Harry‘s Review of The Mountain In The Sea by Ray Nayler
Ray Nayler’s recent contemplative sci-fi thriller The Mountain In The Sea offers a first contact story which holds a mirror to our notions of intelligence and responsibility.
Following ecologist Dr Ha Nguyen, The Mountain In The Sea centres upon the recent discovery of an octopus species in the remote Vietnamese islands of the Con Dao archipelago. Questions abound: just how intelligent are these octopuses? Corporations and activists alike become interested. DIANIMA- a vast organisation interesting in automation and artificial intelligence hire Dr Nguyen to determine how valuable the octopus species are to their research. Accompanying her for this job is DIANIMA’s own previous attempt at creating a being that can pass the Turing test, a silicon lifeform known as Evrim.
The story is a well balanced mix of intrigue and reflection. Short chapters drive the quick pacing- each chapter developing fresh twists and turns. This ease-of-reading doesn’t sacrifice deeper exploration of the themes of consciousness however. Augmenting Ha’s discoveries we also switch to two other perspectives, a sophisticated systems hacker Rustem, who becomes embroiled in a job where one wrong move will spell out his death. Our final point of view is Eiko, a man who has become captured upon an semi-sentient AI driven slave ship, forcing captured workers to fish. Our protagonists never meet, however their actions will all affect the future of the Con Dao archipelago and its residents. Nayler balances the three character expertly, all of them receiving satisfying conclusions, and all three exploring the themes of a species collective responsibility and their collective intelligence.
It’s a eco-fiction exploring similar ground to 2022’s Venomous Lumpsucker. It doesn’t veer into cosmic horror in the way you would expect for a tentacle feature in the weird fiction genre. It is decidedly grounded, written in a plainsong prose, and Nayler holds a lot of empathy for the characters and for the discussions surrounding collective responsibility and consciousness. Despite the thriller pacing, there isn’t much spectacle. Instead Nayler offers a slice of investigation, focusing on this to near perfection. His sensibilities as an environmental officer inform the story, and his expert knowledge bleeds through into the descriptions of the landscape, and also the human-octopus interactions throughout the story. The whole world depicted is a very convincing portrayal of a near future discovery.
Overall, The Mountain In The Sea is well worth the read. Sometimes it feels that it is in direct conversation with Solaris, offering a much more empathetic version of communication, consciousness and connection. This novel is human to its core- thoughtful, intelligent and deeply caring.