Squids With Tasers.

A simple experiment, a famous fish. Electric eels, shocking their prey. Nothing to see here, right?

“The mechanism of the eel’s attack is unknown”, Kenneth Catania states right off the top in his new paper in Science, and I admit I shrugged and thought What’s to know? What’s so mysterious about electrocution?

But it turns out there’s a subtlety, a nuance to Electrophorus electricus’s attacks that nobody suspected until now. (Yes, Electrophorus. Not only does this fish have the powers of a Marvel superhero, she’s got a name that’s every bit as hokey.)

Electric eels hunt kind of like this.

“A signal, Commander!” “We have him. Move toward him.”
Electric eels hunt kind of like this.

Catania’s experimental setup was surprisingly low-tech: basically, coax an eel into firing her weapons by feeding her worms, while monitoring neuromuscular activity inside pithed fish placed nearby (but still deep in the shock zone). It yielded some very nifty insights, though. For one thing, Electrophorus doesn’t just use her superpower to kill prey; she uses it to detect that prey beforehand. She sends a low-voltage tickle through the water that mimics fish-motor-neuron commands, tricks her victim’s muscles into a twitch response. The prey jerks; that movement generates a pressure wave that the eel can lock onto (think of sharks, drawn to the signature thrashing of wounded prey; think of a submarine, patiently pinging for enemy contacts). Only then, with her target in the crosshairs, does Electrophorus fire the big guns: packs of modified muscle tissue punching 600 volts through the water, turning the target into one big clenching charlie-horse to be scooped up at leisure.

We’re not just talking about muscles frying in an electrical field, or just sticking your tongue into a light socket. This is far more sophisticated. The muscle contractions don’t occur unless the motor neurons controlling them are active. It’s the neurons, not the muscles, that are being targeted. What we have here is a strategy that precisely and remotely hacks the prey’s nervous system, planting an explicit self-destruct command that throws the whole body into tetanus.

From Catania 2004.

If you don’t find this deeply cool, you shouldn’t be reading this blog. And if I can’t find a way to use this, then I shouldn’t be writing it.

Fortunately I can think of two ways. This remote-firing of neurons reminds me of the “ephaptic coupling” some of you may have noticed in Echopraxia‘s endnotes, in which neurons are induced to fire not by direct synaptic stimulation but by diffuse electrical fields generated elsewhere in the brain. I invoked it as a mechanism for the Bicameral hive-mind interfaceโ€” but this whole eel-zap strategy could serve a similar function if harnessed for good instead of evil (especially if the Hive happens to be hanging out in a hot tub). So maybe Electrophorus will get a walk-on part in Omniscience.

That’s small potatoes, though. Regular visitors will know that my next novel (as things stand now, at least) is going to involve genetically-engineered giant squids attacking Petrocan wellheads in a melting Arctic. They already pack some cool modifications: kidneys that double as batteries, generating current along the ionic gradient in the nephridium. Weird membranous structures, like some kind of diffuse body-spanning eardrum tuned way down to the 5Hz range: an organic acoustic modem, sensitive to low-frequency rumbles that could cross an ocean.

Would it not be awesome to equip them also with remote neuron-hacking battery packs that could take downโ€” or even better, commandeerโ€”other life forms at 200 meters?

Squids with tasers. I’m telling you, Intelligent Design is looking better and better.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Friday December 12 2014at 08:12 am , filed under biology, Intelligent Design (the novel), neuro, Omniscience . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

33 Responses to “Squids With Tasers.”

  1. This is awesome. Nature continually is revealed to be a lot more complex than previously thought. Hey, it’s super cool to have a high-voltage shocker system, which is what we thought was the electric-eel’s weapon. But it’s even more cool than that to have the ability to actively synchronize with prey’s neurology, and do it remotely. One has to wonder about the effects of such things as inverse-square law and salinity, and while I am not one of those guys who has the math all handy, I am willing to hazard a guess that this wouldn’t work very well outside of any environment much less conductive than water.

    But what might?

