Aurora Campbell Panoptopus.

Some of you may have noticed that Echopraxia made it onto the longest short list in SF a few weeks back: the ballot for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. On the plus side (for me), it’s one of those jury-selected deals, so it’s not a popularity contest like the Hugos. (These days, it’s an especially big deal to not be like the Hugos.) On the minus side, well, there are 15 other finalists, almost all of whom are more famous/accomplished than me. So there’s that.

I didn’t mention it at the time, because on its own it would have made for a pretty insubstantial blog post. Plus there was another impending nom that was embargoed until— actually, until just last night, and I figured the post might be a bit more substantive if I stacked to two of them together. So: Echopraxia also made it onto best-novel final ballot for the Auroras, which consists of a much-more-manageable 5 nominees but which is kind of a popularity contest. Plus the competition is generally more famous/accomplished than me. (Like I’m gonna beat William fucking Gibson. Right.) As chance would have it, this year’s Auroras are being presented at SFContario, where I’m supposed to be serving as both Guest of Honour and Toastmaster. I’ve never been a toastmaster before. I’m still\not entirely sure what one even is. Assuming it’s not some kind of fetish thing revolving around baked goods, I gather it has something to do with presenting the Auroras. I should probably check with the concomm about stepping down, to avoid a conflict of interest.

I am gratified to see certain finalists in other categories, though: you could certainly do worse than vote for Sandra Kasturi’s Chiaroscuro Reading Series in the Best Fan Organizational category, for example. And if Erik Mohr doesn’t win for Best Artist there’s little justice in the world.

Anyway. I figure my chances of winning either prize are somewhere between low and negligible— but that’s okay, because I just hit a bullseye in something else without even trying. To wit:

“People talk about the eyes,” he continued after a bit. “You know, how amazing it is that something without a backbone could have eyes like ours, eyes that put ours to shame even. And the way they change color, right? The way they blend into the background. Eyes gotta figure front and center in that too, you’d think.”

“You’d think.”

Guo shook his head. “It’s all just— reflex. I mean, maybe that little neuron doughnut has its own light on somewhere, you’d think it would pretty much have to, but I guess the interface didn’t access that part. Either that or it just got— drowned out…”

—Me, on this very blog, April 30, 2015.

Octopus chromatophores. Skin that looks back at you.

Octopus chromatophores. The Panoptopus. Skin that looks back at you.

Octopuses can mimic the color and texture of a rock or a piece of coral… But before a cephalopod can take on a new disguise, it needs to perceive the background that it is going to blend into. Cephalopods have large, powerful eyes to take in their surroundings. But two new studies in The Journal Experimental Biology suggest that they have another way to perceive light: their skin. It’s possible that these animals have, in effect, evolved a body-wide eye.

Carl Zimmer, New York Times, May 20, 2015

Here, we present molecular evidence suggesting that cephalopod chromatophores – small dermal pigmentary organs that reflect various colors of light – are photosensitive. … This is the first evidence that cephalopod dermal tissues, and specifically chromatophores, may possess the requisite combination of molecules required to respond to light.

—ACN Kingston et al, Journal of Experimental Biology, May 15, 2015

 

…our data suggest that a common molecular mechanism for light detection in eyes may have been co-opted for light sensing in octopus skin.

—Ramirez and Oakly, Journal of Experimental Biology, May 15, 2015

Beat them by two weeks.

Okay, so maybe not an absolute bullseye. That little fiblet I wrote went on to describe octopus sensation as involving “this vague distant sense of light I guess, if you really focus you can sort of squint down the optic nerve, but mostly it’s— chemical. Taste and touch.” My focus was on the arms, those individually self-aware arms, and I explicitly claimed that “they don’t see”. Pretty much everything was chemical and tactile. But it was still pretty close to a bullseye—in my attempts to downplay vision and outsource everything to the arms, I described the whole pattern-matching thing as a reflex which didn’t really involve the eyes at all. There was no real insight in that— it’s not as though I’ve been following the octopus literature with any kind of eagle eye— but to me, that’s what makes it cool. I threw a dart, blindfolded; just hitting the board is an accomplishment. And now that actual data are in, I can tart up the final draft with some actual verisimilitude before sending it off to Russia.

I love it when the complete lack of a plan comes together.

Oh, also: there’s some cool rifters fan art from “Toa-Lagara” I stumbled across on Deviant Art. I’ll post it in the appropriate gallery once I get permission from the artist.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Sunday May 24 2015at 07:05 am , filed under art on ink, biology, marine, neuro, writing news . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

20 Responses to “Aurora Campbell Panoptopus.”

  1. The only other book on those lists I’ve read was The Martian which is more of a movie pitch. Sadly due to publicity interviews, people already latching onto it as Featuring Accurate Science*, despite that being not so hard to do when set in the near future (to be fair, people still manage to fuck fairly often even in these cases).

    *other when inconvenient for the plot

    Guess I have some reading to do. And bleh to Gibson.

