The Mountain in the Sea (Picador reprint edition, May 30, 2023). Cover by María Jesús Contreras
Ray Nayler has published dozens of short stories in many of the major genre fiction markets. His debut novel The Mountain in the Sea was published in hardcover by MCD last year and nominated for a Nebula Award, and won the Locus Award for Best First Novel. But I ignored it because it pretty much had the most boring cover for a science fiction novel in 2022, and in my experience that’s often a more reliable sign than major awards.
However, Picador published the trade paperback edition in May of last year. And this version does not have a boring cover. No no no. This version features a giant intelligent octopus, and a bunch of intriguing quotes on the front and back that say things like “Superb” (Bloomberg Businessweek), “Planetary science fiction and a profound new kind of adventure” (Robin Sloan), “A taut exploration of inhuman consciousness” (Publishers Weekly), “A creepy eco-dystopian novel” (Buzzfeed), and “The octopuses hold the key to unprecedented breakthroughs in extrahuman intelligence.”
Anytime you mix ‘creepy’ with ‘octopus,’ you have my immediate attention.
[Click the images for cephalopod-sized versions.]
Inside cover flaps for The Mountain in the Sea
Steven Poole at The Guardian has my favorite review.
“If a lion could speak,” Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “we could not understand him.” Swap “lion” for “octopus” and you have the philosophical challenge at the heart of this deeply interesting work of science fiction. What if the first alien intelligences we encountered were already living with us on planet Earth?
Rumors of sea monsters off the shores of an archipelago in Vietnam have attracted the attention of a tech giant specializing in AI, Dianima, which has bought and sealed off the islands. A marine biologist, Dr Ha Nguyen, is hired to investigate what might lurk in the water. She is joined at the isolated research station by Evrim, a sexless hyper-intelligent android built by Dianima, and the station’s security chief, a female war veteran named Altantsetseg who conducts a swarm of killer robots as though it were a symphony orchestra. It turns out that the octopuses do have a kind of garden in the sea, but no one is invited.
This is a near future of many pleasing inventions, from the witty to the horrific. Hatchling sea turtles are helped from beach to water by a tribe of robotic Automonks from Tibet, now a hi-tech power. People can buy AI romantic partners to be their “point five,” only half the fuss of a real human relationship. Some mysterious characters wear “identity shields”, obscuring their real faces with changing electronic ones, to avoid ubiquitous surveillance. And in the depleted oceans, ravenous AI-piloted fishing vessels use crews of abducted human slaves to process their dwindling catches.
The island research station has something of the claustrophobia and paranoia of the Antarctic research station in John Carpenter’s The Thing… This cerebral but not self-satisfied book also features welcome episodes of comic relief and tightly choreographed action. It is oddly refreshing, too, to read a novel by an American writer that is global in scope yet in which no single scene takes place in the continental US… It is successful entertainment as well as a warning.
The Mountain in the Sea was published by Picador on May 30, 2023. It is 456 pages, priced at $18 in trade paperback and $11.99 in digital formats. The cover is by María Jesús Contreras.
Nayler’s next novel, The Tusks of Extinction, will be released by Tor.com in January 16, 2024.
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