Ray Nayler: Don't be afraid of your own depth
An interview with the author of The Mountain in the Sea.
I love learning how the things I love got made. Whether it’s by listening to Song Exploder or watching Chef’s Table, peering inside other people’s processes is a useful reminder of how multifaceted human creativity really is. There is no right way to make art. There is only the right way for you to make the art you’re trying to make right now.
That’s why, every once in a while, when I fall in love with a book, I interview the author about how they wrote it. The resulting conversations have been useful landmarks on my journey into writing fiction, and it’s been a joy to hear how many of you have found them helpful in your own creative endeavors.
It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with Ray Nayler’s wonderful novel, The Mountain in the Sea. Here’s how I described it in a previous post:
The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler is a gripping near-future thinker-thriller that offers the reader one of fiction’s greatest gifts: new ways of seeing. There is so much fun to be had in these pages—secret islands, drone swarms, spiraling intrigue, rogue scientists, and more octopuses than the cover leads you to expect—and this is one of those rare stories where fun and depth not only coexist, but reenforce each other: the adventure will suck you in for its own sake and spit you out mind reeling with fresh ideas and heart expanding to find ever more empathy not just for other people, but other species.
So I was delighted when Ray agreed to discuss the book, and doubly delighted by the thoughtfulness and generosity of what he shared—he is a writer unafraid of his own depth. Yes, you’ll find out how he wrote the novel, but that’s just the beginning. You’ll also learn about interspecies communication, symbolic systems, AI’s complex implications, why questions are more powerful than answers, and how certain kinds of stories artfully refract reality to reveal hidden truth.
What is The Mountain in the Sea’s origin story? How did it grow from the first spark of an idea into the book I’m holding in my hands right now?
I spent a good deal of time in 2012 and 2013 on the Con Dao Archipelago, where the main part of the novel is set, while working on environmental projects. That place stayed with me—I knew I would probably return to it one day. I also dove the waters of Con Dao at night, which was a profound experience: I had a close encounter with a juvenile cuttlefish during a night dive which left the profound impression of an attempt at communication. Maybe that was the spark—the combination of that very evocative place and this idea of interspecies communication. It wasn’t until years later that it began to take serious form.
I was thinking of first contact novels and films and how I found them ultimately dissatisfying because I felt they did not address the hard problems of communication sufficiently. I wanted to write a book that filled that gap—that used what we know about communication, from neurology to language theory, to take a sort of “hard sf” look at what it would mean to really speak to a species capable of symbolic communication in the way humans are capable of that specific mode of information exchange. The Mountain in the Sea was the result.
There is much more than just those things in the book: initial intentions are one thing, but as the writing gains its own momentum, other ideas accrue to it and enrich it, so that in the end Mountain is probably as much about consciousness and AI and what it means to be a conscious, communicating being as it is about octopuses.
What surprised you most while researching the book? What scientific frontiers deserve more attention? What can we learn from octopuses?
Researching the book gave me an excuse to read much more deeply into biosemiotics, a field I have been particularly interested in, and to go down several other rabbit holes—especially in the studies of neurology and brain structure and what Sebastian Seung calls the connectome—the neural structure that supports thought and being. As I plunged further and further down these tunnels, what struck me the most is that we really know very little about consciousness, or thought, or any of this: the human mind is as alien to us, in many ways, as the sea floor. We have difficulty, when speaking of consciousness, in even describing it on its most basic levels. Not only do we not know how it is possible that we think and feel and are alive – we can’t even agree on the definition of “alive” or “think” or “feel.” And when it comes to things like understanding just how it is that communication works—how a weightless, non-material set of symbols can pass from one mind to another and sometimes alter the course of a whole world, but not strictly be composed of energy or matter at all—the mystery really seems impenetrable.
This really is a frontier, as you put it, that deserves more attention: life’s substrates are energetic and material, but information is key to it all, and the informational, semiotic, communicative functions of life remain poorly explored and understood. I think it is amazing that, for me to be alive and typing this today, living tissue has had to transmit, receive, and interpret a constant stream of uninterrupted information lasting 3.7 billion years. This is simply a fact, and it is so overwhelming and extraordinary that it becomes one of those things you just can’t ponder for too long. At no point between life’s starting point 3.7 billion years ago and my and your complex awareness right now has that chain of informational exchange and interpretation been interrupted. If it had been, you would not be here to think of that interruption’s consequences.
