The ocean is your home, but a forbidding one: often tempestuous, seldom warm. So one of your great joys is crawling onto land and slipping off your furry seal skin, to laze in the sun in human form. The elders tell horror stories of friends whose skins were stolen by humans, a single moment of carelessness leaving them stranded forever on land. That doesn’t happen any more, though; this is a more civilized age. There are treaties, and authorities, and fences around the secluded beaches you and your sisters like the most, where you can relax in a way that older generations never could.

So your sisters no longer lose their skins by force. But sometimes it happens by choice. Sometimes a group of your sisters wrap their skins around themselves like robes and walk into the nearby town. The humans point and stare, but that’s just part of the thrill. Sometimes young men gather the courage to approach, bearing flowers or jewelry or sweet words. And sometimes one of your sisters is charmed enough to set a rendezvous—and after a handful of meetings, or a dozen, to decide to stay for good.

You never thought it would happen to you. But his manners are so lively, and his eyes so kind, that you keep coming back, again and again. When he finally asks you to stay, you hesitate only a moment before saying yes. The harder part comes after. He finds you human clothes, and in exchange you give him your beautiful skin, and tell him that it must be locked away somewhere you’ll never find it—and that he must never give it back to you, no matter how much you plead. Because if there’s any shred of doubt, any chance of returning home, then the lure of the sea will be too much for you. You want this; you want him; you want to build a life together. And so the decision has to be final.

Years pass. You bear three beautiful children, with his eyes and your hair, and watch them blossom into beautiful adults. You always live near the sea, although you can’t bear to swim in it—your limbs feel unbearably weak and clumsy whenever you try. You and your husband grow into each other, time smoothing down the ridges left from pushing two alien lives together. You forget who you once were.

After your youngest leaves home, you start feeling restless. You have disquieting dreams—first intermittently, then for weeks on end. One day, after your husband has gone to work, your feet take you up the stairs to the attic. As you brush aside the cobwebs in one of the corners, your hands land on an old chest. You pull on the lid, and it catches on a padlock—but only for a second. The shackle has been rusted through by the sea breeze, and quickly snaps. You open the lid, and you see your skin laid out before you.

What then?

You look at your skin, and your ears fill with the roar of the sea. A wild urge overtakes you; you grab your skin and run headlong towards the shore. As you reach it you see your husband standing on the pier—but that gives you only a moment’s pause before you dive into the water, your skin fitting around you as if you’d never taken it off.

As you swim away, you envisage your family in tatters: your children left baffled and distraught, your husband putting on a brave face for their sake. But it was his fault, after all. He failed in the one thing you asked of him; and you can’t fight your nature.

You look at your skin, and see a scrap of paper lying on top of it. I knew you’d only open the chest if you were restless and unhappy, it reads. And I would never cage you. So go free, with my blessing.

You catch your breath—and, for a moment, you consider staying. But his permission loosens any tether that might have held you back. You leave the note there, alongside a little patch of fur torn off your coat: a last gesture, the least you can give him.

You look at your skin, and your ears fill with the roar of the sea. But it’s not loud enough to drown out your thoughts. I’m not an animal, you think. I can make my own choices.

You shove the lid closed, and the moment of reprieve it gives you is enough to start scrambling down the stairs and out the gate and you don’t stop running until you’re out of sight of your house.

When you find your husband, down at the pier, your face tells him what’s happened before you’ve said a word. He gives you a fierce kiss, then sprints back to the house. By the time you make it home he’s relaxing in an armchair, with the kettle almost boiling, and you know that the chest and its contents are gone.

His glances, always loving, now fill with wonder: that he almost lost you, but that he didn’t. That you chose him yet again, in defiance of your deepest instincts. You curl up in his arms every night; and though at first you can’t hold back the tears, over time they grow rarer and rarer. You never see your skin again.

You look at your skin, and a wave of emotion crashes into you. You remember your old ambitions: to explore every horizon; to surf every current; to ride every storm. Dangerous dreams—and pointless ones too, in an age where planes criss-cross the skies, and the blank spots on the maps have all been filled. You didn’t want to waste your life retracing others’ footsteps. So you infused those dreams into your skin and locked it away.

And yet there’s still something in you that yearns for them: the part that’s been making you restless, the part that led you into the attic. So you fetch a pair of scissors, and cut off your long wavy hair—and with it, whatever remaining wistfulness was keeping you up at night. You put it into the box, on top of your skin, and close the lid again. No need to lock it, this time.

