It’s not a simple thing to capture the essence of this book in any way beyond imploring you to read it.
Starting at the most basic level, this is a story set in an Earth at some point in the future. Geopolitics have been radically altered. The United States has split apart. Tibet has risen to a be the Tibetan Buddhist Republic on the back of mastery of combat drones. AI fishing vessels ply the seas crewed by slaves. But almost none of this is truly explored. The world is changed and iterated in almost every conceivable way, but this book is not about geopolitics. It’s about perception and understanding.
A neuroscientist is tasked with investigating the possible emergence of sapient octopuses. The octopuses slowly but surely are revealed to have various hallmarks of “intelligent” culture, and the protagonist tries to puzzle out their language. She struggles to *understand* the octopuses, while the story examines how “reality” is a series of stimuli decoded by minds. How does that perception change when the world is experienced by an octopus? By a person linked in a symbiotic relationship with dozens or hundreds of militarized drones? By a synthetically created mind? How do two “normal” humans share the same perception of reality?
Ray Nayler crafted a book that is emphatically a science fiction book, but one that doesn’t quite feel like one. In many ways it’s reductive to simply say that this is “literary” (plenty of ink has been spilled on this distinction, see e.g., here). A friend (namedrop alert: J.T. Greathouse) noted that it was like it was “a contemporary novel from the future that we happen to be reading today.” But what Nayler emphatically does *not* do is provide the reader with a 3-Act, Hollywood-esque plot arc. He explores concepts, reflects on science and philosophy. Sure, disparate threads weave together into a satisfying conclusion, but this is the kind of book that resides in the mind of the reader more than the action of the page.
It’s mind-bending and wonderful.
Buy it from your local independent bookstore, Bookshop.org, or Seattle if you must.