Fiction Reviews

The Mountain in the Sea

(2022/2023) Ray Nayler, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16.99, hrdbk, 457pp, ISBN 978-1-399-60046-0


A bit of housekeeping before diving into this novel. The Mountain in the Sea was first published and released in the US by MCD, Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2022. It was then first published in the UK by Orion's Weidenfeld & Nicolson on 1st February 2023. I mention this because the book's copyright page is apparently incorrect in stating that the first UK publication was in 2022 (I checked with the Weidenfeld publicist).  Do please note as this is no point of pedantry: eligibility for some SF Awards does depend on when and where first published; and I do believe that this novel is worthy of nomination for a number of awards – I'd hate it to miss out. This last, of course, gives the game away that I consider this a stonkingly good book and an exemplar of great science fiction.

The novel is set decades in the future in a world that continues to deplete natural resources.  It primarily centres around three characters: Ha Nguyen, a marine biologist; Rusteem, an artificial intelligence (AI) hacker; and Eiko who is captured and made a slave worker aboard an automatic fishing vessel. In addition there are a number of characters who make a brief appearance for a scene or two but that are also referred to in the main strands.

Something mysterious is killing people in the sea and on the shore…

Marine biologist Ha Nguyen also has a more public reputation garnered by her book How Oceans Think when she is recruited by Arnkatla Míervudóttir-Chan who heads up the multinational DIANIMA whose products centre around artificial intelligence. Ha is sent to an island (the title's mountain in the sea) on an isolated archipelago that is within a marine conservation area – established by DIANIMA itself – to study the local octopus species as these seem to exhibit particular intelligence.

Meanwhile, Arnkatla Míervudóttir-Chan separately recruits the AI hacker Rusteem to unravel an unusual neural network programme. Both Rusteem and Ha have strict non-disclosure aspects to their employment which, it turns out, are strictly enforced.

Off stage left, we have Eiko who is about to commence the job he has dreamed of with DIANIMA but is kidnapped when out site seeing and wakes up to discover he is aboard an automated fishing vessel commanded by an AI and forced to work under duress from armed guards.

Ha Nguyen quickly ascertains that the local species of octopus are far more intelligent than most Cephalopoda, and some cephalopods are renowned for their intelligence. She works alongside DIANIMA's Errin who is itself an android housing an AI based on the human neural connecteome and who is one of a kind but potentially could be the progenitor of a new, artificial species: his connecteome could be copied. As their work continues, they begin to realise just how unique is the local species of octopus.

Meanwhile, surrounding or characters, external forces begin to circle…

This book is packed with ideas and themes, but in essence it explores the nature of sentience both biological and artificial not to mention the latter modelled on the former and how society relates to various AI technologies. We have our humans, the AI android, a plethora of other AI including AI companions that in the main pass the Turing Test, and, of course, the new octopus species. It also is a solid comment on the erosion and over-exploitation of the marine environment.

This last comes across authoritatively, no doubt because in real life the author has worked with a number of marine conservation projects. The exploration of sentient intelligence doesn't quite hit the high bar of, say, Peter Watts (himself an actual biologist) but then Ray Naylor is not a scientist despite working in the environmental conservation sector: nature conservation really needs its co-ordinators, managers and ambassadors as well as its bioscientists. Nor does this really does not matter for Ray Naylor still manages to convey a 'first contact' feel to the novel and I'd really love to see Ray Naylor and Peter Watts together on an SF convention panel: if ever they are I hope that someone puts it on YouTube: I'm sure the conversation between the two would really sparkle.

The world-building is something else. Neatly conveyed is the way we are heading into John Beddington's 2009, bleak, 21st century 'perfect storm' as population growth crashes into resource depletion all against a climate change backdrop. Add in the various AI technologies and we get a truly heady mix. Finally, be assured that the various characters' plot arcs are completed by the book's end.

I understand that this is a debut novel despite the author being already an established short SF story writer. It is perhaps this foundation that facilitates this novel's sure-footedness.

Finally, though the ideas of alien intelligence and artificial intelligence have long been firm SF tropes, this past year has seen artificial intelligence all over the news. Researchers on the AI AlphaFold won the 2022 Breakthrough Prize, an AI passed the Royal College of Radiologists Fellowship exam, AI generated work raises copyright issues including their legal standing in the US, plagiarism issues (though the Writers Guild of America has proposed allowing artificial intelligence to write scripts), AI is now generating convincing science paper abstracts and science journal editors are beginning to insist that paper authors disclose the use of AI but some politicians are beginning to turn to AI for advice.  There have been so many issues that British Members of Parliament set up a Select Committee enquiry into AI and separately over a thousand technologists have called for a six month moratorium on AI roll out.  Indeed, relevant to a book that examines first contact with a new, non-human sentient intelligence as well as exploring artificial intelligence, it is pertinent that AI is now being employed to detect where exobiological microbes may be located in Martian landscapes as well as in the search for extra terrestrial intelligence.  So that even though the book first came out last year, and therefore must have been written over the year or two before that, given this year's news The Mountain in the Sea is most timely and relevant to current events.

All in all, it is a remarkable book.

Jonathan Cowie

You can see Ian's review here.


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