The Mountain in the Sea is Ray Nayler’s debut novel. What a debut! This is my favorite kind of science fiction—the kind that explores ideas. In this case, the idea is that of consciousness and sentience. While most science fiction novels exploring those ideas involve find extraterrestrial intelligence, in this book the new sentient consciousness is very terrestrial. And the science in the novel follows actual science very closely, another big plus for me.
There are three main threads in the book. One follows a hacker trying to break into an artificial mind. Another follows a young man who went seeking his fortune and finds himself a slave on an AI-controlled ship that is over-fishing the oceans. And the last is the main thread where a scientist is exploring a group of octopuses that seem to show signs of culture. All three of these stories come together in one heck of a ride.
Wrapped in what is essentially a thriller, is a smart exploration of what it means to be conscious. When does an AI achieve self-awareness? How would you tell the difference between simulated consciousness and the real thing? If another earthly species is conscious, how will that consciousness differ from humans’? And given that difference, how will we communicate with them? All of these questions are addressed in this book.
It might just be that I am a language nerd (I studied three languages and linguistics in school), but the author explores all of these questions naturally in the course of the story. I never felt like there was a bunch of unnecessary scientific exposition. It just unfolds naturally as part of the storytelling. And the characters are flawed and realistic, even the AI android. I can’t recommend this book strongly enough. It is one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years.
My rating: 5/5