Book Review: “The Mountain in the Sea” by Ray Nayler
I was attracted to Ray Nayler’s impressive The Mountain in the Sea — which goes into trade paperback at the end of May 2023 — by the fact that the work had been blurbed by two science-fiction authors whose work I greatly appreciate and admire: Jeff VanderMeer and Charlie Jane Anders. It also doesn’t hurt that the novel is a finalist for the 2022 Nebula Award (which will be handed out in mid-May) and was nominated for a Los Angeles Times Ray Bradbury Prize. There’s a lot to recommend here, but — make no bones about it — this is dense and challenging work. However, it is also not one without a sense of espionage, ensuring the book also works a bit as a thriller. At the end of the day, your enjoyment of this one might hinge on whether you like to read books that are about biology and the earth’s marine ecosystems if not language and communication. There’s so much going on with The Mountain in the Sea that — if it weren’t for the short chapters — one could easily be exhausted. This is a work of genius and of a mind that has thought long and hard about things related to speech and inter-species exchange.
Several plots are woven throughout the novel but this is essentially the story of a marine biologist named Dr. Ha Nguyen, who goes to work on an island off the coast of Vietnam, where a species of ultra-smart octopi have been discovered. It seems that these octopi can converse using a form of language through symbols, and so Nguyen’s aim is not so much to study them but to learn to communicate with them. Helping her is a security agent and an android who has been banished to the island. Well, it turns out that Nguyen and her cohorts eventually become prisoners on the island — which has been bought up by a massive tech conglomerate — but that doesn’t deter her from her mission. Other characters weave in and out of the narrative — including a hacker who is trying to tap into the android’s brain and a man who has been kidnapped and is an illegal worker on a ship run by artificial intelligence.
My thoughts on this novel might be moot because, in some respects, the logic that has gone into this work is, as they say, something that exists beyond my current pay grade. It can be confusing to read at times, and that’s not to speak of the fact that a character is introduced at the very beginning of the work that we never hear from again. However, this is a book that offers pleasurable rewards if you stick with it. The Mountain in the Sea is a novel that is about a lot of things: what it is like to be human, the malleability of memories, and the possibility that humans may be able to someday communicate well with other species unrelated to our own. However, between all the philosophizing, there is the odd smattering of an action-adventure novel at work here as characters get double-crossed and sometimes thrown into harm’s way. To me, the book works as a cross between the 2016 film Arrival and the more metaphysical moments of the classic novel Stranger in a Strange Land. Those who turn to science fiction for ideas are going to find a lot to graze on, and that’s not when machine guns are firing off in all directions toward these characters.
The enjoyment of this read will depend largely on the personal preferences of the reader. I prefer my SF to be “lighter” or more magic realists — with the science part of the science fiction being unexplained — and there are some “hard” ideas scattered throughout the book. You must be prepared for some conversational info-dumping about the nature of language and symbolism as it relates to reaching out to animals who vastly differ from our species. The book may be best read as a physical copy as there are some faint symbols used in the book that may not replicate well on a Kindle or tablet device. (I read a PDF copy of this work on my laptop.) Still, even though this book contained logic that might be best suited for those holding higher degrees than my Bachelor of Journalism, I can appreciate what The Mountain in the Sea is trying to do: give the reader an appreciation of nature and biology and force people to realize that we may not be at the top of the food chain when it comes to things such as consciousness and intelligence. This is a book that allows the reader to speculate and wonder what communication with other mammals might be like. Thus, if you’re a fan of quality science fiction, you might come to appreciate the work that has gone into the world-building and makeup of The Mountain in the Sea. I can see why people have rushed to laud this book, and it certainly has earned the right to be nominated for some major genre awards. Whether or not this book walks away with a Nebula later this month doesn’t matter. While not a perfect book — and does such a creature exist in the first place? — this is an intriguing speculative piece of “what if’s” that will have fans of hard SF clamouring for more books from this debut author. The Mountain in the Sea is a novel best meant for fans of VanderMeer for sure and anyone interested in the intersection of marine biology and linguistics. This is worth checking out, especially if you’re interested in the subject matter at hand.
Ray Nayler’s The Mountain in the Sea will be published by Picador on May 30, 2023.
Of course, if you like what you see, please recommend this piece (click on the clapping hands icon below) and share it with your followers.
Get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org