Ray Nayler, The Mountain in the Sea, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2022.
The Mountain in the Sea is a fascinating short scifi novel that'll particularly enchant those of you who like first encounters and semiotics.
On the coast of Vietnam, the island of Con Dao has become a refuge for wildlife since it's been bought by a tech corporation, Dianima. Ha, a marine biologist, is hired by Dianima to study a unique species of octopus native to Con Dao. Her partners are Evrim, the first and only sentient android ever created, and Alantsetseg, a mercenary in charge of defending their mission, with violence if needs be. The three of them are isolated on the island, but are they really alone?
Ha is an interesting character. A lonely woman, her drive forward is relentless, but she remains a character you can empathise with thanks to a very close thrid person that gives us glimpses into her past and her hopes. What makes her also incredibly human is how she tries to make a connection, not only with Evrim and Alantsetseg, but also with the elusive octopus.
But it was Alantsetseg who was my favourite character. I've loved her humour, how she makes no excuse about who she is - a competent warrior - and also how she uses her translation tools to sever communication or to make a connection too, how the tool reflects her moods much more than anything else.
Weaving in and out of the main story, we also follow Rutsem, a hacker, and Eiko, a man taken into slavery on a fishing boat, and their stories will intersect with the main plot.
The Mountain in the Sea won't be for everyone. The characters have a tendency to monologue, and the trick is repeated a fair few times so it could put off anyone who doesn't enjoy that. It also makes no excuse that it's about biosemiotics and although it's very accessible, including to people who are a bit hazy about what semiotics is. If your idea of fun isn't discovering how language and culture arise, then the book might become tedious very fast. If, on the other hand, you enjoy semiotics, you'll be delighted to know that it builds wonderfully on Charles Peirce's theories (more than Saussure's) wonderfully and it even has a kind of bibliography in the acknowledgements to know more about biosemiotics specifically (cue to nerdy squees). Nonetheless, the novel could also be described as a techno thriller, so I guess there's a balance in there and a little bit of everything for everyone.
One aspect I particularly enjoyed was how Nayler dehumanised his human characters, one way or the other: Eiko, as a slave, is considered no more than a machine; Alantsetseg finds her place in the world through her drones and her translation devices. By comparison, Evrim and the octopus are presented as much more alive, and often much more human than the humans themselves.
The octopus' plot is very well done. It includes a lot of tension, the reveals come at a very reasonable pace, and, above all, the communication and culture are described in a very realistic and believable way. It's a grim world that Nayler paints but through this attempt at first contact, glimpses of hope can be seen.
A couple of irrelevant details threw me off while reading, but The Mountain in the Sea is otherwise an engrossing story about humanity and communication, about sentience and justice. Gautam Bhatia described it to me as Darmok but geekier, and it encapsulates Nayler's novel perfectly.
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All reviews are spoiler free unless explicitly stated otherwise.
I only review stories I have liked even if my opinion may be nuanced. It doesn't apply for the "Novels published before 1978" series of blog posts.
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