Book Review: The Mountain in the Sea, by Ray Nayler

This week, I have a timely (for me) review of Ray Nayler’s The Mountain in the Sea – timely because it’s just been shortlisted for the Nebula. Let’s see what all the fuss is about.

This fair and unbiased review was conducted based on a free proof copy provided by the publisher.

From the Waterstones website:

There are creatures in the water of Con Dao.

To the locals, they’re monsters. To the corporate owners of the island, an opportunity. To the team of three sent to study them, a revelation. Their minds are unlike ours. Their bodies are malleable, transformable, shifting. They can communicate. And they want us to leave.

When pioneering marine biologist Dr. Ha Nguyen is offered the chance to travel to the remote Con Dao Archipelago to investigate a highly intelligent, dangerous octopus species, she doesn’t pause long enough to look at the fine print. DIANIMA- a transnational tech corporation best known for its groundbreaking work in artificial intelligence – has purchased the islands, evacuated their population and sealed the archipelago off from the world so that Nguyen can focus on her research.

But the stakes are high: the octopuses hold the key to unprecedented breakthroughs in extrahuman intelligence and there are vast fortunes to be made by whoever can take advantage of their advancements. And no one has yet asked the octopuses what they think. And what they might do about it.

Octopuses really are relentlessly interesting creatures, and are both exciting to read about and – one would imagine – extraordinarily challenging to write about. A brain in their body and brains in their limbs, that kind of just… do their own thing? How do you even begin to wrap your monkey brain around that concept, let alone the divergent ways of thinking about and interacting with the world it surely results in? Having now read this, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s excellent Children of Ruin and Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds – unsurprisingly acknowledged by both Tchaikovsky and Nayler as essential reading – I’m sure I’ll never come even close to understanding these amazing creatures. But I’ve certainly enjoyed trying to.

Essentially, this is a first contact story with a bit of a difference, in that the other species displaying intelligent life is already here, indeed has always been here – it’s just that it might be smart enough to stay out of our way (to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke). With good reason, it would seem – certainly the tech giant DIANIMA, led by the inscrutable Dr. Mínervudóttir-Chan, has big plans for them. Having already birthed the fully fledged artificial intelligence known as Evrim, she is keen to explore the possibilities a new kind of intelligence might offer. A shadowy presence seemingly overseeing events on the archipelago, extracts from both her book Building Minds and main character Dr. Ha Nguyen’s How Oceans Think are interspersed throughout the book between chapters, often foreshadowing the next moral dilemma to be faced and offering insights into the personalities of the two women. It’s a clever and elegant way to develop their characters, and by the end of it you almost expect to be able to walk into your local bookshop and pull these works off the shelves, so authentic are their voices.

The world that Nayler situates these characters in is not wildly different from our own. A few existing technologies have been advanced and believably rolled out across various sectors, thanks in no small part to the aforementioned DIANIMA, while nations have largely fallen by the wayside, succeeded by the likes of the Ho Chi Minh Autonomous Trade Zone and the Republic of Istanbul. More futurism than futuristic in some cases, The Mountain in the Sea retains enough of our existing world – and its problems – to feel both familiar and chilling. One of our three main characters Eiko, for example, finds himself at the mercy of one of Nayler’s all-too-plausible extrapolations; kidnapped just before a big job interview, he’s one of many slaves crewing an AI-captained fishing vessel, performing a job which would have been done by machines if it wasn’t for salt water and its deleterious (and costly – got to watch that bottom line) effects on them. The idea that someone has run the numbers and decided it’s easier to exploit their fellow human beings than pay for the upkeep on automated processes is really not that far fetched. Small wonder that the octopuses aren’t in a rush to get in touch.

With its weighty philosophical themes, big ideas and believable characters, The Mountain in the Sea manages to be both intelligent and thought-provoking without ever compromising its sheer entertainment value. A hugely satisfying read.

The Mountain in the Sea is out now, published by Orion.

Currently reading: Salvation, Peter F. Hamilton
Currently listening: Individual Thought Patterns, Death

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Mountain in the Sea, by Ray Nayler

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s