    Maybe two years ago I wandered into writing an SF story on my blog, and spurred on by some of Peter’s blogging and fiction — not to mention also being under the influence of HP Lovecraft and his many worthy heirs such as Charles Stross — I wrote a story line about how alien intelligences from other dimensions beyond time and space (yadda yadda the whole nine yards) could pretty rapidly commandeer the neurology and thus the minds and will of humans, through interaction with remnants of magnetic-sensing-for-migration structures in the brain. That such structures in humans haven’t yet been actually discovered didn’t slow me down a bit, of course. Yet because it went well with the story line, I had the aliens hacking their way in, and being perceived as deities, because (in this fiction) the vestigial direction sensing structures were located conveniently close to the so-called “god spot”. And yes, Dr Watts, I acknowledge being deeply influenced by your short stories as well.

    Hey, if it works for eels (I had no idea about this at the time), why not for malevolent elder deities from the Great Beyond?

  2. You had me at “genetically-engineered giant squids attacking Petrocan wellheads in a melting Arctic”.

  3. Makes evolutionary sense, first you evolve a blunt force taser, then natural selection and coevolution with your preferred prey will make it exquisitely fine tuned. Then something happens and you go extinct. Rinse, repeat.

  4. I find that I never cease to be amazed by some of the things in nature. Leads you to wonder how the hell something so cool got started in the first place.

    A giant squid with tasers sounds lovely, Mr. Watts. Can’t wait to meet them. Cephalapods have pretty high intelligence, and very odd brain shape to boot. Should be fun concepts to play with. *smiles in anticipation*

  5. Had something to say which was totally derailed by the end of the post at which point I went all fanboy. Very cool.

    Probably horribly outdated, from June 1970, but some FOIA:

    http://documents.theblackvault.com/documents/mkultra/MKULTRA1/DOC_0000022023/

    36 page less page 14 corrupted is 35 pages of the report there, probably the most interesting of the group: DOC_0000021847/, DOC_0000021998/, DOC_0000021997/ and DOC_0000022025/ also pertain, but are mostly empty.

  6. Fascinating. Thank you Peter

  7. Why restrict the squids to taking down other life forms? AFAIK underwater gear such as video cameras and remote drones is waterproof (obviously) but not EMP shielded…

  8. And if the Scramblers could reach in and read a neuron here, tweak a neuron there, it stands to reason that they could probably induce tetanus in a hurry if they wanted to.

    Pity poor Theseus. Her crew really were just so outclassed.

  9. But can we teach these squid to do targeted transcranial magnetic simulation on demand?

    I am imagining a future where people feeling depressed sit down in something like those old-school hairdryer chairs, but the bowl that goes on the head has a well-trained and thoughtful genetically-engineered squid (with a breather-pack attached) in it, instead of a dryer unit. They gently massage the scalp with their fleshy tentacles, while their other tentacles — the EM ones– reach deeper. For severe cases they can also do electroconvulsive therapy, but that’s for more clinical settings.

    For the story, though… the ringleader squid-with-taser has to be named “Cthulhu”. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  10. Mr Non-Entity, that sounds like a Kronenburg wet-dream.

  11. So, that’s Intelligent Design. What’s Omniscience about? Is it the third Blindopraxia book?

  12. You’re wasted as a sci-fi writer – you should be an evil genius, or working in that capacity for someone.

  13. Hugh: Why restrict the squids to taking down other life forms? AFAIK underwater gear such as video cameras and remote drones is waterproof (obviously) but not EMP shieldedโ€ฆ

    That is a very good point, Hugh. I thank you.

    Sylocat: Whatโ€™s Omniscience about? Is it the third Blindopraxia book?

    Yup. More on that later.

