In the not-so-distant future, oceans are reeling from effects of climate change, pollution, and overfishing. Yet, in one of the few remaining marine sanctuaries, scientists make an astonishing discovery: a species of octopus that is sentient, has a culture, and can communicate. But can the scientists figure out what they’re saying? Can two species that couldn’t be more different in terms of biology, brain physiology, and environment actually bridge the linguistic chasm?
That is the fascinating plot of Ray Nayler’s The Mountain In the Sea. Secondary story lines also explore the viability of artificial intelligence as a stepping point for extrahuman intelligence, what it means to be sentient, and more specifically, what it means to be human, particularly in situations where humanity demonstrates its worst characteristics.
An amazingly researched book, the science and logic painstakingly step the reader along to understand the complexities in forming a common reference framework for two completely alien species to begin to communicate. From that perspective, the amount of effort that must have gone into the research is inspiring.
However, at 450 pages, the prose is a bit of a slog to get through. The pacing is slow and methodical, which feels appropriate for the hard science, but other passages and ideas are often repeated nearly word-for-word. Large sections of backstory and science are presented, including a few “backstory via dialogue” interchanges. Even scenes of high action felt ponderous. And of the three distinct storylines, one feels like the main plot, a second is only tangentially connected, and the third is barely related at all.
At points, the literary qualities of the work shine through in vivid descriptions and thought-provoking analysis. But 50-100 pages could have been removed and the story greatly streamlined without impacting the philosophical gravity of the book.
The Mountain In the Sea is a Nebula Award finalist of 2023, and many reviewers herald the blending of literary and speculative fiction. I recommend it if you prefer philosophical debates of science over compelling character-driven stories. The book is good, but it is not for everyone.