November 11, 2022

Review: The Mountain in the Sea

The Mountain in the Sea The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first challenge of writing "hard" science fiction is of course getting the science right. The second is turning out a story instead of an academic lecture, complete with characters and stakes. I've never read Isaac Asimov, but his characters are famously paper-thin and his ideas carry the day. This book is stuffed full of big ideas--cephalopod intelligence, android intelligence, the definition of consciousness, culture and language, and more.

But for all the top-heaviness of the ideas and the philosophical discussions, it doesn't fall short as an actual story. To be sure, it's a bit slower than some might like, as there are places where the science and ideas take center stage. That's why it's good that there are two side storylines adjacent to the main storyline, as those side storylines are where the action is. All three stories and characters are neatly woven together at the climax. Some of the blurbs for this book call it a "thriller," and while I'm sure that was a good marketing tool, it's not really a thriller, at least in my estimation. It is, however, a very good look at a possible near future where humanity makes its first contact with an alien intelligence that's been right here with us, in the depths of the sea, all this time.

Octopuses are, from what I've read, one of the prime contenders for the next sentience to evolve on our planet. But there are big obstacles to their doing so, and this book discusses them in detail. This long excerpt sums it up:

"Look," Ha continued, "there are limitations that would keep them from ever being able to form a conscious, communicative life or a culture."

"Life span," Evrim interjected.

"Life span is one, yes. Not the only one, but one of the largest. They only live two years, in the larger species, and far less time than that in smaller species. Some live only a season. Down in the deeper parts of the ocean, there are octopuses who live longer--ten years or more. But those are cold-water creatures. They wouldn't be among the most intelligent octopuses: In the deep their lives are simpler--they are creatures of routine. Everything is slowed down. The smart octopuses would be the ones nearer shore, in environments that provide them with diverse challenges, problems to solve."

"Okay, but if they could overcome life span--what else would stand in the way?"

"A hell of a lot. Their mating patterns, for one. The males turn senescent and wander after mating until they die. The females starve themselves to death tending their eggs. And even if the parents survive, once the eggs hatch, the young of most species float to the surface and drift in the plankton before settling to the bottom at another location. That kills any connection to place or kin. There are species that live on the bottom in juvenile form--but it doesn't much matter, if their parents are dead soon after they hatch. There's no way to pass on learned experience. No culture to be born into. And since they are solitary, there's no group knowledge either--so there is no way for them to pass any knowledge from one generation to another, and virtually no passing of knowledge from one octopus to another in the same generation. Imagine where we would be if humanity had to restart its cultural progress with every generation. As intelligent as they are, each individual octopus is a blank slate. The only thing passed down to them by their parents to help them survive is their physical form, and the instincts written into their genes. Everything else they have to learn on their own, wandering the ocean floor."

But in this book, there is a group of octopuses that has overcome those obstacles, and this story is about their discovery and the efforts of the main character Ha Nguyen to communicate with and understand them. It's also the story of Ha and her companion, the android Evrim, to preserve them and keep them free from harm, protecting them against the corporations wanting to exploit them.

In this near-future (no dates are given, but it's several decades from now, at least), the oceans have been overfished to near extinction, and artificial intelligence has progressed to the point where self-driving cars, self-flying airplanes and helicopters, and self-propelled ships are commonplace (indeed, one of the previously mentioned side storylines takes place aboard the Sea Wolf, an AI-controlled illegal fishing boat). Another of the main characters, Evrim, is the world's first artificial intelligence/android proven to be conscious and self-aware, and humanity's panicked reaction to that results in its being banished to the Con Dao Archipelago, where the octopuses are discovered. The archipelago is owned by the tech corporation Dianima, the same company that created Evrim. These two things are not coincidental, and this plays out throughout the story.

As you can probably tell, this is a dense, layered book, and not a light read by any means. I found it fascinating, and the characters are well-drawn enough to keep the attention of those who might tend to be bogged down by the science. But make no mistake, the science and philosophical ideas found here are the focus of the story. If you want a fast-paced book full of action, there's no use even starting this. But if you want an absorbing story of alien intelligence (the octopuses presented here are far more alien and potentially deadly than anything moviemakers can dream up) and the human reaction to revelations that will shake the foundations of our world, then pick this up.

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