    Animat 13: you should be an evil genius, or working in that capacity for someone

    Well, the pay would pretty much have to be better, at least…

  14. @Animal 13: Peter Watts could always write a story about some generally harmless Canadian marine-biologist who writes SF in his spare time, who writes a story uncomfortably close to cutting-edge black research in the Deep Dark Voodoo and Skonk Workz. departments of several nations. Hijinx ensue. The story achieves critical acclaim for exploring the philosophical implications of raising an artificially-enhanced lifeform to near sentience and then condemning it to a left spent either in therapy for the depressed or as a wetware interface tasked with yanking secrets out of the minds ot captured spies. Or, he could very quickly get paid quite well to hang his head in shame while hoping nobody ever sees through his pseudonym as he writes the truly epic “Sharknado v Supersquid III: EF-5 Mandibles of Death v. the Brainsuckers” and manages to bring some actual scientific basis into the production systems of the SyFy Channel.

    @shivux: Thanks. The hardscience folks usually give no love to us splatterpunk horror-SF types. But I have my own shame to admit here. The last time I threw a story fragment into the trash “because it’s too damn ridiculous and indicates that the author was mis-medicated”, I forgot to shred it first. Now it appears to have been found by some hack with connections and is on prime-time top-slot as “Grimm”. Really, just kidding.

    @Peter Watts: I’m not sure how Canadian/international law covers it but I think your “fiblet” posts provide significant legal protections against folks trying to trawl intelligent websites for ideas to work into Treatment format. TOR probably has experts to advise you. But please consider not letting Kronenburg make Sharknado 3 v. Brainsuckers unless you get paid for the script. 8-D

  15. Mr. Non-Entity:
    @Animal 13: Peter Watts could always write a story about some generally harmless Canadian marine-biologist who writes SF in his spare time, who writes a story uncomfortably close to cutting-edge black research in the Deep Dark Voodoo and Skonk Workz. departments of several nations. Hijinx ensue. The story achieves critical acclaim for exploring the philosophical implications of raising an artificially-enhanced lifeform to near sentience and then condemning it to a left spent either in therapy for the depressed or as a wetware interface tasked with yanking secrets out of the minds ot captured spies. Or, he could very quickly get paid quite well to hang his head in shame while hoping nobody ever sees through his pseudonym as he writes the truly epic โ€œSharknado v Supersquid III: EF-5 Mandibles of Death v. the Brainsuckersโ€ and manages to bring some actual scientific basis into the production systems of the SyFy Channel.

    Ye—Hey! Waitaminute…

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HN9uWS442sc

    Spoilers:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ZbLFXqhbQM

  16. Speaking of Tasers, I wonder where I can get a bespoke suit with a built-in Faraday cage? And would the coil of copper wire trailing out of my pant leg look odd?

  17. Peter Watts: Sylocat: Whatโ€™s Omniscience about? Is it the third Blindopraxia book?

    Yup. More on that later.

    Yay!

    Also, damnit, I had money on the third book in the series being named “Pareidolia”

    Luckily I only bet myself (who took the more pragmatic view that if marketers weren’t going to promote the book because they couldn’t pronounce “Echopraxia” they’d never go for a word even harder than that!), so I guess I owe myself five bucks. I’m probably going to just blow it on something stupid, too.

    I gotta admit, I was a bit iffy on “Intelligent Design”‘s plot from your earlier (vague) descriptions of it, but mind-hijacking super-squids? Now I’m officially in.

  18. Peter Watts:
    Yup. More on that later.

    Which implies it did fairly well commercially; congratulations!

  19. Doubter,

    SchneiderCorp. Battery included.

    https://cknall.wordpress.com/2012/05/10/chapter-1-borne-to-be-wylde/

  20. DanielK: Which implies it did fairly well commercially; congratulations!

    Hey, don’t jump to conclusions. I don’t actually know how well it’s doing commercially— and even if it is doing well, that doesn’t mean anyone’s going to be interested in the next installment. Blindsight didn’t do badly, but Tor still kicked me in the teeth on the sequel (for example, my royalty rate on ebooks is well less than half of industry standard, and I don’t even think that industry standard is defensible).

