Aliens Among Us: Cephalopods in Science Fiction and Fantasy
In 2015, the news briefly and erroneously lit up with the announcement that science had revealed that octopuses are actually aliens. The misunderstanding stemmed from a quote from Nature:
“It’s the first sequenced genome from something like an alien,” jokes neurobiologist Clifton Ragsdale of the University of Chicago in Illinois, who co-led the genetic analysis of the California two-spot octopus (Octopus bimaculoides).
There’s an awfully big difference between something being “like an alien” and actually being an alien. However, it is certainly true that octopuses and other cephalopods, while being indisputably from Earth, are bizarre in their behavior, biology, and thought processing. Since people first took to the sea, cephalopods have been used to signal the mystery of the sea and the strangeness of space.
In Which We Meet The Cephalopod
Cephalopods are members of the Cephalopoda class in the Mollusca phylum. They include nautilus, cuttlefish, octopus, and squid. They have blue, copper-based blood. They keep most of their neurons in their arms and their esophagi run right through the centers of their brains. They see with their eyes and breathe with their gills, but they also taste, see, and breathe with their skin. They can control every sucker on their arms independently and they have three hearts. In short, cephalopods are fascinating, mysterious, and weird, and they challenge our assumptions about biology, intelligence, and consciousness.
Cephalopod-type monsters are staples of legends and of monster-based horror and fantasy. Often these monsters are the result of human hubris and mad science. For instance, in It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955), the giant octopus is a result of atom bomb testing. In Sharktopus (2010), scientists genetically engineer a creature that is half octopus (the half with the tentacles) and half shark (the half with the teeth). Their plan is to steer it with a remote control. This plan is, of course, flawed.
In other stories, the tentacled monster exists without explanation. It represents how little we know of the sea, and how foolhardy we are to venture on and in it. This is perhaps best represented by the legend of kraken, and by the giant squid in both the novel Twenty-Thousand Leagues Beneath the Sea (1870) and its 1954 film adaptation.
Release the Kraken!
The legend of the kraken is an old one, coming from the coasts of Norway, Greenland, and Iceland. Early versions described something like a giant crab, or giant whale, or serpent. Eventually these descriptions coalesced into something more like a giant octopus or squid, so large that it could crush sailing ships in its tentacles. It was said that kraken spent most of their time on the seafloor. They attracted bevies of fish that fed on their nutrient-rich waste, so a daring ship would have good fishing if they fished over the spot where a kraken lay sleeping. However, periodically the kraken would rise, and ships could be consumed, capsized, crushed, or sucked under by the whirlpool of the kraken’s descent.
The kraken appears in some of the earliest literature from the West. In the Old Icelandic saga Örvar-Oddr from the 13th century, the heroes describe a kraken-like creature:
It is the nature of this creature to swallow men and ships, and even whales and everything else within reach. It stays submerged for days, then rears its head and nostrils above surface and stays that way at least until the change of tide.
In 1250, an anonymous Greenlandic author described the kraken, believing that because it is so large there must only be two in all the world. Carl Linnaeus classified kraken as cephalopods in 1735 and gave the species the name Microcosmus marinus. Future descriptions of the beast described it having spikes at the ends of its tentacles. The idea that something could rise from what had seemed to be placid waters and destroy a ship, leaving no trace, fascinated and continues to fascinate sailors, artists, and authors.
These days, it’s generally accepted that there’s no such thing as a kraken. However, there is definitely such a thing as a giant squid, which is almost as mysterious. Because giant squid live in deep waters, they were rarely seen.
It wasn’t until 2012 that one was filmed in its deep sea habitat. Like other cephalopods, giant squid (Architeuthis dux) and colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) have blue, copper-based blood. They have eight arms as well as two long feeding tentacles with which they can grab prey more than thirty feet away. Their tongues (technically, their radula, which are located in their razor-sharp beak) are coated with tiny teeth. Each tentacle contains a large, sharp, hook, like a cat claw from Hell. Some scientists believe that colossal squid, which live near Antarctica, could reach a total length of sixty-six feet.
Jules Verne knew most of this when he wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. In fact, his characters discuss it for several pages, along with their skepticism that giant squid could really be so large, which is why it’s very startling when the first tentacle slaps up against the Nautilus’ window. The ensuing battle between the crew of the Nautilus and the squid becomes a nightmarish scene of ink and blood. In the book, the squid (plural) cause everyone, even the gentle professor, to hack and stab and slash in an almost mindless bid for survival. “We were no longer in control of ourselves,” says the narrator, and by the end of the fight, Captain Nemo is “red with blood.”
Despite Nemo’s claim that he is “not a civilized man,” the Nautilus is a bastion of civilization, replete with fine dining, art, and the pursuit of knowledge. It takes a giant squid to strip away all pretensions, loyalties and animosities, and refinements.The human characters cannot reason with the squid, manipulate the squid, or ignore them. The squid serve as a metaphorically alien presence.
Martians and Mythos
This brings us to the second kind of monster cephalopod story: that of aliens from outer space. The most famous example shows up in 1897, in The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. In this book, the Martians that invade Earth are described as having “Gorgon groups of tentacles.” The Martians, who can’t move comfortably in Earth’s gravity, proceed to build machines that they can sit in and pilot. These machines have “long, flexible, glittering tentacles” that are capable of plucking humans from the ground.
