review of Ray Nayler’s novel The Mountain in the Sea

Only those incapable of empathy are truly caged.

Confession: I was hoping for a lot more octopus.

Don’t get me wrong, the story did teach me some things about octopuses—they have an RNA editing mechanism; they’re normally solitary but “Octopolis” and “Octlantis” exist. It has an interesting discussion of the factors that would make octopuses unlikely to evolve a sophisticated culture—which, the book suggests, is what we’re actually talking about when we dream of finding other intelligent life:

Many animals are self-aware, to one degree or another. But culture, not consciousness, is what we are searching for. Not other minds, or other selves—which are everywhere—but other societies.

Alas, the novel never explores its octopus society in detail. (Though I did enjoy the very creepy moment when the protagonist realizes just how skilled at mimicry the octopuses are, and is suddenly convinced they are “already everywhere, and we never see it”.)

It feels more like a book about AI—which it does have some interesting thoughts on. I liked the notion of a neural network hacker who comes to understand his targets so well that he to some extent knows what it’s like to be them (he refers to Nagel’s bat essay). The idea of a therapist prescribing an artificial friend (a “point-five”) is fascinating too. And the AI-controlled fishing ship crewed by slaves is terrifying; it’s a distressingly plausible vision of a future where AI simply cements existing injustices more firmly into place.