Against a global backdrop that seethes with cyberpunk-style action, Ray Nayler’s 2022 Locus Award winning debut novel, The Mountain in the Sea, gives us a philosophical and deeply thoughtful story about science, specifically first contact.
Sometime in the 22nd century, global corporations run huge AI-managed fishing boats that are scraping the last bits of protein from the planet’s oceans. At the same time, the world is exploring in-system planetary colonization, and the advancement of android tech. Governments have changed and much of the world answers to the UN Directorate Governance. Meanwhile, on the archipelago of Con Dao, a discovery has been made that will change humanity’s view of itself, and three people—or beings—have been sent to study it. Dr. Ha Nyugen is a biologist whose popular book How the Ocean Thinks was her audition for this assignment. Altansetseg, a veteran, is the security expert. Evrim is the representative of DIANIMA, the globalcorp funding this project. Evrim is not a human being. They may be an android, or they may be something else entirely. Ha is awed to meet Evrim, who is famous (and banned from most countries on earth), but the mystery at the station soon distracts her from the relative celebrity of Evrim. Everyone has known octopuses were smart, but no one ever thought a solitary creature with such a short lifespan—never longer than four or five years—could develop a society… and a way to communicate beyond its own community and species. It seems, though, like that’s what happened.
Ha’s story, and the contact—violent and deadly at first—with the colony is fascinating, but there is much more going on. Beyond the security boundaries of the archipelago, an anonymous woman assassin is picking off anyone who may have had contact with the underwater species. A supreme hacker named Rustem, whose handle is Bakunin, has been hired to hack a cyber system unlike any he’s seen before. It’s as complex as a human brain… or more complex. The Sea Wolf, an AI fishing boat, works an enslaved human crew nearly to death, and the crew plans a rebellion. These disparate storylines merge into a thrilling climax.
Let me list a few things I loved. Nayler’s worldbuilding is exquisite—so much given to us in a single throw-away line or a description. Then there are his descriptions themselves; with Ha’s arrival on Con Dao, we experience the main island through her senses—the ruined buildings, the tropical heat, the smell, the beauty. Details, like the AI “point fives,” which are convincing simulations of personalities, letting you be in a “relationship” without having to do any of the work of being in a real one with another complete person (they’re only .5 of a person), show us just how far AI has come, and plant some clues to the development of Evrim. The various new-to-us governments are plausible and interesting. And there are the octopuses—a source of wonder and danger, especially when humans encounter them in their own element.
Much of the book addresses meaning and language, but the other foremost concern for Ha and Evrim is what will happen when humanity encounters this new society. Admittedly, the human track record in this area isn’t good. Adding to the intrigue and suspense is the behind-the-scenes presence (if that makes sense) of Ervim’s creator and the majority shareholder of DIANIMA, Dr. Minervudottir-Chan, a cyberneticist and coder whose motives are neither altruistic nor transparent. Although she doesn’t appear until late in the book, we feel her agency through a series of quotations from her various speeches and works, just as we see excerpts from Ha’s book throughout. Alongside action and suspense, The Mountain in the Sea asks serious questions about meaning, communication, science and ethics.
For me, this is a nearly perfect science fiction story. It raises the big what-if questions and addresses them seriously and fairly, against a meticulously developed world, while giving us action—sometimes gory action—and suspense. It’s the characters who carried me deeply into The Mountain in the Sea. If I have a quibble, it is with the resolution of Dr. Minervudottir-Chan’s story. I think what happens with her is correct for the plot and right thematically—it just seemed a little too easy. Everything else in this book swept me along. If you want good prose, a detailed world, action and a serious discussion of science and ethics, this is the book for you.