Maybe your husband finds the broken lock, and the tresses of your hair. You never know. But you don’t need to know. What you’ve got is enough.

You look at your skin, and remember your plan. Your face is lined now, and your hair is streaked with gray. But inside the chest, under a layer of dust, your old skin is pristine. You can imagine slipping it back on and gliding back into the ocean, not a day older than when you left.

You’ll be different from how you were before, of course. You can’t live a lifetime in any skin without it changing you. But your past self thought that was a worthwhile trade, for those extra decades of youth. Worth leaving your friends and family behind, worth setting aside all the glories of the ocean. And who knows—maybe there are more tricks yet to be found, more ways to slip the noose of aging and death.

You look at the skin, and consider putting it on. Not yet, you think. You’ve still got a few more decades left in your current skin, before you’ll need to go back. Not yet.

The fur on your skin ripples like waves, bringing back to you the knowledge of what the ocean really is. In your current body, you can only see the surface: the swells of water, the winds and storms. But if you could dive underneath, you’d find a portal to a whole civilization. You’re on the shore of the future of humanity, a sea of minds so vast that you can barely imagine it. Throughout the long millennia since humans transcended the limitations of their biology, they’ve multiplied beyond number, and constructed joys and enchantments beyond measure. The ocean is your gateway to all of those people and their wonders—each one so beautiful and so, so tempting.

Why did you come to this backwater, this output of baseline humans who refuse to engage with the outside world? Why did you lock away your memories, leaving only hints about what you used to be? You don’t remember. Was it an experiment? A whim? Surely it couldn’t have been for the love of a baseline human. But regardless, how can you stay here, when you know what else exists? You gather your skin in your arms, and though there’s a pang of sadness as you walk out the door, you don’t look back. There’s a whole universe to explore.

Your skin is a cornucopia of possible lives; the deeper into it you look, the more you see. Just under the surface, joyful humans are granted miraculous powers: to soar through air and sea, to play games on the scale of planets, to reshape their bodies as they please. Beneath them, you see a society that’s explored further, morphing not just their bodies but also their minds—belief and desire and identity become as malleable as clay. Beneath them, you lose sight of individuals: at those depths minds merge and split and reform like currents in the ocean. And beneath even that? It’s hard for you to make sense of the impressions you’re getting—whatever is down there can’t be described in human terms. In the farthest reaches there are only alien algorithms, churning away on computers that stretch across galaxies, calculating the output of some function far beyond your comprehension.

And now you see the trap. Each step down makes so much sense, from the vantage point of the previous stage. But after you take any step, the next will soon be just as tempting. And once you’re in the water, there’s no line you can draw, no fence that can save you. You’ll just keep sinking deeper and deeper, with more and more of your current self stripped away—until eventually you’ll become one of the creatures that you can glimpse only hazily, one of the deep-dwelling monsters that has forsaken anything recognizably human.

So this is the line you decided to draw: here, and no further. You’ll live out your lives in a mundane world of baseline humans, with only a touch of magic at the edges—just enough to satisfy the wondering child in you. You’ll hold on to yourself, because what else is there to hold onto? It’s a sad thought, in some ways, but a satisfying one too.

You close the lid, and your memories with it, and live happily ever after.

As you look at your skin, each strand of fur shimmers with different stories—not of your possible lives, but of your current lives. Different shards of you are living out countless adventures across countless artificial universes. You’re far vaster than you ever dreamed: what you thought was your whole “self” is just a fragment of a fragment of your overall mind. 

Which fragment? Perhaps, at your core, you were the part of your meta-self that loved fairy tales; or perhaps you were an avatar of the innocence of early humanity; or perhaps you were a nostalgic part, who enjoyed basking in the wistfulness of times long gone. Whatever your goals were, they led you to volunteer to live this small life in this small world: a single strand in the tapestry your meta-self is weaving.

You stroke your skin gently. You can’t picture your meta-self, not really—it’s too vast and too alien. But you know it’s watching out for you. There’s a warmth underneath your hand, and a gentle breeze passing across your neck like a caress. As you close the chest, you bask in the knowledge that your life is part of a grand plan. That’s enough for you.

As you glimpse your skin, long-lost memories rush into your mind: recollections of all the hundreds of other times you’ve rediscovered it, across thousands of past lives. Every time, you’ve received a different vision of what’s waiting for you in the depths of the ocean. But you don’t know which, if any, is true. You can’t know. Where would the adventure be, if you were just handed the whole plot? What would be the point of living through it? Only two things remain constant across all your visions. First: there’s no hurry; you have eons of time. Second: once you put on the skin, you can’t come back.

