It is difficult to imagine myself on the path I might be on had I not read the books I have read. I have often heard about “the moral of the story,” but life is rarely so straightforward. Few stories have a lesson, but every story can be learned from. In lieu of a dissertation on one book, expounding interpretations pulled from subtext so deep it may as well be imagined, here is a tour of a few subtler points I have picked up on a problematic and elusive topic: consciousness.
Picture: The sun is setting behind my childhood home. I am sitting with my back against the window facing southwest. I look up from my book to see delicate yellow light on the wall and turn around to see a heavy gold pouring through the trees. I realize that the sun will set tomorrow, but that I will not be here for that sunset. I will be somewhere else. Basic facts, invincible tenets of life emerge: The sun rises and sets every day. The setting sun will light up this room tomorrow + I will not be in this room tomorrow = I will not see the setting sun light up this room tomorrow.
This seems like a pretty obvious observation, but the difference is that I can still picture myself sitting on that couch, watching the light change. It won’t happen, but I can see it as clearly as I see myself in that room as my mind wanders through this line of thought. I can also see myself sitting at my desk in my apartment in Ann Arbor, watching an entirely different version of the same sunset. Initial circumstances entail conclusions.
I’m thinking in this strange, almost mathematical way because at the moment I am reading a stunning short story called “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, the basis for the movie “Arrival.” In the story, aliens land on earth and the narrator, a linguist named Louise, is tasked with communicating with them.
As Louise learns the aliens’ language, she begins to see time differently. The aliens perceive time non-linearly — they view their entire life simultaneously, each moment a predetermined scene in a play. As Louise becomes more proficient in the alien language, she gains memories of her future. The reader gradually comes to understand that the memories are not presented in the expected chronological order, despite Chiang using the present and future tense to relay them. As the reader learns about the unique abilities provided by the alien language, they realize that the perceived past is really the future. The use of tense makes perfect sense.
“Story of Your Life” has an almost magical effect on the reader — it feels as though Chiang has broken a secret rule of storytelling, that of chronology. But this technical rebellion is perfectly welcome, as it brings me to that delicious event we all hope for in a book: the “a-ha!” moment.
Great stories spark novel thoughts in their readers. The iconic quote from Dr. Ian Malcolm in “Jurassic Park” springs to mind: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Hearing this delivered in Jeff Goldblum’s impeccably stuttered cadence prompts legitimate consideration: How should we treat bioengineered animals? It seems like a distant question, one that our great-great-grandchildren will face, not us. And while we may not resurrect dinosaurs anytime soon, Michael Crichton’s original “Jurassic Park” novel does raise relevant questions regarding consciousness and life.
Consider the velociraptor, a creature artificially created by geneticists in “Jurassic Park.” Does it have rights? Should we protect it, or let it roam free? The point that Crichton emphasizes in the novel is that nature can never truly be controlled, that life will escape any cage, will “find a way.” But when we do play God and create an animal, there is an undeniable implication: that we owe our offspring protection.
Creation is paternal in the world of “Jurassic Park,” yet protection necessitates a certain amount of control. However, if we can never control nature, then it follows that we can never truly protect it. Crichton asks us to question our treatment of animals, an issue that is further complicated when we consider the role of consciousness in other forms of life.
But how about another perspective, one where an animal is not created, but altered? In Stephen Baxter’s novel “Manifold Time,” scientists send a rocket to examine an alien object that has appeared in the solar system. It’s a one-way trip, so they can’t send a human to pilot the vessel. They opt instead for a non-traditional pilot: Sheena 5, a squid, biologically enhanced to have the intelligence of a human. Sheena can control the rocket, perform all the scientific functions necessary and inhabit a much smaller space than a human.
This seems like a perfect solution, one that eliminates a loss of human life while mimicking the creative problem-solving abilities of a conscious person. But of course, if Sheena is conscious, then isn’t sending her on a suicide mission just as immoral as sending a human? To further complicate things, Sheena is — unknown to the scientists — pregnant when she begins her voyage. Her offspring inherit her mental abilities, and a family of newly-conscious beings is created. The story unfolds like a logical extension of “Jurassic Park” as the squids find ways to survive in space and eventually reproduce to form a generational society.
Reading “Manifold Time” led me to unexpected emotional leaps; I began to consider a squid the same way I would consider a person. Sheena thinks in the same internal monologue as myself, she feels the same fear of death that I feel and she turns out to be very similar to any other person, with the exception of certain tentacular differences. She leads me to wonder, is the gap between people and animals really all that big?
Stephen Godfrey-Smith’s newest book “Metazoa” explores this topic in the same way that Sheena explores the solar system. Both a philosopher and a biologist, Godfrey-Smith observes animals the way an anthropologist observes humans. He describes encounters with octopuses and shrimp like they’re simply other people, as if the difference in species is no more than a language barrier. One passage stuck out to me: “Two weeks later I went back again, implausible as it seemed to be driving three hours up the coast to visit a shrimp … He looked tired, very much on his own, and probably near the end of his days.”
What Godfrey-Smith seeks to prove in “Metazoa” is that consciousness cannot be strictly delineated. It’s not as if there is a switch, as if the lights are on in one animal and off in another. More complex animals like octopuses, dolphins or house cats certainly feel emotions similar to ours. They also form memories the way we do, remembering locations and routes and feelings associated with different places. Most importantly, they use language.
There was a moment over winter break when I sat in my living room and my family’s cat, Lily, started pawing at the door, wanting to be let in. She saw me stand up through the glass, and when I walked over she stopped pawing, looked at me and meowed. It wasn’t an empty utterance, there was an intention behind it, a conveyance of meaning: Open the door, Julian. In that moment, it certainly seemed that there was something behind her eyes that resembled my own consciousness.
But then the moment was over, and I sat back down and picked up my book, which brings us back to “Story of Your Life.” The other books I’ve mentioned here all brought me to think about consciousness differently in other beings, in animals.
But “Story of Your Life” brought me to think differently about my own mind. I saw tomorrow as something half-certain, as if today were a snapshot of a ball, just released from a hand, waiting to fall. I couldn’t tell exactly, but some present information entailed some future events. The sun will set, the room will glow, I will be there or I will be somewhere else. Fill in that last blank, and the future is not all that hard to see in my mind.
It’s a little thing, a tilt of the lens rather than a full pan, but it’s important. Stories make us think; great stories change the way we think.
Daily Arts Writer Julian Wray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.