We are, all of us, the living continuations of a 3.7-billion-year-old chain of communicative events. We spend much of our lives thinking of ourselves as individuals with a beginning and an end—but we are so much more than that. We are embedded in, and embody, an ancient and dynamic system far more complex than our present understanding allows us to understand.
Automation is often imagined to involve machines doing grunt work so humans don’t have to, but your AI fishing vessel crewed by human slaves inverts this dynamic—not wholly unlike how algorithms are already shaping human behavior in a variety of arenas. How is humanity’s relationship with technology evolving? What scares you? What gives you hope?
If you asked me for a definition of what a human is, I might respond that the human is, more than anything else, a technological animal. From the moment we picked up a rock and used it to alter our interaction with our environment, we have been shaping technology—and have been shaped by it.
Paul Virilio famously said, “when you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck.” I would add to that: when you invent the ship, you invent the shipwreck, you populate the islands of the Pacific and Australia, you write The Iliad, The Odyssey, you enable colonialism to extend its reach across the Atlantic, you drive the whale nearly into extinction, you kill off the dodo and the Steller’s sea cow, you invent the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade, you turn millions of humans into sailors and create cultures around the sea and seafaring that never existed before, you invent naval warfare, Viking piracy . . . this list can go on for as long as we want it to. The point is that the consequences of technology are predictable only in the near, and at best the medium, term. In the long term, technology will do things that fundamentally alter the capabilities of humans, but also alter what it means to be human in the world, because it will alter what we can do, think, tell stories about—everything.
I’m not scared of AI or hopeful. I don’t think those words really matter: it’s like asking whether it made sense to be scared or hopeful about the printing press, or the first written alphabet. Humans continually invent things that are immediately beyond their control, and we are doing so again. The world those inventions bring about is something it is very interesting to ponder—but I think only the most arrogant of us would think it is something we can control, predict, or describe. That would be like a mastodon hunter on the Eurasian Steppe 30,000 years ago somehow managing to perfectly describe the future political structure of Caribbean pirate crews. One of our fundamental flaws is that we always seem to regard both the future and the past as being somehow more interpretable than the present moment. They aren’t! They are just as hypercomplex as this day on Earth is, and we don’t very well understand what is happening, much less what has happened or will happen.
I’m not saying that we should be helpless or passive in the face of AI and the things it is doing to us: we need better, future-oriented thinking that mitigates risks and damage to society and our personal freedoms in the short and medium term. But in the long term, there is no predicting what any of this will give rise to.
The Mountain in the Sea plays out the implications of a diverse set of big ideas in a richly imagined world. How did playing with these ideas in the novel’s philosophical sandbox allow you to explore them differently than if you wrote about them explicitly in, say, an essay?
I see fiction as an architecture for asking complex questions, not a place for providing answers. And that works well for me, as “providing answers” isn’t generally something I am interested in doing. Fiction can be a more open space for exploration than non-fiction, perhaps—though I think non-fiction can be engaging and open in its exploration of the world, and I don’t see a strict binary relationship here. I should mention that I want more than just a philosophical sandbox: I also want the book to be engaging and entertaining. Balancing all those elements is a pleasant challenge.
What does science fiction mean to you? What role does it play in our culture?
I think the term science fiction is probably one of the worst coinages in the history of literature. It was prescriptive (and proscriptive) when it was coined, is a straitjacket on creativity, and does a disservice to the works it misdescribes. Much of the best work lumped under this bad coinage has little or nothing to do with science —from Mary Shelley to H.G. Wells to Ray Bradbury to Philip K. Dick to much of what goes under the science fiction label today.
I say this as an author who takes research, science, and all of that very seriously. I say this as someone who thinks science is one of the best possible tools we have for understanding our world: this science fiction label is wrong. It is so wrong that it has led to wrong-thinking both popularly and among practitioners of the form.
One of the simplistic popular misunderstandings this bad label has engendered is that “science fiction” authors are trying to predict the future. We fundamentally are not. We are predicating, not predicting, and that one little letter makes all the difference. We are asking detailed “what-if” questions and building the results of those questions out into narrative. Some of these “what-if” questions might have to do with science and/or technology—but others largely do not. One Philip K. Dick story I love, “Roog”, has a simple predication: garbage men are really aliens, and only dogs know this, which is why they bark at them all the time: they are trying to warn us. The story is hilarious, and horrifying. But it isn’t about science and really, neither is anything else Dick wrote. Yet somehow people call Philip K. Dick a science fiction writer, and don’t think twice about it.
