Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Review: The Mountain in the Sea, by Ray Nayler

Review: The Mountain in the Sea, by Ray Nayler

by Rich Horton

Ray Nayler burst upon the SF scene with a remarkable and beautiful story called "Mutability", in the June 2015 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction. (I reprinted this story in The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy: 2016 Edition.) (He had published a good deal of poetry, crime fiction, and literary fiction in the couple of decades before that, mind you.) In the several years since then he has continued to publish striking SF, wildly imaginative, scientifically convincing, and always with powerful characters at the heart. But only now has he published his first novel, The Mountain in the Sea. And it must be said, it fully realizes the promise of his shorter works.

The Mountain in the Sea is, at first glance, about intelligent octopuses, and about attempts to communicate with them. But more deeply, it is about intelligence and communication in general. To this end, it beautifully interleaves characters, speculation, and plot threads concerning machine intelligence of different kinds, translation (between human languages), hacking, evolution of intelligence, remote control of devices such as drones, non-neurotypical people, man-machine symbiosis, memory aids, etc.

The novel features three separate narrative threads. The main one follows Ha Nguyen, who is hired by a branch of a company called DIANIMA to join a research effort on an island called Con Dao, in an ocean preserve off Vietnam (or more precisely, the Ho Chi Minh Autonomous Zone.) She is the writer of a book called How Oceans Think, and her research will involve attempting to communicate with octopuses. The preserve is intended to protect the local sea life from the effects of overfishing and other effects of human impingement; though we know already (and Ha certainly knows) that those protection efforts have not been very successful. But there are stories of mysterious deaths of humans, especially divers -- and octopuses are believe by some to be involved.

Another thread concerns Rustem, a genius hacker (for lack of a better word) based in places in the former Soviet Union. His specialty is breaking into AI systems, for mysterious backers, often, it seems, with the aim of causing the AIs (which control things like fishing and cargo ships) to act contrary to their owners' wishes -- often with fatal results.

And the third thread follows Eiko, a young Japanese man who has been kidnapped by slavers, and is imprisoned on a factory fishing ship controlled by an AI. Eiko and his fellow slaves are in essence replacing AIs who had previous operated the fishing amd fish preparation equipment -- human slaves, it seems, are cheaper than AIs. 

There are other people -- or other beings -- as well. Ha works with Evrim, an intelligent and conscious (or so they think) android, created by DIANIMA and its leader, Arnkatia Minervudóttir-Chan, in order to demonstrate that they can "build minds". But Evrim so frightened the establishment that intelligent androids have been outlawed -- and he can stay only in a DIANIMA-owned enclave such as the Con Dao preserve. Ha also talks regularly with her friend Kamran, a researcher at a laboratory somwhere unspecified. Rustem starts dating a young woman named Aynur -- partly perhaps to provide the reader someonw for Rustem to explain his ideas, but also to introduce her point-five -- an AI companion, not fully conscious but often seeming so. Eiko makes friends with other slaves, and they being to plot a potential escape. 

How to these intertwine? The revelation comes slowly, but it's easy to guess things like what AI Rustem is now attempting to hack into; or where Eiko's ship is heading and how the slaves' interactions with the ship's AI will work out. And Ha and Evrim -- along with their security professional Altansetseg, a Mongolian war veteran and drone controller -- are making hesitant progress in communicating with the local octopuses. But time is limited -- Dr. Minervudóttir-Chan is losing control of DIANIMA, Ha and Evrim's autonomy is in question, Eiko is a wild card, and the octopuses themselves are seriously threatened by the human depredations of the sea.

But I've hardly described anything of the wonders of the novel. The layers of speculation about intelligence are remarkable -- the novel interrogates intelligence as manifested by humans, neurodivergent humans, octopuses, AIs, point-fives, semi-autonomous drones, AI monks of apparently limited intelligence ... not to mention intelligence augmentations such as memory palaces, translation algorithms, drone-human links, schools, even books. It examines how an intelligence is shaped by its physical housing, by its environment, by its culture, by its language and its language's expression in writing or other means of recording or transmission. And it's not just about intelligence -- it's fiercely engaged with environmental activism, with climate change and other human-caused environmental harm. And its fiercely engaged with humans harming humans, with slavery, with corporate malfeasance, with moral failure. I've discussed before the idea of "through-composed" SF -- SF that fully considers the implications of its extrapolations and speculations. This is a fully through-composed novel! And it's a novel that takes its speculation seriously in the sense of wondering about -- or advocating for -- ways to work for a more just future (and not just for humans.)

Highly recommended. This is science fiction doing everything science fiction can do -- speculating excitingly about scientific ideas, extrapolating a convincing future, and telling an exciting story. 

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