Nayler’s masterful debut combines fascinating science and well-wrought characters to deliver a deep dive into the nature of intelligent life. Marine biologist Ha Nguyen gets the opportunity of a lifetime when she’s invited to study a recently discovered society of intelligent octopuses in Vietnam’s Con Dao archipelago. Aiding her are Evrim, the world’s first android, and Altantsetseg, a human expert drone operator, both of whom add nuance to Nayler’s thematic exploration of consciousness through their vivid personalities and backstories: Evrim’s programming gradually breaks down, leaving them contemplating the nature of self, meanwhile drones enhance Altantsetseg’s natural awareness as she uses them to both observe the octopuses in their natural habitat and defend the archipelago from rivals eager to capitalize on Nguyen’s research. Throughout, Nayler provides a tightly focused framework for the challenges Nguyen faces as she attempts to decipher octopus language and culture, which will especially please science-minded readers. Subplots featuring genius hacker Rustem and Eiko, a man trafficked into slavery aboard a fishing vessel, expertly weave into the narrative while also offering readers a broader understanding of the political and technological state of this near-future world. As entertaining as it is intellectually rigorous, this taut exploration of human—and inhuman—consciousness is a knockout. (Oct.)
"A novel that is alert, intelligent, open."
—Nicole Flattery, The New York Times
“[A] staggering book . . . In all my years as a science journalist, I could never quite get my head around the so-called hard problem of consciousness . . . It wasn’t until I read Ray Nayler’s The Mountain in the Sea that I truly understood it in my bones . . . [The Mountain in the Sea] has the clothes of a futuristic, eco-punk or cyberpunk thriller, the guts of a philosophy seminar and the soul of a religious tract.”
—Phillip Ball, New Scientist
“Exciting, cerebral, and surprisingly compassionate, The Mountain in the Sea shines a light on the importance of our fragile ecosystem. Read this riveting novel if you love fresh takes on science fiction or you’re just fascinated by the mysteries of nature.”
—Apple Books Review
“Nayler’s masterful debut combines fascinating science and well-wrought characters to deliver a deep dive into the nature of intelligent life . . . As entertaining as it is intellectually rigorous, this taut exploration of human—and inhuman—consciousness is a knockout.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Less a science-fiction adventure than a meditation on consciousness and self-awareness, the limitations of human language, and the reasons for those limitations, the novel teaches as it engages.” —Kirkus Reviews
“With a thriller heart and a sci-fi head, The Mountain in the Sea delivers a spooky, smart read. Artificial intelligence, nascent animal sentience, murderous flying drones: like the best of Gibson or Atwood, it brings all of the plot without forgetting the bigger questions of consciousness, ecocide, and scientific progress. Truly a one-of-a-kind story.”
—Kawai Strong Washburn, author of Sharks in the Time of Saviors
“I came to The Mountain in the Sea for the cephalopods (I love cephalopods), but I stayed for the fascinating meditation on consciousness and personhood. I loved this book.”
—Ann Leckie, author of Ancillary Justice
“Ray Nayler has taken on the challenge of a near future that’s less certain than ever and made it gleam—not only with computer terminals and sentry drones (we love those, sure) but also polished coral and cephalopod eyes. From these pages, I got the sense of William Gibson, and Paolo Bacigalupi—and Donna Haraway, and Octavia Butler. This is a planetary science fiction and a profound new kind of adventure, featuring—among so many other wonders—the best villain I’ve read in years. In the end, the enormity and possibility of this novel’s vision shook tears loose. What a ride; what a feeling; what a future.”
—Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Sourdough
“The Mountain in the Sea is a first-rate speculative thriller, by turns fascinating, brutal, powerful, and redemptive. The book poses profound questions about artificial and nonhuman intelligence, and its answers are tantalizing and provocative.”
—Jeff VanderMeer, author of Annihilation
“I loved this novel’s brain and heart, its hidden traps, sheer propulsion, ingenious world-building, and purity of commitment to luminous ideas.”
—David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas
“The Mountain in the Sea is a wildly original, gorgeously written, unputdownable gem of a novel. Ray Nayler is one of the most exciting new voices I’ve read in years.”
—Blake Crouch, author of Upgrade and Dark Matter
Nayler's debut novel of speculative fiction laced with cyberpunk elements and environmentalism is set against coastal Asia on future-Earth. The most prominent of the novel's three interwoven narratives features Ha Nguyen, a cephalopod researcher; Evrim, the world's only android with manufactured consciousness; and Altantsetseg, a technologically advanced security guard. All are on the mysterious Con Dao Archipelago research facility, which has been cordoned off from outsiders to hide the octopus consortium living in surrounding waters. The trio aims to confirm that the consortium communicates among itself, and they are also determined to bridge the communication gap between humans and another species. The remaining two narratives follow a sophisticated hacker sent to breach Evrim's mind and enslaved people aboard an AI-controlled fishing vessel who are poaching the ocean's creatures. The multiple narrative threads, coupled with quotes from fictional books (written by the characters) at the beginning of each chapter, make for challenging narratorial work, but despite the hard-to-follow transitions, Eunice Wong remains polished. VERDICT This slow-burning novel strikes a balance between hard- and soft-speculative fiction without being too heady or obtuse and would be a sound addition to any library's collection.—Kym Goering
DEBUT A community of intelligent octopuses has been discovered off the southern coast of Vietnam. Access to the animals is tightly controlled by the international corporation DIANIMA, which hopes to study and exploit the octopuses for their development of artificially intelligent androids. They hire Dr. Ha Nguyen, an expert on cephalopods, to lead the research into the octopuses' language and culture. It quickly becomes clear that DIANIMA's plans to cash in on the results of Dr. Nguyen's efforts is not something the octopuses agree with—and no one can foresee what the octopuses will do to make their resistance understood. VERDICT Drawing on decades of experience in overseas service (including time with the United States Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam), Nayler infuses his debut novel with fantastic elements grounded in real contemporary topics and tackles moral issues related to artificial and animal intelligence without sacrificing plot or pacing. This is a classic sci-fi thriller that's easy to read and will have broad appeal for fans of speculative fiction.—Lydia Fletcher
In the not-too-distant future, a marine biologist specializing in cephalopod intelligence discovers a species of octopus with astonishing language skills—research that a giant corporation wants to monetize.
Dr. Ha Nguyen is so amazed by her findings that she's willing to submit herself to the odious tactics of the big tech company, which controls the Vietnamese island where the octopuses dwell. Having "resettled" the population of the Con Dao Archipelago, the company not only will kill any outsiders who attempt to set foot there, but also has ordered Ha's death should she attempt to leave. Not that she has any inclination to do so. Once exposed to the octopuses, she is determined to uncover the great mysteries of extrahuman intelligence. In spite of their hostile reputation, these are creatures of transcendent beauty, communicating through glowing visual symbols that move on their skin in complex patterns and sequences. In a world of robot-operated slave ships, bee-size drones, and AI automonks with three-fingered hands and light receptors for pupils, her main ally is Evrim, the world's first and possibly last true android, which not only thinks like a human being, but also believes it is conscious. Ha's benefactor and adversary is Dr. Arnkatla Mínervudóttir-Chan, the Icelandic brains of the corporation, whose ultimate goal is to create a mind "wiped clean of its limitations." A prolific writer of SF stories making his debut as a novelist, Nayler maintains a cool, cerebral tone that matches up with the story's eerie underpinnings. Less an SF adventure than a meditation on consciousness and self-awareness, the limitations of human language, and the reasons for those limitations, the novel teaches as it engages.
An intriguing unlocking of underwater secrets, with the occasional thrill.