The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler
By PhilRM: As a long-time admirer of Ray Nayler’s short fiction (much of which has appeared in Asimov’s), I was very much looking forward to this, his first novel.
In the not too distant future of an Earth ravaged by climate change, marine biologist Ha Nguyen, who has spent her life studying cephalopods, is hired by the massive transnational DIANIMA corporation to undertake a research project in the isolated Con Dao archipelago, whose inhabitants have been forcibly evacuated by DIANIMA in the wake of rumours of a new and dangerous species of intelligent octopus. There she finds herself partnered with the android Evrim, the world’s first and only allegedly conscious artificial intelligence, the creation of the reclusive Arnkatla Minervudottir-Chan, founder and driving force behind DIANIMA.
In the Republic of Astrakhan, Rustem, a Russian hacker with a matchless gift for finding his way into systems of artificial intelligence, is hired by a mysterious and ruthless organization to break into the most complex system he has ever seen. And a young Japanese college graduate named Eiko, kidnapped from the Ho Chi Minh Autonomous Trade Zone, toils away on the automated fishing vessel Sea Wolf as it scours the depleted waters of the Pacific Ocean.
This multi-stranded novel may wear the guise of a thriller, but it is a classic SF novel of ideas, though written with a very 21st century sensibility. Characters engage in passionate arguments about language, about communication, about consciousness, about responsibility. (It is a measure of Nayler’s accomplishment that I would very much like to read the fictional book by Ha Nguyen, How Oceans Think, excerpts from which preface many of the chapters.)
Nayler’s years of residence outside of the United States show in the novel’s lightly sketched but convincing locales. The substantially altered political backdrop – such as the Tibetan Buddhist Republic, represented by Altantsetseg, a former soldier who serves as Ha and Evrim’s bodyguard, equal parts menacing and hilarious – is only glimpsed as needed. In the end, all of the characters, burdened by their flaws and histories, will have to make choices that may mean the difference between life and death. And it is not the humans alone who must choose.