Kurt Vonnegut once said: “I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled ‘science fiction’ ... and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.” It’s a great quote. It’s totally insane to say Slaughterhouse Five is about science. Or that J.G. Ballard’s Crash is about science. Or that Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles is about science.
So, I call what I write “difference fiction” in my head. But whatever I want to call it, there’s no use relitigating the term science fiction. We’re stuck with this bad term and can’t get away from it—so here is the power of science fiction, as I see it: it’s a genre that is about positing a difference with the present world. It is about taking that difference—that something (Darko Suvin would call it a novum, but difference will do for me) and exploring its impact. Sometimes, that difference is scientific. Sometimes it is technological. Sometimes it is an alteration in past events, or something else. The difference can be almost anything, but the power of this poorly named genre is that the differences it allows a writer to create allow an artful refraction. They become lenses we can focus on our present moment, our past, and where we might be headed. We are simultaneously able to look at the “what-if” of the created world, and the “why this?” of our own world. Fiction that seeks (or pretends, really) to be identical with the world-as-it-is does not have that power. It has powers of its own, but it lacks that one.
Zooming out, what role does literature play in society? What draws you to writing prose fiction, and what is it uniquely capable of as an artform?
I’d get rid of the term “literature” and replace it with the term “storytelling”. I would say that the purpose of storytelling is to frame questions. Above I called fiction an architecture for this. I can expand that, and say all storytelling is an architecture for asking questions. Storytelling is also about entertainment, and entertainment has a value of its own, which should not be discounted. But remember that the word “entertain” is from the Old French entretenir, which means to hold together or support. What it holds together and supports, I think, are the audience and the questions.
What did writing The Mountain in the Sea teach you about writing? How are you different for having told this particular story?
I feel like this novel brought me a bit closer to being the writer I’d one day like to be—but I’m not sure I could articulate how. It’s all about practice, and a novel is an enormous opportunity to practice the craft of writing. That’s never a bad thing.
What did publishing it teach you about publishing? How do you balance doing the work with bringing the work to the right people in the right way?
I think one of the most important things to understand is what we do and don’t know. I don’t know anything about publishing or how it works, and so I try my best to leave it to the people who do understand it.
How do you seek to be of use to the world? What advice can you offer fellow seekers on parallel quests?
It is interesting to me that you use that phrase “to be of use”, because when cornered on what I want to do in this world, I’ll usually say exactly that: I want to be of use. By that I mean that I’d like to be a part of making a better, and not a worse, world. That’s so much harder than it might sound.
I’m not great at advice—I share Oscar Wilde’s opinion about it, for the most part—but with that caveat I’d say this: don’t be afraid of seeking. Don’t be afraid of your own depth. Don’t dumb yourself down to be less threatening to others. Don’t let the shallow present monoculture shame you into vacuousness.
What important question am I not asking? What haven’t you shared about bringing this novel to life that readers and writers might benefit from understanding?
That’s a tough one. In a way, I think what I’d like readers to do is to come into the book without expectations. I know that’s impossible, but I wish they could pick it up on a beach or in a forest, with its covers torn off and no idea where it might fit into anything else, and simply read it. I would love for this book—and maybe all books—to be approached in that spirit.
What’s the most recent book you fell in love with, and what about it resonated with you? What should fans of The Mountain in the Sea read next?
Well, if you want to jump right into the deep end, you could read Biosemiotics, by Jesper Hoffmeyer. The field of biosemiotics is where the future is happening right now, if we are optimistic and think of the future as a place of better understanding.
Eliot Peper is the author of Reap3r, Veil, Breach, Borderless, Bandwidth, Neon Fever Dream, Cumulus, Exit Strategy, Power Play, and Version 1.0. He also works on special projects and tweets more than he probably should.
“Reap3r is a rarity in contemporary science fiction—a smart, engaging and deeply humanistic work of futurism that keeps the pages turning with the material of real life.”
-Christopher Brown, Philip K. Dick, World Fantasy and Campbell Award-nominated author of Tropic of Kansas, Rule of Capture, and Failed State
What a spectacular interview, thanks!