Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. 

The Mountain in the SeaDIANIMA, a tech giant invested in artificial intelligence, has bought the Con Dao archipelago off the coast of Thailand, evacuating its residents and sealing it off from the outside world. The locals had always said it was haunted, and that a monster lurks in the sea. Marine biologist Dr. Ha Nguyen has been offered the chance to study the intelligent octopuses that have made the archipelago their home, but what are DIANIMA really up to?

The octopus who has lived to adulthood in the dangers of the sea will be an Odysseus, a man of twist and turns, a heroically clever artist of battle and escape.

Much of the story is about language, its evolution and how we can start communicating with a species so alien to ourselves, very much like the concept behind Arrival. Ha’s hypothesises about the evolution and consciousness of octopuses is seen throughout the text in excerpts of her book. Can a solitary species with such a short lifespan ever be capable of culture?

I loved the contrast of the organic consciousness of the octopus and the man-made artificial intelligence. It makes the point that we don’t even understand human minds, so how can we hope to faithfully recreate one. But another intelligence does not have to be human, and the octopus is certainly an interesting species to speculate on.

The limbs of an octopus have a degree of autonomy from the brain, and this is reflected in some of the AI systems that are present in the book. Altantsetseg is the security officer on the island, and she interfaces with drones in a manner that is compared to the limbs of an octopus.

Evrim is the world’s only fully sentient AI, his creation causing a worldwide ban on the technology. He wrestles with his own consciousness, is his mind human? Or is her just a very clever piece of programming. One thing that separates him from humans is his inability to forget, nor does he sleep.

We invent things blindly. We invent whatever we are capable of inventing. There are millions of us, determined to invent the next thing – whole industries devoted to bringing new technology into the world, without any thought given to these secondary effects that cannot even be imagined.

Meanwhile on a fishing ship, Eiko is one of many slaves, snatched from the streets and put to work at sea. Once fully automated, the slave ships have a single AI designed to maximise profit. It was cheaper to steal labour than to maintain the high tech machinery they used to run on. This portion of the story not only highlights the exploitation of the seas, that perhaps has pushed the octopus further in its evolution to survive us, but also serves as a contrast to Evrim. Not all AI are created equal.

Eiko also builds a mind palace, to help him remember. He carefully stores the names of other slaves and little pieces of his life before. He had been intending to work for DIANIMA, but now he is nobody, a pair of hands to gut fish.

This world didn’t exist. It was a story in the news. A story I clicked past without reading. Auto-trawlers crewed by slave crews. Another world, a degraded shadow of our own. How was I to know there was a hole in the manhole? That I could fall right through that story in the news, and end up on the other side, on a planet I don’t even recognize? And become a person I don’t recognize?

The science and philosophy is wrapped in a sort of eco-thriller plot. DIANIMA is suspicious in the way all Big Tech is, and away from the islands, a mysterious someone is trying to hack into an unknown AI. I did find the characters sometimes lapsed into monologues, and a lot of the information is relayed in dialogue in general. Overall it was a thought-provoking exploration of the mind and what it means to be conscious.

The Mountain in the Sea is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson and is available now in hardback, ebook and audiobook editions. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review.

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