29 January 2023

The Mountain in the Sea, by Ray Nayler

Posted by Callan Bentley

This is a fun new novel. Like Ted Chiang’s Arrival or Carl Sagan’s Contact, it’s a “first contact” story, except the alien intelligence is homegrown: a newly-evolved species of octopus living in waters of the Con Dao archipelago in near-future Vietnam. How do they think, given their radically different bodies, environments, and umwelt? Many of the things I’ve been reading over the past few years (Ed Yong’s An Immense World, Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds, and all those books about artificial intelligence) seem to feed naturally into the architecture of this techno-thriller. One of the characters is an android, humanity’s first such, and so interacting with them is also a form of “first contact.” The android’s mindscape is compared to the octopuses’ for insight. There is also a significant thread in the book of ecological devastation, particularly in the marine realm. The future world that author Ray Nayler depicts is pretty grim, beset with drones left and right doing nefarious things, and ocean fishing accomplished by AI-run trawlers that deploy enslaved people to process the fish. The pace is excellent, the characters fresh (a Mongolian security agent was one of my favorites, as she speaks with a translator unit that creates hilariously clipped speech), and the topics explored truly fascinating. Very enjoyable and thus: recommended!