One of the great things about science fiction is the way in which the genre is a terrific tool for interrogating our current society, attitudes and relationships with the rest of our environments. The Mountain in the Sea is American author Ray Nayler’s debut novel, but he has a strong track record of short stories in the genre, and this book comes with blurbs by titans in the field such as David Mitchell and Jeff VanderMeer. The book is set in a more advanced near future, in a remote Vietnamese archipelago, where Dr Ha Nguyen is investigating the possibility of a highly intelligent and possibly dangerous octopus species. The whole archipelago is owned by an international tech company, who might well be looking to exploit any findings Nguyen makes.
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As the research continues, it’s clear that Nguyen is dealing with something extraordinary, a different kind of consciousness altogether, and this allows Ray Nayler to dig deep on what makes us human, how we interact with the creatures we share the planet with, and whether we can ever really know what it’s like to be someone or something else.
This is a refreshing and nuanced approach to the idea of alien first contact – what if the ‘alien’ species were already here on earth? How much are humans locked into a narrow and restricted experience? How can we better understand the world around us? The author spent years working on environmental conservation projects in Vietnam, and uses that experience to paint a vivid and convincing backdrop, and as the action ramps up in the final act, the story turns into an action thriller with profound consequences. Groundbreaking stuff.
Doug Johnstone is an author and journalist
The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler is out now (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.