I’m glad to be back guest-posting at SF signal. This time, I’m interviewing Ramez Naam about his new novel, Nexus, out from Angry Robot Books on December 18th. Full disclosure: I’ve already read this book twice even though most of you haven’t been able to get it yet. I met Ramez at a Seattle-area gathering of futurists the day that Wings of Creation came out, so maybe it was destiny that we would both stay loosely connected in the fabulous Seattle ecosystem of authors, futurists, and many of us who are both.
So here is my conversation with Ramez:
BRENDA COOPER: I’m very pleased to see Nexus becoming a real book. Ever since I read an early manuscript draft, I’ve been excited about the possibility that more people would be able to read this. So for starters, congratulations.
RAMEZ NAAM: Thank you!
BC: For any fans or followers of SF Signal, this really is a must-read book. Most trans-humanist fiction is phenomenally interesting for techno geeks like me, but Nexus is a uniquely human and character driven thriller as well as a brilliant rendering of a believable future. It should interest fans of Michael Crichton, Greg Bear, David Brin, or Charlie Stross alike.
I’d like to start with a question about the genesis of one of the main characters. Kade is a near-perfect archetype of the starry-eyed and idealistic young men and women who work in tech and science. What models did you use when you created him?
RN: *Laughs* Well, I have to confess to one of the great sins of writing, in that there’s at least a little bit of me in Kade, or maybe me as I was when I was younger. He’s a lot smarter than I am, but probably more naïve and more awkward. But I really wanted to have a protagonist who, aside from being extremely bright, was really just an everyman. He’s never been shot at before. He had a normal childhood. He’s thrown into situations way beyond his depths, and he has to figure out both how to cope with the stress of people trying to kill him, and how to figure out what the morally right thing to do is when he’s caught between a rock and a hard place.
BC: The book includes an exploration of the link between science and spiritual practice. I know you know your science, but what can you share about the links to Buddhism?
RN: I’m not a Buddhist myself, but I’ve done a fair bit of meditation, and I’m intrigued by the religion. I know a number of neuroscientists who are also Buddhists, and they talk about meditation as a kind of science – as a tool for gaining more practical insight into and mastery over your own mind. I try to show some of that off in the book – how Kade and his friends have tried to master and improve this technology that can wire up their brains from a very scientific, left-brain standpoint, and at the same time, there are monks who’ve gone at it from a different direction, and basically meditated their way into some degree of control over the technology. I think the two paths are complimentary. There are things for each side to learn from the other.
BC: I’ve been to Bangkok. You show it off well. Is there any incident or image you’d like to share about your own travels there?
RN: Bangkok is beyond simple description. It’s a city of contrasts and contradictions. It’s full of these incredibly beautiful ornate temples with golden Buddhas and giant demon warriors. And those aren’t just historical sights! They’re hundreds of years old but they’re still active temples, where ordinary men and women are coming to pray and lighting incense. Then you might walk out the gate of a temple, and directly across the street is a super modern mall, with expensive fashion boutiques and a high-end movie theatre with reclining seats nicer than anything I’ve seen in the US. And a block away from both mall and temple you might find a ‘hostess bar’ or a club with nude dancers and live sex shows.
Bangkok is ancient and modern. It’s pure and it’s sordid. It’s raw chaos and yet it’s full of places of incredible serenity. All at the same time.
BC: They say that most science fiction is as much about today as it is about the future. Some of the things you portray governments doing in Nexus are not friendly to the future. You draw some specific lines to programs like the War on Drugs, but is there also a government-driven backlash against technology other than the obvious silliness about science showing up in some GOP candidates? Is there anything we should be more worried about than we are?
RN: There’s some fear there. When George Bush was President he had a President’s Council on Bio-Ethics that more or less came out and said that if we had effective technologies to make people smarter, or longer lived, or even just more athletic than the norm, that we shouldn’t use them, and indeed that we should use ‘the power of the state’ to keep individuals from using them.
But even beyond the question of a backlash against science, this is a book about personal freedom, and the restrictions to freedom that we endure in times of fear. In the book, the drug Nexus is illegal because other technologies like it have been used to kill or coerce or otherwise harm people. Society’s afraid of that, so they ban this technology, even though it has good uses. They don’t try to regulate it and only allow the positive scenarios – they just enact a blanket ban.
That’s fiction, right? Except that, today, we have laws that govern what you can and can’t put in your body, even when some of those substances have demonstrated beneficial uses. That’s the ‘War on Drugs’, which of course can never be won.
The ‘War on Terror’, also apparently endless, is even worse. Because we’re afraid, we’ve basically thrown out many of the principles and protections built into our constitution and bill of rights. If you’re accused of terrorism, you’re actually not guaranteed a trial by jury, or a speedy trial, or anything of the sort. The FBI doesn’t need a warrant to tap into your emails. In many cases they don’t even need a court order.
Why do we allow that? Because of fear. It’s a natural backlash. Civil liberties for a few dozen or few hundred people just don’t seem as important to us as preventing future terrorist attacks. But as Ben Franklin once said, “Those who would give up freedom in the pursuit of safety deserve neither.”
BC: Nexus wrapped up nicely as a stand alone novel, but there are possibilities for more exploration. Is there a sequel in the works?
RN: There is! Nexus definitely concludes a story, but there are more stories to be told in that word. The sequel is called Crux and it’s due out in September.
BC: You also have a new non-fiction book coming out. What’s your favorite part of that book?
RN: That book is called The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet. It’s all about winning the race between innovation and overconsumption. How do we innovate fast enough to overcome climate change and finite fossil fuels and all the other challenges that face us? The thing I like best about that book is that I get to guide people through a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. It goes hard and deep into all the problems that face us early on, and beta readers tell me it got them tremendously down in some cases. But by the end, even after looking at and acknowledging how large these problems are, readers come out with hope, because we’ve also looked at how incredible our ability to innovate is, and how we can overcome these problems if we make a few good decisions.
Brenda Cooper is a science fiction and fantasy writer living in the Pacific Northwest. Her next novel is The Creative Fire from Pyr Books, a story that explores revolution on a generation ship through the eyes of a young woman who helps bring her people to freedom through the power of her voice. Find out more about The Creative Fire and Brenda’s other works at www.Brenda-cooper.com.