- Publisher: MCDONNELL DOUGLAS
- Publication date: 10/04/2022
- Pages: 464
- ISBN: 9780374605957
- Author: Ray Nayler
The Mountain In The Sea by Ray Nayler is a ‘first contact’ story, but not in the way you might imagine. On the surface, it is a story of coming into contact with an alien intelligence, but that intelligence is not from another planet, but from our own oceans. A species of octopus has evolved to have apparently human levels of intelligence. They have formed a society and are at least beginning to use and make tools. An ocean researcher and perhaps the first truly conscious AI (in a humanoid form) are sent to an isolated island to find evidence of the octopus society, and perhaps try to find a way to communicate with them. There are several concurrent story lines in the book. Some of them seem to come a long way to add just a little to the main story line. They are interesting in and of themselves, and add to the overall world building of the novel, but don’t always add a lot to the central story.
Octopuses are fascinating animals and they make for a fascinating ‘first encounter’ species. I was worried early on in the story when there was a human/octopus encounter on land. I found the specifics of the encounter required a lot of suspension of disbelief. In fact, whenever the octopuses were on land, their abilities often seemed farfetched to me. Having said that, I really liked this book and luckily most of the interactions with the octopuses were in the water, and it was much easier to believe the action there.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this book is the exploration of what is consciousness and is it a ‘human’ thing, and how would it manifest differently in something with a human (or better) level of intelligence, but with a very different physiology? The exploration and thought exercises of an entity whose intelligence is not limited completely to a central brain, but includes neurology throughout the entire body and limbs. Also, to a lesser extent, the differences between a human and an android with an artificial, nearly human, mind. What would be similar and what would be different? And what about non-conscious ‘intelligence’? There are AI entities in this universe that are not truly conscious but follow their own internal rules.
Nayler does not answer all of these questions, but he does a good job at suggesting some of the multitude of possible intelligences that could exist. He largely leaves to the reader to think about how those really may manifest in a real world or in a real mind. Simple rule following AI, and what the consequences of those basic rules (profit?) could lead to. Humanoid AI with structures of actual human minds, but without the true self consciousness. An apparently conscious android. A human interacting with an AI that extends their physical and mental form. An intelligent octopus. He covers all of these and suggests some others.
You can read this book as a standard sci fi thriller and, while a little flawed, it works pretty well at that. I found the real value was in how it made me think about thinking and thinking about different kinds of thought. There is a huge amount of value in that.