BOOK REVIEW: Nexus by Ramez Naam
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In the mid 21st century, a powerful combination of nanotech, software and drugs threatens to catapult its creator into forbidden realms of transhumanism.
PROS: Interesting premise and extrapolation of technology and social developments of same.
CONS: Some of the thriller elements feel a bit over-the-top. Some first novel clunkiness in narrative.
BOTTOM LINE: An interesting and intriguing fiction debut from a non fiction pioneer in bio-technological issues.
In the America of 2040, the major domestic threat has evolved far away from garden-variety terrorism; mind control software, technology and drugs are the newest front that a descendant branch of the Department of Homeland Security, the Emergent Risks Directorate, is concerned with. Drugs and technology like DWITY (Do What I Tell You) and mind-linking software are absolutely forbidden and dealt with in harsh and severe ways (clearly paralleling our own War on Terror). It’s unfortunate that Kaden Lane, a brilliant PhD-student specializing in mind-machine communication, has developed and deployed an upgraded, reverse-engineered version of a Mind-linking technology called Nexus. And even more unfortunate that the ERD gets wind of his technology and takes measures to neutralize the perceived threat. Instead of dropping him into a deep, dark hole, however, the ERD has a better use for Kaden. He is far from the only person pursuing interdicted research, and just might useful as a stalking horse at a conference in Bangkok on the very subject. However, Kaden’s research and identity make him a tempting target for others in turn. The future of not only Kaden and his friends, but humanity and post-humanity itself, may be in the making.
Ramez Naam, known for his non fiction explorations of transhuman and posthuman possibilities in More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement (for which he won an H.G. Wells award), explores some of those possibilities in the future world of his debut novel, Nexus. The dense, technical science may put off some readers. The extrapolated technology and concepts used here are detailed and can be fascinating and enthralling. The author’s passion, knowledge and experience come to bear in imagining the several varieties of technology seen running around his vision of the world in 2040. From clone-soldiers, to the workings and flaws of Nexus itself, to small details like the titles of the seminars Kaden attends in Bangkok, the author goes into fabulous and rich technical detail. Readers who aren’t ready to get immersed in a lot of technical jargon and high level concepts are going to be extremely put off by the amount of material and the style in which is is presented. Nexus is portrayed and even described as a computer OS, and so lines of text in the narrative come across as literal lines of code. This sort of technical detail can be ill-fitting, especially in the midst of important narrative. There is a definite suggestion of “want to put cool stuff in” overload syndrome in Nexus.
There are two major viewpoint characters (and a couple of more minor ones). Kaden is naive and idealistic. Sam is an ERD agent whose backstory, loyalties and personality are something only gradually revealed and unfolded through the narrative. In some ways, she’s a stronger and clearer character than the protagonist. A revealed Bad Incident in her backstory bordered on cliche. However, like Kaden, she has a strong character arc and grows and changes credibly and appreciably in the crucible of events. The other minor characters, POV and otherwise, are somewhat less complex but provide good parallax on events.
The ethical and social dilemmas explored are another highlight. The author never gives us the “right answer”, and its easy to see how the naive optimism of Kaden, the hard nosed nature of Chinese transhumanism researcher Su-Yong Shu, and the ERD itself, afraid of a world where transhumans and posthumans come to be. All three viewpoints are given fair play, both to the plot and how they are exposed to the reader. The reader is left to come to their own conclusions as to who is in the right.
The major downside of the novel is really tied to a classic debut author weakness; overloaded inclusion of what the author loves (as mentioned above). Some of the thriller elements, while cool and exciting, really do go over the top and slide out of the zone of plausibility. They do not become truly cartoonish, but at times one is left wishing for something a little more toned down and as firmly grounded as the rest of the novel seems to be. When the action doesn’t go over the top, the thriller elements are very well done and fit in nicely with the scientific extrapolations. The narrative and flow feel like they need some polish.
Nexus is an extremely strong, intriguing and interesting fiction debut.
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