Ray Nayler’s new science fiction novel The Mountain in the Sea is a dazzling exploration of the prospects for nonhuman sentience, and of the difficulties we would have in understanding it and relating to it. The main premise (or science-fictional novum) of the book is that a species of octopus has attained a human level of intelligence and consciousness. The octopuses have a language (expressed in varying chromatophore patterns running across their bodies); and together with this basic linguistic ability comes a social structure, a culture with practices preserved across generations, an ability to fix linguistic statements in material media (i.e. forms of writing and what seems to be artistic and/or religious expression), and an ability for both individuals and groups to form and carry out projects over extended periods of time. All of these other abilities are made possible by language. The existence of sapient octopuses is not all that big an extrapolation from actuality, since octopuses are already known to be the smartest invertebrates, with an intelligence level seemingly equal to that of many mammals and birds; and octopuses already use their ability to change color for purposes of simple communication, as well as for camouflage.
This involves issues of both ontology and epistemology. An octopus will experience the world in a vastly different way from how a human being does. “What is it like to be an octopus?” is a much more difficult question than Thomas Nagel’s “what is it like to be a bat?” Octopuses live in the water, rather than on land in an atmosphere; due to their water environment they do not experience the pull of gravity in the same way that we do; they have flexible bodies, without the backbone and skeleton of human beings and other vertebrates; both human beings and octopuses have strong senses of sight, but the other sensory modalities are quite different; octopuses do not have their neural networks centered in their heads in the way human beings and other vertebrates do, but rather their ‘brain’ is decentered, stretched through their entire bodies, with significant concentrations of neurons in their eight arms. For all these reasons, octopuses do not think the way human beings do, and would not have a language easily translatable into human terms. Nayler’s octopuses are aliens, in science fictional terms; we would be wrong to assume either that they lack our mental complexity, or that such complexity can be mapped out in terms of human understanding. The novel shows how difficult understanding an alien intelligence can be. It is a matter of embodiment and emotion, as well as of ideas and “conceptual schemes.” Human beings will not be able to understand such a different sort of intelligence by mere objective scientific observation alone.
The Mountain in the Sea is about the wondrousness of discovering (and potentially contacting) another sentient species, but it is also about the difficulties involved in such a discovery. The novel’s protagonist, Dr. Ha Nguyen, is a scientist specializing in cephalopod intelligence. She comes to a small archipelago off the coast of Vietnam, in whose waters the sapient octopus colony has been found. The archipelago is an oceanic wildlife preserve; all the human inhabitants have been relocated elsewhere, and fishing vessels are not allowed to come near. Ha’s only companions on the islands are Altantsetseg, an ex-military woman in charge of security, and Evrim (pronouns they/them), a genderless android who is the world’s only AI with fully human-level (or higher) intelligence. There is also a Buddhist monastery on the main island, inhabited by robot monks. Over the course of the novel, Dr. Ha attempts to establish contact with the octopuses; she doesn’t want to just decipher their language and map the structure of their society, but most importantly to communicate with them. Indeed, the novel strongly makes the point that understanding, without communication and empathy, is impossible.
The novel is not just about scientific research, however, because such research is never independent from the rest of the world. The archipelago is maintained as a nature reserve by the corporation that owns it, DIANIMA, a multinational primarily involved in the manufacture and improvement of artificial intelligence. Dr. Ha rightly worries that DIANIMA has less than benevolent motives; it wants to study this new form of intelligence in order to profit from it, by transferring its lessons to AI design and construction. For now, the octopuses are under the corporation’s protection; but Dr. Ha worries that at some point DIANIMA will want to vivisect them in order to understand the neural basis of their cognition. For that matter, Evrim is an entirely unique entity, confined exclusively to the archipelago, because their sheer existence has resulted in laws against making any more AIs with a humanlike or human-exceeding degree of cognitive power. Neither the corporation that manufactured Evrim, nor the authorities and populations that fear them, is able to grasp that Evrim themself is an embodied entity with emotions and desires, just as human beings, sapient octopuses, and indeed all other living entities are.
In exploring all these entanglements, the novel considers multiple forms and degrees of sentience and intelligence. Evrim speaks English, but Dr. Ha still must concern herself with their otherness as well as with that of the octopuses. Other, subsidiary plot stands bring in additional complications. DIANIMA also sells other sorts of artificial minds (both embodied and not) with varying capacities. One of their products is virtual companions, known as “point fives” (or halfs), who are tailored to the needs of the particular people who purchase them. You get a sort of friend or partner, who you can make visible whenever you want via 3D projection, who looks and sounds human, and who is smart enough that you can confide in them and discuss problems with them. It’s just like having an intimate partner, except that they never have demands and desires that contradict, or exist independently of, yours. Then there are economically motivated AI systems, that again can understand spoken language, and that run things like factories and fishing ships. One subsidiary thread of the novel concerns Eiko, who has been kidnapped by human traffickers and set to work as a slave on an AI-controlled fishing vessel. Even if you successfully rebel against your human oppressors, you may well still be stuck under the control of such an AI. Another thread of the novel concerns Rustem, a hacker who is skilled at breaking into AI systems; he is hired by mysterious forces who want to hack into and take over Evrim. His work is premised on the idea that AI systems, no matter how organized, intelligent, and advanced, are always programmed with “portals” or backdoors that allow them to be taken over and controlled — any sense of freedom is just an illusion.
The Mountain in the Sea does not answer all the dilemmas that it poses; it is all about probing the questions it asks as fully as possible, and also about the limits of our ability both to understand and to act. It is also about the extent and the limits of empathy, and how it can survive against the background of a human society still dominated by greed and by severe power imbalances. Have human beings ever encounter a different society that they did not destroy, or at least subsume? If Europeans have done this to other human ethnic groups, the what can we expect in the case of an encounter with an intelligence, and a collective society, that is not human at all? All the narrative strands are woven together, and the novel reaches a point of narrative culmination and conclusion — if not an intellectual conclusion to complex issues that it works hard to keep open. The novel is quite lucid, and at the same time beautiful and strange. It demonstrates the point that I first learned from Seo-Young Chu’s important book Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep?: that the “cognitive estrangement” central to science fiction is a matter of content, rather than one of form. The Mountain in the Sea is emotionally compelling, but its ideas continue to reverberate in your mind after you have finished reading it.