The mind is a beautiful, wonderful, intricate thing. But it’s also flawed at some fundamental levels. The product of aeons of slapdash evolutionary bodge jobs, it’s inefficient, slow and running far below its potential. But what if we could change all that? Hack the brain, patch its OS, free it from its evolutionary origins and launch it to the next level, Humanity 2.0? What would we be capable of? Would it lead to good, evil or a subtle blend of both? And how would the populace – and more importantly, those in power – react?
Welcome to the world of Nexus, debut novel of Ramez Naam. The Nexus of the title is a new wonder-drug unlike any which have gone before it. Capable of rewiring the brain of the user to produce unbelievable highs, craft total fantasies and enhance the user’s abilities, it understandably draws the ire of governments around the world. Under a harsh new regime, hardwired into law by the fictional Chandler Act and Copenhagen Accord, such ‘threats to humanity’ are criminalised and their research outlawed. However, for some the lure of Nexus’s potential is too much to ignore. Kaden Lane, along with his colleagues Ilya and Rangan, create a nanotech-enhanced version of Nexus, enabling it to literally rewrite the brains underlying systems, remain in the body permanently and even allow direct brain-to-brain contact and control.
Not surprisingly, Kade and company find themselves targeted by the ERD (Emerging Risks Directorate), a government agency which makes today’s NSA appear restrained and rational. Faced with spending the rest of their lives in a deep, dark hole they are forced to cut a deal. Kade agrees to help the ERD, under the guidance of young, bio-enhanced operative Samantha, to infiltrate a Chinese organisation supposedly working on posthuman technology. The tech is the stuff of dreams to idealistic Kade, but to Sam and other zealots in the ERD it represents nothing less than an immediate threat to humanity as a whole.
Before long Kade and Sam are in Bangkok, attending a conference with the underlying goal of securing Kade a research position with Shu Yung-Su, enigmatic scientist and ERD enemy number one. Of course, the unexpected happens and before long they are caught between several factions fighting over the future of humanity and, above all, the Nexus 5 implant carried in Kade’s head.
Nexus may be Ramez Naam’s first novel but it certainly is not his first publication. A respected technologist, involved in the creation of IE and Outlook (yeah, I know…), he recently published More Than Human. Basically a non-fiction primer for Nexus, More Than Human laid down the current state of play as regards neurological research. The levels of technology within our reach right now are simply staggering and make novels like Nexus extremely important.
You see, despite its appearance as a book for tech-junkies dressed up as an action thriller, the core of Nexus deals with the potential of the technology and the reaction towards it. In the characters of Sam and others at the ERD, Naam crafts a chillingly convincing portrait of the fear, ignorance and resulting paranoia at the heart of government. Unable to accept the possibility of everyone having access to technology with the power to fundamentally alter the world, they must assume that it will be used for evil and attempt to shut it down, lock it away forever (except where they decide to use it themselves). In the current climate of oppressive laws and treatment of anyone who refuses to toe the government line as traitors and terrorists, the alarmist line depicted in Nexus rings all too true.
Naam isn’t entirely one-sided though. Despite being clearly in favour of new technologies, and particularly making such advances available to everyone to ensure true democracy, he does illustrate the dangers of going too far to the other extreme. He asks how a world inhabited by humans and posthumans alike would behave. Would both co-exist peacefully or would the gulf in abilities soon lead to a hideous caste war?
The book itself is remarkably well written, especially for someone with Naam’s background. Despite a shaky start it soon finds its feet and fleshes out the main chracters wonderfully. The key players – Kade, Sam and the wonderful Cole Wats – work together beautifully and convincingly. The plot is played out at a good pace, with events intensifying towards a satisfying climax and few loose threads left untied. The action has received some criticism as being overblown and distracting from the central plot but I have to say I loved it. In fact it recalled the epic sequences in Neal Stephenson’s reamde, high praise indeed, although it inevitably lacks Stephenson’s in-depth knowledge of every single subject ever conceived of by mankind.
There were only a couple of things which detracted from Nexus. The first was the language employed at times. In a futuristic, energetic thriller it is more than a little anachronistic to hear a phone referred to as a ‘blasted thing’ or have characters exclaiming ‘Bloody hell!’ This isn’t steampunk. Okay, it raised a smile the first time but seriously Ramez – learn to swear with conviction! Secondly, there was enough cliche in the book to sink a battleship. Some elements, like Sam’s traumatic backstory being mirrored later in the book with roles reversed, were just unbelievably corny. Although counter to this I must vote ‘Confucian Fist’ as the best name for a shady clade of super-soldiers ever.
So, a hearty recommendation for Nexus. It’s a staggeringly good debut novel, by turns sci-fi, thriller, scientific lecture and political diatribe. Somehow it manages to blend these elements almost seamlessly into an addictive whole, one which you will be urging your friends to pick up for months to come.
(Angry Robot have kindly provided me with an advance reading copy of Crux, the upcoming sequel to Nexus. Expect a full review as soon as it’s finished.)