The Cosmic Codex
The Cosmic Codex
When minds collide

When minds collide

A critique of Ray Nayler's Locus Award-winning novel "The Mountain in the Sea"
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“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…”

—The character of Dr. Ha Nguyen in The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler1

I recently identified Rivers’ Soloman’s Sorrowland as the best book I read last year. Ray Nayler almost beat it with The Mountain in the Sea.

Winning Nayler the Locus Award for best new writer, The Mountain in the Sea is an impressive achievement in hard science fiction. It explores consciousness, one of the greatest mysteries of science, through the interactions between three different forms of intelligence: human, artificial, and octopus.

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The book examines its subject by following three main storylines:

  • Dr. Ha Nguyen works with the android Evrim and security specialist Altantsetseg to uncover the secrets of the intelligent octopuses occupying the waters surrounding Vietnam’s Con Dao archipelago.

  • Kidnapped and enslaved aboard the AI-controlled factory fishing trawler Sea Wolf, programmer Eiko and his fellow prisoner Son struggle to escape their debilitating bondage as fish processors for the ship’s corporate owners.

  • A mysterious woman hires outlaw hacker Rustem to crack a highly secure AI system for unknown purposes.

Nayler, who has worked in Vietnam and as a consultant for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, knows his stuff. Whether depicting his characters dealing with artificial intelligence, problems of consciousness, or a community of intelligent octopuses, he never caused me to question the fact that I was reading about good, crunchy, speculative science.

This doesn’t make his prose dull. Far from it. Consider how he first describes the grueling work Eiko and the other slaves perform aboard the Sea Wolf, from which the corporation has removed automated processing machines more expensive to keep functioning (or replace) than unwilling human workers:

The processing shift was hard at work at the conveyors. They slid the blades of their knives into the bellies of the fish, scooped out the entrails, and whipped the guts into blue plastic buckets. Then they placed the fish on the conveyors that took them down to the factory room, where they were flash-frozen in blocks and sent to the storage freezers. The movements of the processing shift were efficient, mechanical. No waste of energy. Robotic. And you could see, on the deck, the rusted, torn baseplates where the robots that used to perform this task had been.2

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In this paragraph, Nayler captures the deplorable state of the slave workers, the callousness of the corporation which has captured them, and the limitations of technology in the face of human indecency. His depiction is both captivating and horrific.

Or take this portrayal of Na’s reaction to Evrim’s body language as they watch signs of a battle off the coast of their island:

Something on the horizon was burning—a pumpkin-colored flickering smear between dark sky and darker water, reflected in Evrim’s pupils. Hard to read, that face. Not quite aligned to human expression. There was that perfectly human smile, before … but there were other expressions. Things not fathomable. Crooked syntax. Readable, but like reading Chaucer for the first time. Concern? Sadness? Ha had wanted to ask if they were in danger, but that face told her they were not...3

In addition to thoughtful and entrancing, Nayler’s writing is a joy to read.

The three storylines in The Mountain In the Sea interlock to frame complex questions about intelligence, consciousness, and resultant behavior.

How does Evrim differ in principle from the AI controlling the Sea Wolf? Is the android a conscious being equal to the humans who have made him? Are the octopuses? Which of these three forms of intelligence is the most dangerous—the AIs humans exploit against one another, the octopuses who have so little in common with us, or we who strip the sea of its fish-stocks, destroying a food source upon which millions depend?

The only problem with The Mountain in the Sea is that it’s an unfinished story well begun. As I read, captivated by each chapter, I began to get nervous. Fewer and fewer pages remained. Would Nayler wrap up all his plot threads in a satisfying manner?

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To my regret, he didn’t.

Nayler barely explains the mystery of the octopus society, and Na’s achievement in figuring it out, then the book is over. I found myself especially disappointed when my favorite storyline—Eiko’s and Son’s tribulations on the Sea Wolf—came to a resolution without a conclusion. Only Rustem’s story seems complete. I get the feeling Nayler has much more to say, as if this is the first book in what could easily be a trilogy.

I hope it is. If the author finishes what he’s started in The Mountain in the Sea, it could be an achievement on par with Frank Herbert’s Dune or Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series. Until then, his novel will remain, like Doc Smith’s Lensman series, or David Gerrold’s War Against the Chtorr series, an unfinished masterpiece.

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Ray Nayler, The Mountain in the Sea, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022, p. 429


Ray Nayler, The Mountain in the Sea, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022, p. 48


Ray Nayler, The Mountain in the Sea, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022, p. 80

The Cosmic Codex
The Cosmic Codex
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