    I don’t have a contract now. I haven’t even bothered to pitch. The industry is in such a state of flux that I don’t know if I want to get locked into anything right now, and even if someone did offer me a contract I doubt either side would find the other’s terms acceptable (I’m certainly not going to accept anbother contract like the last one). So I’m just gonna write what I want, and hope the money holds out long enough to produce a book I’m happy with. Then we’ll see if anyone wants it, and if they want it badly enough to treat me as their partner instead of their bitch, or if I end up just selling a pdf off my own website.

    Like I say. State of flux.

  21. Run a patreon. Give the top contributors the chance to be secondary characters eaten by vampires.

  22. Nestor:
    Run a patreon. Give the top contributors the chance to be secondary characters eaten by vampires.

    Actually not a bad idea.

    Also:

    http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/technology/the-navy%e2%80%99s-new-robot-looks-and-swims-just-like-a-shark/ar-BBgSDMl

  23. Nestor,

    No, don’t specify the cause of death. maybe only ask for a level of severity.

    Cause of death is a spoiler! also maybe I wouldn’t have as creative an idea for a cause of death.

    and hey, maybe death is too good for someone. ask for existential doom.

  24. We could be zombies…for just one day…

  25. @whoever:

    (link trimmed)

    Great jumping cats, Batman. Now it’s Robo-Sharknado v. Squids with Tasers.

    @Peter Watts: Do you feel that it’s possible that a lot of other authors may be taking the same position? I’m taking the devil’s-advocate position for a moment; I am thinking that one reason the state of flux in the industry might be escalating is that publishing houses don’t even know how many authors would be willing to work with them, so they can’t make any plans either. Sort of a two-headed headless snake that flounders on both ends. It’s really disheartening all the moreso because of all of the readers who are out there wishing that they’d see something more from their favorite authors, or even from people they haven’t much heard from before. No doubt plenty of authors have works ready or near-ready to publish. The producers are there, the consumers are there, but the middle-men seem to be clueless as to how to proceed. It sounds like it might be time for some convention of authors to get together and decide how to proceed on their own without the traditional middlemen… or just create their own middleman organization. But I think picking an option, as an industry, is going to be essential or the readers will be stuck looking at empty shelves, so to speak, and without any hope of sales, many writers might fall back to writing as a hobby rather than as a profession.

  26. Re omniscience and beyond: I know my opinion is only worth 10 cents (if that!), but set up a disposable corp for each book! Crowdsource for funding (you have a lot of reach now but you could also palm off the marketing/awareness to a biz that specifically does that) and reward top contributers with a cameo *gamble* (i.e. higher the contrib, higher the *likelihood* of appearance in the wattsian universe, but no 100% guarantees – that way you have wiggle-room to write what you like). Aim to self-publish: printing is cheap; some printers ought to be able to do print on demand and ship direct to the customer for a %. Take a short story or a collection of shorts or hell even a book version of your best blog posts (all this capital just lying here on this domain!) and use it as a prototype to test out your new system. You could be doing that anyway on the side even if you still want to reserve the larger tomes for the traditional model… It will work if you’re 100% transparent about it. Don’t wait until this becomes the new norm and you have to jump on the bus. Build yer own bus, let others do the jumping on :-)

    Sorry this is off-topic and has nothing to do with squids with tasers!

  27. To all those sell-character-death suggestors: that’s already kind of under way. Some Polish dude won a contest back in 2011 for a walk-on role in Intelligent Design; I’ve got biographical notes and a small text file on Polish swear words, just waiting for start-up.

    Of course, I’ve done this before; half the names in my last two books were call-outs to people who’d helped me in one way or another. Of course, those people have tended to be European or North American, so when I stack the cast with people who’ve helped me I’m running the risk that some asshole will go online to rant about the racist Whitey-McWhiteness of my spaceship crews.

    Don’t laugh. It’s happened.

    Mr. Non-Entity: Do you feel that itโ€™s possible that a lot of other authors may be taking the same position? … one reason the state of flux in the industry might be escalating is that publishing houses donโ€™t even know how many authors would be willing to work with them, so they canโ€™t make any plans either.

