Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Review: The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler

An extended philosophical dialogue against human supremacy

Ray Nayler's debut novel The Mountain in the Sea employs the techniques and tropes of multiple genres to explore one overarching question. It has corporate espionage, but it's not a spy novel; it has drone warfare, but it's not a military novel; it has killer AIs, but it's not an AI novel. The unifying theme is instead the need to identify the logical flaws in anthropocentrism and in the notion of individual responsibility. What the main characters achieve, more than an immediate victory, is a realization on two levels: a human being is not an island, disconnected from the web of shared responsibilities that make up a community, nor is the human species an island apart from the rest of nature. Fittingly, Nayler's choice of setting for this argument is a literal island, ultimately shown to be indissolubly linked to the events occurring everywhere else. In the world Nayler proposes, not even an island is truly an island.

The plot of the novel concerns the discovery, near the Vietnamese coast, of a species of octopus that has developed symbolic language, a material culture, toolmaking methods, a storytelling tradition, and a complex worldview with rituals and sacred spaces. By every anthropological criterion, this species has formed a society. However, anthropology proves to be of little help when faced with a society that grounds its conceptual repertoire on an environment, an embodied perception and a neural architecture that are fundamentally alien to the human experience. Here the novel reveals its core: although it has a team of experts attempting to crack the code of interspecies communication, most of the page count is dialogue about the moral implications of the research. This is not so much a "solve the puzzle" plot as a "moral illustration" one. Without ever getting didactic or preachy, The Mountain in the Sea addresses thorny questions about greed, negligence, hubris, exploitation, duty, and self-delusion.

Moreover, in keeping with the novel's anti-individualistic stance, the moral failures that set the plot in motion are never ascribed to one character or one faction. Sealife depletion is not caused by this one company's greed; it's humankind's greed. Rights violations are not allowed by this one government's negligence; it's humankind's negligence. Securing a future for all lifeforms is not this one hero's duty; it's humankind's duty. And yet, the individual characters we follow through the story aren't diluted in an all-blurring mass movement. They remain conscious of their uniqueness, but also of their connection to the whole. The novel's message is not one of annulling the individual, just one of expanding the scope of moral analysis.

To bolster this point, Nayler deploys a reoccurring motif, simultaneously a hard fact and a metaphor: the nervous system of an octopus, a distributed network with semiautonomous parts and minimal top-down control. The novel applies this same model to describe the power structure of a multinational corporation, an artificial mind, and the entire biosphere. The human neural structure, with a centralized point of command that all the limbs obey (plus all the political ramifications that result from replicating that model in a society), is the anomalous exception rather than the norm. To solve the enmity between humans and nature, the novel argues, we must shed the top-down way of thinking. We don't rule over nature, and we never did. Of course, this moral position goes directly against the traditional Western Christian anthropology that positions humankind as the pinnacle of creation. In reality, there's no such hierarchy. Whereas Christian anthropology insists that we are in this world, but not of this world, Nayler replies that that's an impossibility. You can't be in this world without instantly becoming of it. You can't form a complete concept of yourself without acknowledging your ties to everything around you.

The structure of the plot mirrors this view of interconnectedness. Three separate threads build the story while barely intersecting, three full protagonists who never meet but end up collaborating toward the goal of preventing the human depredation of the newfound octopus society. Most notably, each of these protagonists becomes a hero when they independently reason that their place as a part in a whole doesn't diminish them, but actually opens an opportunity for them to influence the course of events. You can't save the world if you're not part of it.

This underlying assumption, that a change in conduct requires first a change in perspective, is reinforced by the inclusion of a Buddhist monastery in the Vietnamese island where the researchers live. Not only does Buddhism teach that all sentient beings are equally worthy of dignity; it's a basic Buddhist doctrine that the path to liberation begins with adopting the right view about reality, and the right view according to Buddha is that the endless pursuit of satisfaction only leads to pain. In the novel, this occurs in the form of overfishing, exploitation of workers, and individual ambition. To separate oneself from the world results in a loss of empathy. You don't need to care for ocean life if you see it as just a thing for you to use. When you adopt the right view that you're just another lifeform in a web of relations, the rest of the world ceases to be just a thing.

In the moral landscape of The Mountain in the Sea, the real enemy to defeat is indifference. The biggest cause of pain, the cruelest weapon, the most destructive flaw in the human spirit is the failure to care. Once this problem is identified, the true nature of individualism is exposed: it gives us an excuse to indulge in indifference. This failure mode doesn't even need to be motivated by malice: if you see yourself as too small, too powerless, or too unimportant to change anything, indeed you won't. The type of caring that has a real effect in the world is one where you also care enough about yourself to notice all the threads of relations you can pull. That's how multiple parts acting semiautonomously can move the whole.

More than a science fiction yarn about first contact with another intelligence, The Mountain in the Sea reads like a philosophical dialogue. Characters reflect and contrast their opinions far more than they do things, and somehow, marvelously, that doesn't hurt the pacing. The novel has several moments of exciting action, and yet this is not an action thriller. This is a thought experiment where the essence of humanity is put on trial and the sentence is probation. We still haven't demonstrated that we're capable of behaving responsibly in this world, and we're running out of chances. The novel ends with things pointing toward a happy ending, but happy endings need persistent effort to be maintained. Although this story has elements of a moral fable, it doesn't offer a definitive conclusion to its argument. Protecting a still-incipient octopus society would require a constant series of responsible decisions. To put it in science fiction parlance, the world is never finally saved. And that's OK; just as there isn't a hard boundary between humans and reality, there isn't one between the dark past and the shiny future. Pretending that there's an end date to the task of caring is another form of indifference. That's why The Mountain in the Sea isn't content with finishing its argument and leaving the reader alone. This is the kind of philosophical dialogue that hopes the reader will say something in reply. It is a call to action. It is a proclamation.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10.

Bonuses: +1 for the hard rigor applied to the biology and linguistics of the octopus society, +1 for the skillful integration of the separate plots.

Penalties: −1 because many sentences in the dialogues could use a bit of trimming.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Reference: Nayler, Ray. The Mountain in the Sea [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022].