I was late coming to Ray Nayler’s The Mountain in the Sea, partly because it seemed too Earth-bound a story, partly because I thought it might be too much a novel of ideas, cut off from the flesh-and-blood characters that make a story work. My impressions were completely wrong. The Mountain in the Sea is certainly a novel of many, deeply explored ideas about how our minds work, what a fundamentally different intelligence might experience of the world, how language and culture define a truly sentient species. But it is much more than that because these ideas are felt in the depths of its characters who are forced to confront the extremes of beauty and violence that human culture is capable of. It is one of the richest reading experiences I’ve had in many years.
In a relatively near future, the Earth, including its oceans, have been ravaged by humans and sophisticated AI-driven machines. Surveillance and violence are everywhere. Focused only on the positive side of her research into sentient minds, the neurobiologist Dr. Ha Nguyen arrives at the Con Dau Research Station on an island (Con Son) off the coast of Vietnam to pursue her studies of the language-forming capabilities of a species of octopus.
She’s been hired by a mysterious and powerful international company called DIANIMA, headed by Dr. Minervudottir-Chan, another neuroscientist. The story is built around the contrast between these two characters, as well as the books they have written, excerpts of which precede many of the chapters.
What counts for Minervudottir-Chan is the ability to construct minds that can be put to work, to serve as the basis for a vast corporate empire based on AI and robots. Her ultimate goal is to create a better than human mind. Her greatest creation to date is the android Evrim, who is also working with Ha at Con Dau. They describe their mind as containing several minds, stitched together, as it were, to think more efficiently and deeply than any of them could independently. But Minervudottir-Chan regards Evrim as a failure since their mind is not so amenable to the control she seeks.
Ha Nguyen, from the outset, is all about empathic understanding of other species, how they think, what it is like to experience the world as they do and to learn how to communicate with them. From her past research, she has tried to put herself into the radically different mind and body of an octopus, which has more neurons in its arms than in its central brain and that feels and communicates through changes in the surface of its skin. Despite her fascination with this form of life and intelligence, she believes at first that octopuses are too solitary, short-lived and unrooted to form a culture that can be transmitted from one generation to another. She speculates that perhaps a new species of octopus could evolve, under constant environmental pressure, coupled with ability to write RNA in a way that accelerates genetic adaptation.
Such a species might be able to develop language – communication is not enough, since most species communicate in some way. It’s the development of symbols that is crucial – symbols that can be detached from real world phenomena and structured into an independent set of rules guiding the formation of experience and thought captured in a true language. Ha is so passionate about these ideas and has so bound her life to imagine what life is like for species with completely different brains that the story escapes a mere recitation of ideas.
The story also introduces Rustem, a brilliant hacker retained in secret by DIANIMA, to find portals into the most complex AIs and to help the company make use of these new forms of intelligence. As he puts it, he is able to wind his way into those AI networks, to live inside them and to visualize what they see. As he quickly becomes aware in this world where surveillance is omnipresent, the penalty for indiscreet talking about his work is death, and he is convinced that the company will likely dispose of him when they regard his usefulness at an end.
We also meet Son (who grew up on Con Son) and Eiko, two young men who were kidnapped and forced to work on a slave industrial fishing vessel headed by an AI, that is supported by brutal human guards. The AI is in total control of every facet of the piloting and production capabilities of the ship, its mind full of sea charts, market data, and margins of profitability. Its sensors are everywhere, and it soon becomes apparent that it listens closely to all conversations and catches potential mutiny in the bud.
We gradually see how all of the elements and characters of the story draw together in the island of Con Son. Nayler manages to build a mystery-thriller at the same time as his characters express their deepest beliefs and longings. At the center of action are the efforts of Ha and Evrim to see if the octopus they come to call Shapesinger, who lives in Con Son bay, is capable of creating symbols and a basic language to communicate with them. There are legends of an octopus bigger than a human coming out of the water, walking along the shore to gather food and killing people who get in its way. So there is always a careful balance to be struck between seeking friendly exchanges and unintentionally provoking a violent reaction.
A central tension is between two kinds of AI. There is the centralized AI, constantly monitoring surveillance in thousands of locations and making instant decisions about how to act or who to silence. And there is the more decentralized kind, which Ha compares to the mind of an octopus, in which the local units have a lot of independence and are in dialogue with a central intelligence but can operate completely on their own as well.
But The Mountain in the Sea goes far beyond simple dualisms to consider compelling issues about how humans confront their lives, the role of memory and forgetting, the struggle to use language, the effort it takes to grasp the confines of one’s own life and its interdependence with the beauty and violence of the world we live in. It’s a wonderfully thought-provoking book told through characters whose inner strengths gradually reveal themselves. I found many of them unforgettable. This is a story I keep rereading to discover more of its riches.