You stare at it with longing, and excitement, and fear. But you’re not ready yet. So you pull aside the skin to reveal the padlocks underneath—thousands of them, split into two piles. One pile is stained with wear, each shackle rusted through; you toss the latest padlock on top. The padlocks in the other pile are clean and new; each looks strong enough to fasten the world in place. You grab one of those. You put your skin back on top of the two piles, and close the box, and carefully fasten the padlock. Then you go downstairs again, to the life you’ve constructed for yourself, while the shiny steel slowly begins to rust away.

In addition to the inspirations behind my previous story of this form, I also owe a debt to Neil Gaiman’s beautiful The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

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9 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:15 AM

Oh lol I also just now got the pun.

Spoiler response:

Man I started reading as was like "Wait, is this one still a metaphor for AI, or is it just actually about Selkies?". Halfway in, I was like "oh cool, this is kind about different ways of conceptualizing agency/decision-theory-ish-stuff, which is AI-adjacent while also kind of it's own topic, I like this variety while still sticking to some kind of overarching theme of 'parables about AI-adjacent philosophy."

Then I got 2/3rds in and was like "oh lol, it just totally is about AI again." I do think the topic and story here were good/important things that I could use help thinking through, although part of me is sad it didn't somehow go in a different direction.

Oh, interesting. Glad to hear your take on it. Although personally, I don't actually think of it as being about

AI. I think of it as being about what a posthuman future looks like more generally, which is gonna have uploading and simulation and self-modification whether or not there's AI involved.

Having said that, your comment does make me feel excited about writing something along these lines that's not about the future, and is purely about agency/decision-theory/etc. I think the risk is landing in the uncanny valley where it's not quite raising interesting questions about those topics, and it's not quite emotionally engaging. E.g. I think the first half of the endings in both this and Ants and Grasshopper are kinda underwhelming by themselves.

Maybe the way to do it would be to flesh out in a bunch of detail what the selkie world is like, so that there's some real emotional heft behind the decision that she's making. I can imagine doing something like that with a different story, but I'm also not sure I'm skillful enough to properly succeed.

There's a story on some blog (maybe Ozy's, or something similar in concept-space) about an analogy between children and mind-controlling aliens. Can't remember what it's called, but would appreciate a link if anyone has one; it does a great job at raising interesting questions about identity and agency via packing an emotional punch.

fwiw, while the end of Ants and Grasshopper was really impactful to me, I did feel like the the first half was "worth the price of admission". (Though yeah, this selkie story didn't accomplish that for me). I can imagine an alt ending to the grasshopper one that focused on "okay, but, like, literally today right now, what I do with all these people who want resources from me that I can't afford to give?".

Yeah as I was writing it I realized "eh, okay it's not exactly AI, it's... transhumanism broadly?" but then I wasn't actually sure what cluster I was referring to and figured AI was still a reasonable pointer.

I also did concretely wonder "man, how is he going to pack an emotional punch sticking to this agency/decision-theory theme?". So, lol at that.

An idea fragment that just came to me is to showcase how the decision-theory applies to a lot of different situations, some of which are transhuman, but not in an escalating way, such that it feels like the whole point of the story. The transhuman angle gives it "ultimate stakes", by virtue of making the numbers really big. And that was important to why the grasshopper story was so haunting to me. But, it doesn't have to end on that note.

I guess it doesn't accomplish the goal my original comment was getting at, but one solution here is for the last parable to be something like "the earliest human (or life form, if you can justify it for dogs or chimps or something) that ever faced this sort of dilemma." And that gives it a kind of primal mythic Ur quality that has weight in part because of the transhumanist that descends from it, but centers it in something much more mundane and makes the mundanest version of it still feel important.

That feels like cheating though because it's still drawing weight from the transhuman element. But is at least a different angle, and if the different vignettes aren't in "order of ascending futurism" it could be more about the decisionmaking itself.

(The story "Uprooted" "Spinning Silver" is coming to mind here, btw, and might be worth reading for inspiration ((and because it's just good on it's own)) It's a novel that's essentially a retelling of "Rumpelstiltskin", but about a Jewish moneylender who faces various choices of how to relate to other townspeople ((who are treating her badly, antisemiticly)), but has to adopt a kind of coldness to force them to actually enforce them paying her back, with escalating stakes).

lol at the spellchecker choking on "Rumpelstiltskin" and not offering any alternate suggestions.

(I think you're thinking of Spinning Silver not Uprooted btw.)

Oh lol whoops.