  2. I suppose it could be clarified (and I’m sure you know this) that light sensitivity does not vision make. Just perceiving light and shadow (even if it’s fancy multi-band color-sensing perception) is like the temperature perception facilities in our skin. No image-forming involved.

    (Edit: in retrospect this is a bit silly comment; I originally misread you)

  3. Agreed, certainly. But that’s kind of my point; there could be circuitry in the skin that allows chromatophores to respond to visual input, and perform background pattern-matching, in a hard-wired reflexive way that doesn’t involve the subjective perception of images at all.

  4. Yeah I saw that article too and I was thinking “Wait isn’t that what Peter’s story from last week was about?”

    (Forgive the familiarity, I’m on a first name basis with people in my imagination)

    Nice fanart too, you seem to attract quality artists at a higher rate than other more popular writers. I should make you some fanart to lower the average.

    And speaking of art and taking liberties, allow me to shill http://falsepositivecomic.com/ – a webcomic with great art and a lot of the kind of body horror subject matter that probably won’t be unwelcome to readers of this blog.

  5. Congrats on the Campbell Award nom, Peter. I think you’re well rid of the Hugos for the time being. That award has become hopelessly tainted.

    Keeping my fingers crossed for you in a meaningless physical display of hope that the judges’ tastes align with my own.

  6. Scottc: That award has become hopelessly tainted.

    Oh yeah. You can find a record of Harlan Ellison ranting in 1995 about how some writer took to the internet to beg for nomination votes..

    Popularity contests, gotta love them. At least Hugos don’t dispense Chavézes left and right..

  7. Assuming it’s not some kind of fetish thing revolving around baked goods…

    Yes. Yes, that’s just what it is. Dress accordingly.

  8. You octopus expert. Sounds like you’re an excellent candidate to be sent one of my knitted octopuses.. Or if you prefer, a knitted model of a T4 bacteriophage virus.

  9. Paula:
    Sounds like you’re an excellent candidate to be sent one of my knitted octopuses.. Or if you prefer, a knitted model of a T4 bacteriophage virus.

    A cruel choice to inflict on anyone.

    (as in, how could one possibly choose)

  10. That’s seems logical. Humans don’t control their heartbeat, iris sphincter or bowel movements or other automatic processes in their body. Cephalopods change their color (and surface texture) just like that, they don’t need anyone to teach them. Controlling it on a conscious level would be nearly impossible as it requires conscious control of a huge number of individual chromatophore organs all over the body at once, even where their eyes can not see their body.

    If I understand it correctly, the feedback between the “eyes” on their skin and the color changes would mostly be a process not involving direct interference with the main ganglion.

    But just as the main brain can send signals to the smaller brains in their tentacles, which then turns the signals into action, it can obviously also send signals to the neural network in their skin to mimic other species or communicate with others of their kind.

    As you are aware, there are other and nearly brainless marine species with a network of photophores on their body. But the network of chromatophores and photophores in cephalopods seems unique because of its sophistication and speed.

    (Apparently also the exoskeleton of scorpions works possibly like a huge eye.)

  11. Scottc: T4 bacteriophage virus.

    Speaking of bacteriophages, why is phage therapy only a former USSR thing? One would think that with the advent of resistant bacteria, every kind of resource would be tried, yet so far no kind of phage treatment seems to be approved for human use outside of the mentioned region..

  12. All right, Scottc and Y — here’s a link to a photo of one of my T4 bacteriophage virus models.
    http://dayofdh2015.uned.es/kayak/2015/05/19/image-for-dh-knitters/

  13. Paula:
    All right, Scottc and Y — here’s a link to a photo of one of my T4 bacteriophage virus models.

    Wonderful! I couldn’t possibly choose between that and an octopus. I suppose the octopus would have the benefit of not having to be explained to everyone who saw it.

  14. Should I know why you’ll be sending the final draft of ID to Russia? Have I misunderstood something? And does this mean that it’s drawing close to publication? Can’t wait to read it.

  15. Paula:
    You octopus expert. Sounds like you’re an excellent candidate to be sent one of my knitted octopuses.. Or if you prefer, a knitted model of a T4 bacteriophage virus.

    Octopus, please.

  16. Ben:
    Should I know why you’ll be sending the final draft of ID to Russia? Have I misunderstood something? And does this mean that it’s drawing close to publication? Can’t wait to read it.

    No, this is not ID. This is for their special anniversary edition of Blindsight, with new bonus tracks.

    I’m still not sure what it’s the anniversary of, though.

  17. So, it’s not just Brittle Stars that have this? Octopodes (yes, I know) have it too?

    Wow.

  18. Peter Watts,
    Octopus it is. Can you e-mail me your postal address?

  19. I love it when you write pop sci.

  20. Off-topic fascinating nature link. Nature: Suicidal pea aphids.

    Abstract reminded me a bit of Echopraxia. But apparently several scenarios where these guys blow themselves up in general including using their bodies to repair “hull breaches” {sounds like scrambler logic to me} and to warn their fellows of approaching predators.