The Mountain in the Sea

By Ray Nayler

Rating: 5 out of 5.
The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler

I have been patiently waiting to read this book since I bought it. I didn’t know much about it – just what the blurb on the back of the book told me – but I thought it sounded like an easy and entertaining read for Xmas. At just over 450 pages and relatively large font, it was bound to be a quick read. Well it was all of those things and so much more. I didn’t anticipate going into this book that it was going to be my favourite read so far for 2022 (and probably would have been even if I had been reading more earlier this year).

If you like going into a book not knowing very much, stop now. Otherwise, read on to see why I rated this book 5 stars.

The story takes place in the future on earth. The United States have collapsed (though this is a minor detail thrown in to set the future scene, rather than being a piece of the narrative) and the seas are almost bare of fish. Countries and corporations seem to be fairly interchangeable in some aspects and it the UN is run by whomever won the latest coup. Technology is well advanced, and can be lethal.

There are three threads to the story in this book. The first, and the central (main) thread follows Ha, a marine biologist who is an expert on cephalopods. She travels to the remote Con Dao Archipelago, where a tech-giant DIANIMA has purchased the archipelago and “evacuated” all of the population. Their public intent was to protect the last remaining marine reserve, their private intent is to study the “sea monster” and how it might be used to further their AI technology. Prior to travelling to the archipelago, Ha wrote a speculative book – a combination of science and philosophy – and excerpts from that book are used as chapter headings. These, together with excerpts from another character’s book, add another layer to the themes throughout the book. Themes of communication, consciousness, human impact on earth, and first contact – among others. Ha wants to study the octopuses and learn to communicate with them, regardless of whether or not this is the aim of her employers.

The second thread is rather menacing, and a lot of people are killed. What is apparent is that they will let no one get in their way of getting the octopuses, and making sure others don’t know about them. The third is a slave ship, fishing the depleted resources across the glob. This ship is captained by AI, and was crewed entirely by robots/similar. But sea air corrodes electronics too quickly and it’s cheaper to pay the black market rate for abducted people to form slave crews to work on the catch.

These three threads come together at the end in a very clever way. Some of it you’ll start to work out. Some of it you won’t.

Ray Nayler has obviously done an extremely large amount of research for this book. I know some of the information shared about the octopuses match fact of real-life octopuses. I know some of what they do is fabrication. But where the sliding scale changes from fact to fiction… I honestly don’t know, and probably wouldn’t unless I did some of that research myself. Yes, we have here a Science Fiction book that actually gets the science right, so it almost doesn’t seem like it is fiction.

And as most good Fantasy and Sci-Fi novels are want to do, this book doesn’t pull its punches with making social commentary. But not in an intrusive way that makes you roll your eyes and lose enjoyment of the story. It seeps through the narrative, enhancing it, so it seems like it would be less rich without it. And those excerpt’s from Ha’s book add some extra dollops.

I think what we fear most about finding a mind equal to our own, but of another species, is that they will truly see us – and find us lacking, and turn away from us in disgust. That contact with another mind will puncture our species’ self-satisfied feeling of worth, We will have to confront, finally, what we truly are, and the damage we have done to our home. But that confrontation, perhaps, is the only thing that will save us. The only thing that will allow us to look our short-sightedness, our brutality, and our stupidity in the face, and change.

Dr Ha Nguyen, How Oceans Think

I haven’t read a lot of Sci-Fi, but this book goes right up there as my favourite alongside Cyteen. I might even like it more than Cyteen, but since I haven’t read the latter in 20 years, I couldn’t say which comes out on top. I would highly recommend this book to everyone – even if you are not usually a reader of Sci-Fi.

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