The Mountain in the Sea ~ by Roy Nayler

This is the debut novel of Ray Naylor whose prize winning short stories have been regularly published in both magazines and anthologies for many years.   I’m so glad I discovered him and hope to see more thoughtful and imaginative work by him.  

The Mountain in the Sea
By Ray Nayler 
2022 – 
Read by Eunice Wong – 11h 5m
Rating:  A+ / science fiction  
(Both read and listened)

From the book (See? this is not the stuff of space opera). 
 “I was a nautical engineer, before all of this. This—” He gestured around them, to the darkened, sweat-stinking barracks lurching in the storm. “This world didn’t exist. It was a story in the news. A story I clicked past without reading. Autotrawlers crewed by slave crews. Another world, a degraded shadow of our own. How was I to know there was a hole in the world that I could fall through, like falling through an open manhole? That I could fall right through that story in the news, and end up on the other side, on a planet I don’t even recognize? And become a person I don’t recognize.”
P. 280

“What does it mean to be a self? I think, more than anything else, it means the ability to select between different possible outcomes in order to direct oneself toward a desired outcome: to be future-oriented. When every day is the same, when we are not presented with the necessity to choose between different possibilities, we say we don’t “feel alive”—and here I think we guess at what being alive actually is. It is the ability to choose. We live in choices” 
 p. 285 


In the not-too-distant future the earth Ha Nguyen, a marine biologist specializing in octopuses, is sent to do some research and help out at an environmental refuge near the island of Con Dao, just off the coast of Vietnam. There were strange happenings there and a corporation called DIANIMA bought the island and animal refuge, evicted the residents and is now trying to harvest whatever is left via AI manned and controlled fishing vessels.  But as I said, strange things are happening and they’re not cute, like there are the mysterious attacks with dead bodies left on the beach. And there are shadowy shapes floating around.

Ha is to meet Evrim (male/female name which means evolution) who appears to be human, but is neither male nor female and it’s only “their” consciousness which is in question. All the Turing tests have been passed.  Evrim is a product of a research overseen by Dr. Arnkatla Mínervudóttir-Chan, who visits to see how her project is doing (actually Evrim has been relocated to this island permanently because the powers-that-be are nervous.)  

 Ha has agreed to study a rumored and hidden octopus colony for signs of conscious behavior or communication skills. Evrim is to help her in this endeavor as is Altantsetseg, a Mongolian war veteran who is to defend the island and the octopuses, but her tactics can be repugnant to Ha.  There are also three guys named Rustem, Eiko and Son who each have reasons for being there. And the “auto-monks” who provide an apparently spiritual presence are wonderful.   

The themes are inter-species communications, what constitutes “human” behavior (lots of things), and the ravaging of the planet by humans who seem to do it because they can.  

Naylor does an excellent job of defamiliarizing the setting and building a world so the reader is tossed pretty much right into the action. The characters are very nicely individualized and the story alternates between the points of view of two or three of them. (I loved Altantsetseg.) The writing is smooth and to the point with dialogue being a strength. And Nayler keeps the attention high by using unusual words to underscore that this is not a novel of everyday sensibilities. The words are not Biblical or techie stuff but just unusual ones like “bolus” as an descriptor noun for a coconut macaroon – “a small rounded mass of a substance, especially of chewed food at the moment of swallowing.” Or another odd word is “dugong” which is a species of sea-cow.

 This book is advertised as a thriller and I won’t argue, but there are many slower and more thoughtful parts where the themes are intelligently developed.  At the beginning of each chapter there’s an epigraph taken from the (fictitious) books of Dr Ha Nguyen and Dr. Arnkatla Mínervudóttir-Chan.

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2 Responses to The Mountain in the Sea ~ by Roy Nayler

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    What an imagination!
    And the cover — just perfect.


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