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The Mountain in the Sea
by Ray Nayler

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted December 26, 2023

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An impressive debut novel, which combines environmental issues, both climate and endangered species, with revamped political and corporate structures around the world, and plenty of high tech, some of which verges towards cyberpunk. Most of the action takes place in the Con Dao Archipelago of Vietnam, which had been evacuated after the DIANIMA corporation took control. It is possible that acronym was explained, but if so I missed it, and didn't go back to check. DIANIMA had expanded to many other money-making ventures, but its initial purpose was creating artificial minds. The founder of the company, Dr. Arnkatla Mínervudóttir-Chan, isn't even aware of the full extent of the corporation, since she limits her activities to her own work, mapping the connectome of the human brain (and other species). Each chapter begins with an epigraph, an excerpt from a book. Several are from Mínervudóttir-Chan's Building Minds, but the majority are from How Oceans Think by Dr. Ha Nguyen, who has been brought to Con Dao to study local marine life, one species in particular.

There are only two others associated with the research facility; security officer Altantsetseg, and Evrim, one of Dr. Mínervudóttir-Chan's constructs. Inexplicably, a contingent of robotic monks from the Buddhist Republic of Tibet are allowed to remain in their temple. Ha is there to study the octopus, which corresponds with her previous work with various other cephalapods. It had been theorized the octopuses at Con Dao had evolved a complex language, and folktales also said they could walk on the beaches, and wield tools (weapons?). Other story elements include corporate rivals, an ingenious hacker tasked with breaking into Evrim's mind, and slave workers kidnapped to work on AI controlled fishing vessels. One of those slaves had wanted to work for DIANIMA before he was abducted; another was a native of Con Dao, driven from his home when DIANIMA took control of the islands. There is another mysterious person, never identified, but I assumed they were an agent of the Buddhist Republic. They interrogated various people to get more information on what was happening on Con Dao. Their identity was concealed behind an abglanz screen, an electronic cloaking device.

A lot of interesting insights into the nature of consciousness, and on cybernetics, as well as environmental issues. The author is surely a diligent researcher, but he also has experience in several of the fields addressed in the book. First, he has lived in many different places around the world, including Vietnam, where he was Environment, Science, Technology, and Health Officer at the U.S. consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. He also served as the international advisor to the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He speaks at least six languages. The Mountain in the Sea won a Locus Award for Best First Novel, and was finalist for a Nebula, and the LA Times Ray Bradbury Prize. The only thing I would criticize is a too-long bit of exposition, from Evrim, late in the book, the details of which could have been spread out through other sections. Otherwise, great world-building, intriguing characters and ideas, with an evident love for humanity and all the world's inhabitants. Highly recommended.


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Ray Nayler

October 4, 2022

Winner of:
Locus, Best 1st Novel

Finalist for:
LA Times Bradbury Prize

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