Fiction Reviews

The Mountain in the Sea

(2022/2023) Ray Nayler, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £9.99, pbk, 457pp, ISBN 978-1-399-60048-4


Pioneering marine biologist Dr Ha Nguyen has been sent to the remote Con Dao Archipelago to investigate a highly intelligent, dangerous species of octopus. There are interested parties watching her closely. Parties with deep pockets and dangerous ambition, motivated by far more than scientific interest.

Nyugen is unprepared for what she will find under the water. It will have a profound impact on humankind, and devastating consequences for the octopuses themselves, once her research is made public.

The Mountain in the Sea is a novel that comes with a bit of a reputation. It has already won the Locus Best First Novel Award, been a finalist in the Nebula Award and the Ray Bradbury Prize, and heavyweights like Jeff Vandermeer and David Mitchell praise it highly on the cover and within.

The story is told over 48 chapters, plus and epilogue and these chapters are divided into different parts of the novel Ė I Qualia, II Umwelt, III Semiosphere, IV Autopoiesis. Interestingly, between many of the chapters are quotes from Nguyenís book How Oceans Think and also quotes from Building Minds by Dr. Arnkatia Minervudottir-Chan. In his acknowledgements, Nayler mentions several books about consciousness, thought, philosophy, signs of life and cybernetics. In particular he praises Eduardo Khonís How Forests Think, which the title of Nyugenís imagined book is a tribute to. Iím not too sure what to make of these extracts, which vary between foreshadowing, info-dumping, a lot of philosophising, and the obvious, when it comes to debating the predatory nature of humankind.

Marine biologist Dr. Ha Nguyen jumps at the chance of taking a commission from multi-national tech company, DIANIMA, who have purchased the remote Con Dao Archipeligo, got rid of its population under the pretence of turning it into a wildlife reserve, and sealed it off from prying eyes in order to allow Nguyan to investigate the local octopus species who seem to be highly intelligent, organised and dangerous, but there are more dangerous things than creatures who lurk in the ocean as Nguyan is about to find out as DIANIMA are not as benevolent as they seem, 'manevolent' would be a better way to describe them as they behaviour might be the clue to untapping the next source of great wealth by exploiting extra-human intelligence.

What Nguyan encounters tells one third of the story, the other two thirds of the story are revealed through the events taking place on a robotic trawler which is crewed by slave labour on the brink of mutiny and here the story is told by a former dive guide from Con Dao who has been kidnapped and enslaved on the trawler, and is desperate to get back to the island; meanwhile, in Europe, Rustem, a maverick hacker and AI specialist is undertaking investigations into a neural network. This story strands are distinct to start with but will slowly draw together as the book progresses.

Nyugan is not alone, there is one other person present on the island, Altantsetseg, a war veteran and military specialist, who guards the location against attacks with her brood of killer robots. There is also, Evrim, a seΧless, prototype AI-driven android built by DIANIMA who has been sent there to observe, but also to escape an AI backlash that is taking place, and this novel is as much about understanding Evrim as it is the octopuses. What Nyugen discovers is that the octopuses have a caring society, have mastered tools and have a language, but she fears what her discoveries will mean for the octopuses as DIANIMA takes over her research, as humans will do what they always do to the detriment of the planet and other species.

Nayler has a background in marine biology so he knows where he is coming from, although the octopuses are perhaps too-human like, if that makes sense, for the purposes of the novel to allow Nguyan to understand them. Naylerís writing style is sharp, with a nice turn in description, and the story is thrilling, and bloody when needed, even funny in places. The speculative elements are well-handled from his worldview of how countries are run in the future to more focused details such as the use of drones and identity shields that protect the users privacy, and identity. Tech aside, this is a very philosophical novel asking big questions about life, consciousness, thought, identity, and perhaps, responsibility, and is definitely worth reading, although given that this is Naylerís first novel, it will be interesting to see how he can top this, but Iím sure he will have fun trying.  Recommended.

Ian Hunter

Editorial note: This was first published in the US in 2022 and first in UK in 2023. Had it been published in the UK in 2022, and with two positive reviews from us, this novel would likely have made our Best SF novel of the year short-list. You can see Jonathan's review here.


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