Author: Ramez Naam
Publisher: Angry Robot
Cover Art: ARGH! Oxford
Genre: Science Fiction, Humanity 2.0
Imagine a drug: a slim vial of silver liquid that does more than just map your neural pathways, it allows for wireless communication between you and another individual under its influence: shared thoughts, feelings, memories, but also the potential for control, coercion, and misuse. Imagine that the governments of the world have clamped down on this drug. Is Nexus the inevitable next step in human evolution, or is it the beginning of a slide into depravity, fear, and a whole new reality of man’s inhumanity to man?
This is the setup to Nexus, a near-future (2040s) speculative fiction novel whose ideas I found compelling, despite my occasional frustration with the plotting and characters. The novel’s protagonist is Kaden Lane: a young – to my mind naïve – scientist who develops Nexus 5, a new iteration of an already illegal drug that allows him and his friends not just to reach out wirelessly to each other, but to virtually program in their own minds and run those programs. To them, Nexus is a tool for communication and empathy, a miracle that could bring humanity together. On the other side of the equation is Samantha Cataranes, herself post-human, an agent of the ERD: a government organization tasked with protecting humanity against advanced technological threats. Sam has a very personal understanding of the possible damage that Nexus could cause, unchecked.
Together, Kaden and Sam must confront their mutual distrust as well as characters ranging from Sam’s tough-minded superiors to former military, a Chinese scientist intent on transforming the world and Buddhist monks whose interest in Nexus is in its potential to facilitate transcendence. The novel does a fair job of expressing different points of view about transhumanism and the ethical challenge that Nexus represents, and there were several moments where I paused, and pondered my own feelings: whether such research should be legal, whether making it illegal would even be possible, how it should be approached, whether or not I would be interested in trying it and what sort of world it might lead to. Both Sam and Kaden are exposed (sometimes violently) to other points of view, and to the implications of the decisions they’ve made both in the past, and during the novel. Kaden especially has an interesting journey and if I sometimes wanted to sit him down and give him a good talking to, this may very well be an expression of my own relativistic, jaded point of view (it’s hard for me to tolerate characters who seem to discount the possible abuses of their discoveries and the consequences of their actions).
There’s a clear point of view to Nexus. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the occasional simplicity of its presentation caused a little cognitive dissonance for me when my world view didn’t mesh with Naam’s, and when characters and organizations seemed to act in service of point of view, rather than as fully realized aspects of the novel with agency of their own. In Naam’s world (as I perceive it), technological advances like Nexus are ultimately positive, possibly inevitable, and need to be set free. Agencies that stand in the way of that are – despite Naam’s efforts at complexity – seen as primarily obstructionists. By doing a better job of adding depth to the characters and organizations and a greater level of subtlety and complexity to the ethical underpinnings, weight would have been added to his point of view through the creation of a more complete, if channeled, reality. Naam is a technologist and futurist who has written non-fiction in the past, and some of what I’m pointing out here might be a result of his previous experience writing in a milieu that is geared more towards the clear expression of opinion.
Sometimes – and this is an interesting aspect of the subject matter itself – I had strong, emotional reactions. I find the idea of mind control, of someone being able to hack into my brain and change my thoughts, very disturbing. Not to go into details, but fairly early on there’s a scene where Kaden and his friends do this. Their rationalization of torture made a strong impact on me, and though later Kaden experiences something similar and recalls the incident, this permanently and negatively impacted my opinion of Kaden and his friends. I’m not sure that Naam intended this.
The novel is fast paced and the writing straightforward, but some literary devices are overused and the world-building had a narrow focus on the Nexus drug and the world surrounding it. Noticeable by their absence were references to changes in culture, the larger world, and day-to-day living and technology that would have made the near-future world of Nexus seem more complete, rather than one primarily concerned with a few (admittedly engaging) elements.
I’d categorize Nexus as a novel whose uniqueness is in its ideas, rather than its plot or characters. It’s worth noting that I had an easier time getting into Nexus than I did Hide Me Among the Graves because while the Tim Powers work is slow and methodical with bursts of action, Naam keeps things moving right from the first chapter. It’s a strong comment about the ideas in Nexus that despite my issues with it I’ll certainly read the sequel (coming out next fall) and I’m also interested in reading and reviewing his non-fiction work, More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement.
Note: As of this writing, Ramez Naam is offering a free ebook copy of More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement with orders of Nexus. I haven’t read More Than Human (yet) but my guess is that it would be an excellent companion book to read, and that this is a great deal!