RAY NAYLER (Turkmenistan 2003-05) was born on June 5, 1976 in Alma, Quebec. When he was three years old, his family moved to California. He attended the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he studied modern literature and developed an interest in semiotics, graduating in 1999.
He lived in the Bay Area and Toronto and worked on various odd jobs before joining the Peace Corps and moving to Turkmenistan in 2003. He learned Russian there and later worked in Russia for an international NGO specializing in educational exchange. He lived in Moscow, then Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan, from where he joined the US Foreign Service in 2010. He subsequently served in Vietnam, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, and Kosovo, living abroad for 20 years before returning to the US in 2022.
He still works for the State Department, now on detail to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as their international advisor in their Marine Protected Areas Center. Beginning in August 2023, he will take up a residency at the Institute for International Science and Technology Policy at the George Washington University. He lives in Washington DC with his wife, Anna, and their daughter, Lydia.
Nayler published a few stories of genre interest in the ’90s and early 2000s, but became more prolific starting with “Mutability” in Asimov’s in 2015; he has since published more than 25 stories, including Sturgeon Memorial Award finalist “Sarcophagus” (2021), Asimov’s Reader Poll winner “Muallim” (2021) and Clarkesworld Readers’ Poll winner “Yesterday’s Wolf” (2021).
His debut science fiction novel, The Mountain in the Sea (2022), is currently a finalist for the Nebula Award and the Ray Bradbury Prize.
An Excerpt from an interview with Ray
“I mostly write science fiction, since about 2015, when ‘Mutability’ was published in Asimov’s – my first published science fiction story. I will sometimes write hard science fiction, but, if it’s hard, it’s usually biology, because that’s my scientific interest. ‘Eyes of the Forest’, for example, was a very hard science fiction story, but mostly hard on the biology stuff.
The Mountain in the Sea is also somewhat of a hard SF novel – not focused on physics, but rather on communications and biology. The definition of “hard science fiction” for me is just rigorously applied science to the best of our current knowledge, and then extrapolation from that. But I don’t consider myself to be a “hard” science fiction author per se. In my stories, I will sometimes use science only as a metaphor, and I also write stories in which the science is purely fantastical.
“For example, I’ve got this series called The Disintegration Loops, with a short story, ‘The Disintegration Loops’, and a novella, ‘A Rocket for Dimitrios’. It’s a counterfactual narrative in which the US finds a flying saucer in 1938, and this gives them such technological superiority over the Germans in WWII that they not only win WWII, but defeat Moscow and go on to defeat communist China and create a very unipolar world. The series is an exploration of that world, but the whole thing turns around a woman who uses technology from the flying saucer to speak with the dead. The beauty of science fiction is that you can use science in its most fantastic sense, or as a metaphor, or in a very literal, concrete way. You can play with these genre tropes that are decades old and turn them around and make them new and refreshing.
“In science fiction, there’s a range in the way that you use science that runs all the way from ‘hard’ science to pure BS, but honestly the BS sneaks into the hard science as much as anywhere else. Faster-than-light travel, for example, which appears all the time in hard SF, is about as big a load of BS as you can get. For me, a great science fiction story is less about how the science is applied, and more about the architecture it constructs for answering questions about the human condition, about the things that are going on in our world right now, about the places that we’re headed, and about what might have been. That’s what’s wonderful about science fiction: it gives you a set of lenses to focus on different elements of life. I also write some literary fiction, but literary fiction doesn’t give you that – it’s interesting in other ways, but it works through similarity, or the pose of similarity, rather than difference.
“Wider than science fiction and fantasy and horror, there is this thing which people sometimes call speculative fiction, which I would argue is the main narrative line of humankind. Human beings have never felt – until very recently – compelled to make stories adhere to a secular realism. We’ve always felt comfortable using magical or strange or disparate or nonexistent elements when they are useful to the story and help us explore the human condition. If you think about it, the only real genre is nonspeculative fiction: this adherence to a secular reality that emerged recently and became the mainstream is relatively new, and it has a rigorous set of genre rules about the way you can treat the world.
“I think that one of the struggles we have when we try to define science fiction and fantasy and horror and where they overlap and diverge is that all of them are engaged with this mainline, speculative form of human storytelling that has been around since the beginning. In science fiction, it’s focused a bit more on our modern exploratory concepts ofthe world, but the three genres have a large overlap.
“I think of science fiction as being less about science and more about technology. The human is a technological animal. I think the moment we truly became human beings is when one of our ancestors picked up a rock and started to use that rock as an extension of their physical body in ways that altered their environment and their relationship to the world. That is a core part of being human: using technology to alter, and finally to create, our own environment. That doesn’t mean other animals don’t do that – they totally do – but we do it in a rigorous, extensive way that no other animal on this planet does. We create linguistic technologies as well – ideological castles in the air which we then live in: nation states, religions, cultures.
“If that technological relationship to the environment is what defines humankind, then one of the things science fiction is doing is taking that idea of technology as a driver of human change very seriously. One thing I feel mainstream fiction does not do is take technology seriously as a driver of human change. Instead the technology of modern life – the world given over to cars and apartments and jobs and cities and airplanes, is backgrounded. But technology has fundamentally altered, and is continuously altering, what it means to be a human being in the world.
“In The Mountain in the Sea, there are three plots – three intertwined stories. The main line follows Dr. Ha Nguyen, who has been brought to the Côn Đảo archipelago to study a species of octopus that may have achieved symbolic communication. I’m being very specific in my terminology, because I don’t want to say this is a book about a sentient octopus. If you want to find a sentient octopus, just look for an octopus. They are sentient. An animal is sentient even if it can’t communicate in sophisticated, symbolic language. But the ability to communicate in symbolic language gives us a different set of abilities that other animals don’t have.
“Dr. Nguyen goes to this island and meets Evrim, the world’s first and maybe last android, and Altantsetseg, who is a security officer, a war veteran tasked with protecting the island from ships and other people trying to exploit its ecosystem or break into their research. The island has been evacuated of its human inhabitants and shut off from the world by DIANIMA, a multinational tech corporation. The main storyline of the novel is about Ha’s struggles with how to communicate with a very different animal that may have a culture at a level, or near a level, of a human culture.
“Then you have Eiko, who is an enslaved person on a fishing vessel, the Sea Wolf, controlled by a corporate AI. The AI is trying to find as much protein as it can in a sea that has been heavily overfished. This storyline is about Eiko’s struggle, along with another person named Son – who is actually from the Côn Đảo archipelago – to survive enslavement on this AI-powered fishing boat.
“The third narrative line is about Rustem, a hacker who is hired to find and exploit a vulnerability in the most complicated mind that he has ever been tasked with breaking into.
“Those three narratives all seem very disparate, but, I promise, readers, they do come together. I promise.