    I don’t know. The sense I get from private chatrooms is that established midlisters are not so much defiant as anxious; advances are getting smaller, promotion gets nonexistent, and publishers generally treat them like shit. There’s more talk of trying to reboot stalled careers by adopting a pseudonym than by striking out independently. In this climate, when you’ve got a real publisher, you don’t really want to jump ship.

    I completely sympathize. It’s true the Hugh Howeys and Andy Weirs of the world are beacons of inspiration, but as I understand it those guys went the self-pub route from the outset; there were no burnable bridges to real publishers, so there was nothing to lose if their projects tanked (and everything to gain if the Big 5 took notice and came salivating after a piece of the pie).

    But it’s a huge crapshoot for those us with ties to the conventional industry. On the one hand, we’re finally in a position where traditional publishers aren’t exclusive gatekeepers, where, if the disrespect gets intolerable, we can tell them to fuck off and still get our work out. That’s enormously tempting. OTOH, say you slam the door behind you and your self-pubbed book tanks? Now, you’ve blown your career; and should you limp back to Tor or Harper-Collins with your tail between your legs, you’ll have lost whatever negotiating power you might have had.

    Which may be why I know of several cases where someone struck it big in self-publishing, and then moved up to the traditional model after getting noticed— but I know of only one case of someone who started out in traditional publishing and then went indie with any success. And that happened 15 years ago, and the dude had to seriously diversify to make it work; these days he’s mainly into lo-tech crowdfunded movies and video games now.

    (Jim Munro, in case you’re wondering.)

    Leona: but set up a disposable corp for each book!

    What is this Earth thing called a “disposable corp”? You must tell me more backstage. (Yes, I know I owe you an email. I owe 62 emails at the moment. Soon, I promise.)

  28. Out of interest, how are you getting on with the HoZ lot in the UK?

    I bought the hardback edition of “Firefall”, which was very nicely produced but had to go online to get it as none of the bookshops around here seem to buy much in the way of hardback SF.

  29. Peter Watts,

    I don’t know if you know this, but some of us really like your writing.
    If you’re getting fucked around by your publisher/local sodomist/what have you what’s the most useful way for those of us who want to read more/new things of yours in the future for *you*? Hardback? E-book? Catfood donation/torrent?

  30. Re:
    Leona

    Clever girlโ„ข ๐Ÿ˜‰

  31. The whole idea behind patreon is “Continue doing what you were doing but with people supporting you”, which is why a lot of formerly free webcomics are still free webcomics but with considerably less stressed authors and steadier update schedules.

    Of course, Iโ€™ve done this before

    Yeah I noticed officer friendly got himself killed early on in your Crysis adaptation, I was thinking people could maybe get that privilege without having to beat you up. :)

  32. Off-topic update: turns out the “two” war nerds are one and the same… And in exile:

    http://pando.com/2014/12/25/listen-to-the-war-nerd-christmas-special/

  33. ืขื‘ื•ื“ื” ื‘ืื•ืกื˜ืจืœื™ื” ื‘ื—ื•ื•ืช

    … ืขื‘ื•ื“ื” ื‘ืืจื””ื‘ – ืœื•ื—ื•ืช ื”ืขื‘ื•ื“ื” ื”ืฉื•ื ื™ื ืฉืžืฆื™ืขื™ื ืขื‘ื•ื“ื•ืช ื‘ื—ื•"ืœ ื‘ืžื™ืงื•ื ืจื•ื•ื—ื™ ื•ืžืชืžืงื“ ื‘ืขืจื™ื ื’ื“ื•ืœื•ืช ืฉืชืžื™ื“ ื™ืฉ ื™ื•ืฆืื™ ื“ื•ืคืŸ. ื›ื "ืœ ืœื’ื‘ื™ ืžื“ื™ื ื•ืช ืื—ืจื•ืช, ื™ื›ื•ืœื•ืช ื‘ืงืœื•ืช ืœื”ื’ื™ืฉ ืกื™ื•ืข ื›ืœื›ืœื™ ืœืžื“ื™ื ื•ืช ื”ืฉื›ื ื•ืช. ืื’… Squids With Tasers. – Peter Watts …