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BookBrowse Reviews The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler

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The Mountain in the Sea

A Novel

by Ray Nayler

The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler X
The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Oct 2022, 464 pages

    Paperback:
    May 2023, 464 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
David Bahia
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In a world of rapid advances in artificial intelligence, a leading marine biologist must reassess her preconceptions about consciousness after making contact with a group of sentient octopuses.

In his debut novel, The Mountain in the Sea, author Ray Nayler delivers an unusually daring sci-fi/thriller hybrid that seamlessly blends intelligent octopuses, ubiquitous flying drones, cyberterrorist espionage and human trafficking with strong elements of bioscience and intriguing insights into the question of what defines consciousness. The sequence of cryptic events in the book alternates by chapter between three parallel storylines taking place in a mid-21st century future where advanced artificial intelligence affects nearly all aspects of daily life.

In the primary storyline, the main character, Dr. Ha Nguyen, is a top marine biologist who has dedicated her life to studying cephalopods. She has just been dispatched by the enigmatic AI tech corporation DIANIMA to investigate a group of octopuses that may be behind the local rumors of "sea monsters" and "ghosts" at an abandoned seaside resort village in Con Dao, an island off the coast of Vietnam. There, she joins the two other members of her small research team: Altantsetseg, a humorless, formidable ex-soldier and defense drone operator in charge of perimeter security, and mild-mannered Evrim, the world's first conscious android and the appointed team leader.

The main plot unfolds somewhat mechanically at first. After reviewing the day's latest field data together, Evrim typically acts as a sounding board for Ha's theories regarding the evolutionary and neurobiological profile of the octopuses they are studying (see Beyond the Book). Though certainly thought-provoking in light of the role the octopuses are set to play later in the story, the characters' scientific discussions at times mirror the pragmatic tone of a peer-reviewed research article. Nevertheless, the plot picks up soon enough when Ha makes first contact with one of the octopuses. The unusual interaction leads Ha and Evrim to strongly suspect that the octopuses they are dealing with are not only self-aware but have long evolved to the point of developing their own culture with a shared written and spoken language.

Following Ha's establishment in the main narrative, the story wastes no time introducing two new character subplots. They each take place in the same world and timeline as Ha, though there is little indication of how they are connected. As the story advances, however, clues and surprise twists begin to drop everywhere like scattered puzzle pieces, coyly hinting at a possible unification of all three storylines.

The first subplot centers around Rustem, a brilliant rogue security hacker who lives with the ominous certainty that his days are numbered. In contrast to the introspective focus of Ha's narrative, Rustem's is chiefly suspense-driven and brings to the novel an overarching layer of atmospheric tension and intrigue. As a character, his passion for hacking complex AI neural networks motivates him to accept unorthodox jobs he knows will enable his anonymous clients to remotely assassinate political adversaries, often with the collateral sacrifice of innocent lives. Only now, he is compelled to reconsider his loose ethics in association with his latest client, a strange masked woman of great means who soon after makes it crystal clear that she only keeps him and the people he knows alive as long as it proves useful to her ends.

The second subplot revolves around Eiko, a young programmer recently hired by DIANIMA, who is kidnapped and forced to work as a slave aboard an AI-controlled factory ship far off in the Pacific. His tale of isolation takes on the quality of a bonus standalone parable until around the second half of the book when events make it clear how his story is connected to the other two plotlines. To cope with his trauma, Eiko practices the method of loci, a mnemonic device that works by mentally associating bits of knowledge with the areas and objects of a known physical building. This mental aid plays a central role in Eiko's story as he uses it to imprint a permanent record in his mind of the habits and behaviors of everyone around him — the guards, his fellow prisoners, and most importantly, the mysterious AI core that controls the ship's functions and movement.

On the whole, Nayler's strength as a writer lies in the tangible realism of the physical environments he describes and the inner monologues of his characters. With each storyline he starts off small and gradually expands, using strategic clues and events to push the plot forward. The brief, intermittent ruminations he adds between chapters featuring quotes by characters are atmospheric and supply a believable depth of meaning to the ethos of a future world where humans no longer hold the planetary monopoly on conscious intelligence. In terms of style, The Mountain in the Sea is written with the methodologic mindset of a scientist looking for answers; Nayler's meticulous attention to accuracy across a range of scientific disciplines is comparable to the well-researched novels of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. While a bit monotonous in areas involving jargon-heavy dialogue, Nayler still effectively balances real-world science with engaging characters and a multifaceted plot that steadily builds and accelerates until many readers will likely find it hard to put the book down.

Reviewed by David Bahia

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in October 2022, and has been updated for the June 2023 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  The Intelligent Octopus

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