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Book Review | The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler

From the publisher: Humankind discovers intelligent life in an octopus species with its own language and culture, and sets off a high-stakes global competition to dominate the future.

The Mountain in the Sea is a slow-moving, melancholy dystopian sci-fi novel mostly about humans and somewhat about octopuses. It’s set in the near future, after a big war. Technology of many kinds is everywhere. Humans have all but used up the planet. How do we react when we realize there is an octopus species with an intelligence that rivals our own? Spoiler hint: not well.

This is a very smart and complex book. It made me think. It did move a little slower than I would have liked. Each chapter opens with a quotation from one of the characters, and I mostly found them not very interesting or necessary to the narrative. The story spotlights only a few characters, including two scientists, an artificial being, a war-scarred veteran, a slave, and a hacker. Their stories feel very personal, as they all try to find their way in a very messed up world. An environmental struggle of epic proportions is taking place.

I wondered about the title but some Googling steered me in the right direction I think. I believe it’s a reference to the poem Song of the Whale by Kit Wright. (Go look it up, it’s very sad.) This quotation does a good job of summing up one of the key themes of the book:

“Someone needs to make us pay the price for what we have done. Someone needs to take this planet away from us before we destroy it once and for all. And if the robots don’t rise up, if our creations don’t come to life and take the power we have used so badly for so long away from us, who will? What we fear isn’t that AI will destroy us – we fear it won’t. We fear we will continue to degrade life on this planet until we destroy ourselves. And we will have no one to blame for what we have done but ourselves.” (chapter 31 of the advance reader copy)

This novel reminded me a lot of the movie Arrival (which I loved). I wish there had been more about the octopuses though. If The Mountain in the Sea is made into a movie, maybe we’ll get more about the octopuses. I read an advance reader copy of The Mountain in the Sea from Netgalley.

The Mountain in the Sea is scheduled to be published in early October 2022, and the Galesburg Public Library will own it in print and digital.

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