as a shutter. These could act as a searchlight, turning a beam of light onto a potential prey species that tactile sensing from the [tentacle-like] filaments has picked up. And third, they have a huge number of tiny photophores all over the body and arms. These could work two ways: they might give a general dim lighting as a visual counter-shading. With even a little light from above, a dark animal would stand out in silhouette from below. With low-level light giving just enough illumination, it could blend in. And the second function of these lights has been seen by ROV [remotely operated underwater vehicle] viewers: a disturbed vampire squid threw its arms back over its body and flashed the lights on the arms, which should startle any creature. (ch. 11, “The Rest of the Group”, pg. 161)

I was surprised to learn that vampire squid can be prey, but in fact their scientific name – Vampyroteuthis infernalis – is almost as big as they are: “for those imagining that vampire squid are monsters of the deep, they are tiny – only up to 5 in. (13 cm) long” (ibid., pg. 162). Even less-studied, even deeper-living, and even longer-named is Vulcanoctopus hydrothermalis, the “specialized deep-sea vent octopus”, which is “found, as its name suggests, near deep-sea hydrothermal vents way down at 6000 ft. (2000 m)” (“Introduction: Meet the Octopus”, pg. 15). Life around hydrothermal vents, or mini-volcanoes on the ocean floor, is actually independent of the sun, because the food-pyramid there is based on bacteria that live on the enriched water flowing from the vents. So an asteroid strike or mega-volcano that clouded the skies and stopped photosynthesis wouldn’t directly affect that underwater economy. But vents sometimes go extinct and Vulcanoctopus hydrothermalis must lead a precarious existence.

I’d like to know more about the species, but it’s one interesting octopus among many. This book is an excellent introduction to this eight-limbed group and cousins like the ten-limbed squid and the sometimes ninety-limbed nautiluses. It will guide you through all aspects of their lives and behaviour, from chromatophores, detachable arms and jet propulsion to siphuncles, glue-glands and the hectocotylus, the “modified mating arm” of male cephalopods that was once thought to be a parasitic worm. That mystery has been solved, but lots more remain. Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate should appeal to any thalassophile who shares the enthusiasm of H.P. Lovecraft or Arthur C. Clarke for a group that has evolved high intelligence without ever leaving the ocean.