When I first read the synopsis for Ray Nayler’s debut novel, The Mountain In the Sea, I felt threatened. The description of the book felt pointedly aimed at me and my parasocial relationship with Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children books. I didn’t exactly pass right over it, but I didn’t really engage with the possibility of reading it until, in a moment of hubris, I decided to stack it against my beloved science fiction canon. Unfortunately for my ego, Nayler’s debut was a mesmerizing tale that is very hard to lump into any single idea and is all the better for it.
Dr. Ha Nguyen wrote the book on how intelligence works in the vast ecosystem that is the ocean, but has been given the chance to dive deeper. Off the coasts of the Con Dao Archipelago, a population of octopodes lurks with an intelligence not yet encountered. Aided by the Evrim, the world’s first android, Dr. Nguyen aims to unlock the mysteries of consciousness, and break through the language barrier. However, DIANIMA, the company that owns the archipelago and the creators of Evrim have other plans in store. Not to mention the many other groups hoping to exploit the rare find, and undermine DIANIMA’s hold on artificial intelligence. Can Dr. Nguyen and Evrim establish contact and learn from the octopodes before everyone finds out the secret?
After the first several chapters, I was frustrated. I felt that the novel was gazing at its own navel, waxing poetically as it questioned the nature of consciousness. And I’m not one to balk at philosophical banter in the form of a novel—I relish it. But I persevered, and soon Nayler had pulled the rug out from underneath me. I can’t remember the last time I felt I had been hoodwinked by a book so handily, and shown I was thinking with bias. I don’t remember when I started to turn in favor, but I remember the exact moment when I knew Nayler had written something truly special. I won’t spoil it, but there is a specific interview scene that made me question the nature of the entire book itself. I could almost feel Nayler winking at me as he opened the gates to the rest of the novel, allowing me to run around and play within his carefully crafted narrative. I was hooked.
I only relay this experience because the novel is so incredibly fucking hard to describe. It’s a sweeping epic following several different characters as they revolve around an incredible discovery, a small population of octopodes who may be communicating with language. The geo-political state of the world is an active one with several areas having gone through sweeping changes and fractures. Automated fishing boats pick up slave labor across the world, while the very first android is exiled to a single island owned by the company that created him. There is a lot going on, but Nayler manages the pace well, allowing each story to reveal itself as part of a larger whole.
The characters that populate the pages are compelling. Dr. Nguyen seems to be the central point that the plot revolves around. Her drive to understand the oceans and how the octopus society has developed in response to pressure, pushes many of the conversations forward. Her disconnection from the rest of the world is palpable as she digs deeper into the mystery of the Con Dao monster. Evrim, the first android, is an excellent mirror for Dr. Nguyen to look into. They are a deep pool of information that is forced to confront their own nature while helping research the nature of consciousness. Nayler fleshes Evrim out in clever ways, giving them a very compassionately human feel that a lot of the other characters purposefully lack. The other side characters, too many to dive into specifically, are all fleshed out convincingly, allowing the deeper reveals of who they pack a punch at the pivotal moments. It’s truly astonishing to have such small characters be such an influence on the thematic arcs within the story.
The main draw, of course, will be the octopodes and the characters’ interactions with them. I expected there to be a lot more of it, but I applaud Nayler’s restraint here. In classic science fiction fashion, he uses their intelligence as a springboard into deeper conversations. The interactions are fascinating and mysterious. Dr. Nguyen’s probing into the octopus realm is more revealing of her and the world she inhabits. The language itself is opaque and impenetrable, throwing up walls for the team to try and break through without alarming the society below them. It doesn’t feel contrived for the team to run into wall after wall as they try to translate any sort of meaning discernible to humans. The book is ultimately about our abilities to reach out to other species, but focuses on the difficulty of it given the nature of consciousness.
There are a lot of reasons to pick up The Mountain In The Sea, but for me it comes down to the total presentation. Yes there are wonderful characters that live in an interesting world who go on to perform incredibly compelling acts. And while Nayler’s writing is good at making them stand out on their own, I am more impressed with his ability to tie it all together. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from books written by his characters that serve as foci for the individual chapters. Initially, I was annoyed by these interludes because they were information I knew from my own life, but eventually I realized they weren’t necessarily for me. And once I got beyond that, they began to play their role magnificently, serving as a road map for the reader to follow. They give the reader something to ponder and relate to while events happen on the page. In the end when you finally have it all in front of you, the landscape Nayler has painted is awe inspiring.
The Mountain In The Sea is something you have to experience for yourself. It’s meandering in all the right ways, giving you many paths to come to the same conclusion. Nayler hands you a dry bush and tosses you into a pit to unearth some great discovery. And after hours of toiling, sweeping grains of sand from tiny crevices, thinking about what lies beneath, you find a funhouse mirror. It snaps back every detail you mulled over, revealing so much more than you could have dreamed of. Nayler has written a real gem that has quickly become one of my favorite books of the year. Do yourself a favor, and dive into the ocean that is The Mountain In The Sea.
Rating: The Mountain In The Sea 9.0/10
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.