These aliens are not humanoid or bipedal in either their organic or their mechanical forms. They also lack all interest in communication with humans. Humans are a food source for the Martians, rather like chickens. The Martians’ fate (death by bacteria) reinforces their unearthly origins. They are alien on a scope that the Greys (described by Wells in The First Men on the Moon and later a staple of abduction stories) and the bipedal humanoids of Star Trek and Star Wars cannot approach.
H. P. Lovecraft carried the concept of something unknown and unknowable further in the short story “Call of Cthulhu”, published in 1928. Cthulhu, a god from space who has settled on our planet, is supposed to be so utterly alien, so completely beyond our ken, that all who behold him either die or go insane. Like the kraken, he sleeps on the seafloor (in his underwater city, R’lyeh) and causes vast destruction when he wakes and rises to the surface. He is indescribable, but the narrator of “Call of Cthulhu” describes a statue of him as:
A monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind.
A cornerstone of Lovecraft’s horror is the concept that if we probe too deeply into the unknown, we will discover a cosmos filled with beings to whom humans are completely irrelevant. The lives of these beings play out on such a huge scale of time and space that the span of a human lifetime means nothing to them. Humans cannot process the sight of these beings, or their insignificance before them, and the humans inevitably go mad from the sight and the realization of their insignificance.
Cthulhu is such a popular character largely because his appearance is described. Many of the other gods and monsters in Lovecraft aren’t described at all, or they are described as things like “an evil cloud-like entity” and so forth. Artists who interpret the Lovecraft mythos (including works written by Lovecraft as well as works by those inspired by him) often include tentacles in their interpretations because the tentacles signal “absolutely positively not human” in place of other descriptors.
In the movies, cephalopods have been a staple of horror, fantasy, and science fiction, showing up in everything from 1977’s monster movie Tentacles, to the fantasy epic The Fellowship of The Ring (both the book, published in 1954, and the film, released in 2001). Examples of modern cephalopod-type aliens include the Daleks from Doctor Who, and the alien that poor Elizabeth Shaw has to remove from her own abdomen in Prometheus (2012).
Some tentacled aliens are adorable and relatable, such as the baby “Squid” in 1997’s Men in Black, or the friendly Thermians from 1999’s Galaxy Quest. Usually, however, cephalopod-type monsters in fantasy and in science fiction represent something that is utterly non-human, can’t or won’t be communicated with, and can kill a person in many horrible ways. It seems that everything is scarier and weirder with tentacles.
Making Contact with Aliens and Octopuses
In 2016’s Arrival, the aliens are benevolent, and they want to talk to us, but their language is radically different from ours. The linguists in the film call the aliens “heptapods.” Like cephalopods, they have long arms and round or cone-shaped heads, but they have seven limbs instead of eight. This adds to their “alien” quality since very few species of animals on earth have seven limbs. Even the so-called seven-armed octopus (Haliphron atlanticus) actually has eight arms.
In Arrival, the aliens’ heptaradial symmetry mirrors their written language, which consists of variations of circles that they draw by squirting ink that closely resembles octopus ink. By using a being based on radial as opposed to bilateral symmetry, the filmmakers not only emphasize their physical differences from humans but also their cognitive differences. For the heptapods, language and time are nonlinear. They conceptualize the world in a completely different way than humans do, with a cyclical sense of time.
If heptopods see the world in terms of cycles, how do octopuses see the world? Of all the cephalopod species, octopuses have been the most closely studied in terms of intelligence. They are curious in captivity and in the wild. They recognize and remember individual people even if all of the people wear lab coats, and they seem to prefer some people over others. They can solve problems like how to open a screw-top jar and how to escape from a seemingly escape-proof tank. They can figure out how to open a childproof cap. They use tools both in and out of captivity, and they play. In general they lead solitary lives, but in two places on the ocean’s floor they are known to live in close proximity to each other with nearly constant social interaction.
Cephalopods are especially hard to understand because their organs, including their brains, aren’t set up at all like ours. What is it like to see through your skin? Does each arm, which is packed with sensory cells and neurons and which reacts to stimuli for more than an hour after being severed from the main body, have its own, completely separate perception of the world? Or do octopuses somehow compile the perceptions of the arms into one big picture, or do they experience a little of both? When they change color in a manner that doesn’t serve as camouflage, are they deliberately trying to communicate, or is it an involuntary thing, or some of both?
When we look at other mammals, or birds, we can often make some reasonable assumptions about what they think and how they think and why. Their brains are not so different from our own. We have a great deal to learn about mammalian and avian behavior, but we start off with the same basics. Cephalopods might as well be aliens—perceiving the world in a way we can’t grasp even if they could try to explain it to us.
When I was a kid, I happened to wander into the family room where my family was watching 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) just as the squid attacked the Nautilus. I don’t believe I’ve ever experienced anything like the jolt of utter wrongness I felt at the sight of the squid’s beak. I felt, right down to my shaking bones, that beaks belong on birds, not squid. The action of the scene was scary. The sight of that snapping beak, however, was horrifying. One might say that I had a Lovecraftian reaction to that beak.
And yet, real cephalopods undeniably have beaks. This is only one of the many things about them that seems, to humans, to be utterly alien. That otherworldly quality is what makes them so perfectly suited for speculative fiction. The grabbing tentacles are perfect for horror. The mysterious quality of the ocean depths lends itself to fantasy. The sense of unknowable intelligence and a divergent evolutionary path lends itself to science fiction. Cephalopods aren’t actually aliens, but they’re close enough for now.