The Mountain in the Sea – Ray Nayler

“The great and terrible thing about humankind is simply this: we will always do what we are capable of.”

Ha has been waiting her entire life for this opportunity. She’s secured a research position with DIANIMA, pioneers in the field of artificial intelligence, to study the octopuses of Con Dao.

There had been tales for generations of the monster. Maybe for as long as people had lived on the archipelago. Myths to scare children: shadows and drownings, shapes seen on the shore. But now everyone came to believe the stories.

If a story can make me suspend my disbelief, then it’s usually a winner. That was my hope going into this read. This book didn’t do that. What it did was take my initial fascination and turn it into a belief so solid that I wouldn’t be surprised if findings similar to Ha’s are published in a scientific journal in the not too distant future.

While this is a book of fiction, it quickly became clear how much research went into its creation. The author takes what it currently known about consciousness and communication and extrapolates, coming up with a series of outcomes that had me thinking in terms of when, not if. I was anticipating this book would be an entertaining read. I wasn’t expecting it to be so thought provoking or for its conclusions to feel so plausible.

I was invested in the characters. I initially chuckled at the way some of security specialist Altantsetseg’s words were translated, until I understood the why. Then I sought to learn more about their past. I loved Ha’s inquiring mind and sensitive approach to her work.

But this book asks the question: What if? What if a species of octopus emerged that attained longevity, intergenerational exchange, sociality? What if, unknown to us, a species already has? Then what?

I enjoyed anticipating how Rustem and Eiko’s stories would intersect with those of the characters I met on Con Dao. I decided early on that I didn’t trust Dr Arnkatla Mínervudóttir-Chan but wondered if she’d prove me wrong. The depth of Evrim’s humanity made them my favourite character. Shapesinger made me want to read every book the author mentioned in their acknowledgments.

Even though I don’t have a scientific background, I had no trouble understanding the concepts that were explored in this book. It made me think about consciousness, communication and connection in ways I haven’t previously. It hooked me early on and I’m still thinking about it days after finishing it. This is undoubtedly going to be one of my favourite reads of the year.

“And when the time comes, do what is right.”

Content warnings include death by suicide and slavery. Readers with emetophobia may have trouble with some scenes.

Thank you so much to Hachette Australia for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

There’s something in the water of Con Dao. 
To the locals, a monster. 
To the corporate owners of the island, an opportunity.  
To the team of three sent to study and protect, a revelation. 

Their minds are unlike ours. 
Their bodies are malleable, transformable, shifting. 
They can communicate. 
And they want us to leave.

When pioneering marine biologist Dr. Ha Nguyen is offered the chance to travel to the remote Con Dao Archipelago to investigate a highly intelligent, dangerous octopus species, she doesn’t pause long enough to look at the fine print.

DIANIMA – a transnational tech corporation best known for its groundbreaking work in artificial intelligence – has purchased the islands, evacuated their population and sealed the archipelago off from the world so that Nguyen can focus on her research.

But the stakes are high: the octopuses hold the key to unprecedented breakthroughs in extrahuman intelligence and there are vast fortunes to be made by whoever can take advantage of their advancements. And as Dr. Nguyen struggles to communicate with the newly discovered species, forces larger than DIANIMA close in to seize the octopuses for themselves.

But no one has yet asked the octopuses what they think. And what they might do about it.

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