Sunday, September 28, 2014

Review: Nexus by Ramez Naam

Nexus: Mankind Gets an Upgrade by Ramez Naam
Published: Angry Robot Books, 2013
Series: Book 1 of Nexus 5
Awards Nominated: Arthur C. Clarke Award, John W. Campbell Award for Best New Author

The Book:

“In the near future, the experimental nano-drug Nexus can link humans together, mind to mind. There are some who want to improve it. There are some who want to eradicate it. And there are others who just want to exploit it. When a young scientist is caught improving Nexus, he's thrust over his head into a world of danger and international espionage - for there is far more at stake than anyone realizes.

From the halls of academe to the halls of power, from the headquarters of an elite US agency in Washington DC to a secret lab beneath a top university in Shanghai, from the underground parties of San Francisco to the illegal biotech markets of Bangkok, from an international neuroscience conference to a remote monastery in the mountains of Thailand - Nexus is a thrill ride through a future on the brink of explosion.”

Nexus is Naam’s first science fiction novel, though he has published non-fictional works. The second novel of the series, Crux, is already available.  I haven’t yet read the second, but it seems like this is going to be the kind of series where it is important to read in order.

My Thoughts:

Nexus is a techno-thriller about the effects of developments in mind-altering/linking technology.  The title is from a drug, Nexus, which allows people to temporarily link minds with other users.  The main character, Kaden Lane, has worked with his friends to create a new version “Nexus 5” (the series title) which installs a permanent network within a user’s mind.  With this network one can run applications on one’s own nervous system, and mentally connect with other users.  These apps can control your heart rate, the words you say, and even give you Bruce Lee style martial arts reflexes.  The last is no Matrix-level kung-fu app, though, since it can’t make an ordinary person comparable to someone who has actually been trained in combat.  The linking aspect of the technology also allows communication and control between multiple people’s minds, which is where many of the moral problems of this new technology arise.

I can’t deny that this sounds like a very cool idea, but it is also one that I hope is never developed.  There are so many uses this technology could have, ranging from the positive to the extremely negative.  The novel mostly addresses the extremities of this range—from psychological healing and meditation to mind control and manipulation of memory and personality.   I can see a whole range of negatives and positives in between these two extremes as well, though, which are not yet addressed in the story.  I mean, imagine a world where men on the street could harass you or send unsolicited pictures of their genitalia directly into your mind. Or on the even more mundane level, communicating with someone mind-to-mind would drastically change the accepted model of social interactions, and I imagine there would be a wave of global culture shock, even if the technology were dispersed peacefully.  All of this goes to say that I think this is a really fascinating idea, and it seems like there are so many directions this series could go with its premise.

For this first novel, though, the direction it goes is towards a pretty standard action-thriller format.  The Nexus technology was banned by the government (for good reason, I think), and agents have uncovered Kade’s Nexus 5 development group.  In exchange for the freedom of his friends, Kade is forced to work as a government agent.  He’s paired with his watchdog, super-agent Samantha Cataranes, and sent on a sting mission to investigate a potentially highly advanced Chinese scientist. Of course, there’s more going on than Kade knows, and he’s soon stuck in an impossible situation with no good choices and no one to trust.  The ensuing conflicts involve a whole lot of surprisingly intense and emotionally disturbing violence, so reader discretion is definitely advised.

In addition to the relatively standard plot format, the characters tended toward familiar clich├ęs as well. The main characters include a counterculture-supporting, anti-government, idealistic scientist (Kade), and a human-weapon secret agent with an excessively tragic past (Sam).  Other characters include corrupt, bumbling government agents, mentally pure Buddhist monks, a veteran super-soldier with PTSD, and a scientist whose views remind me of Magneto.  They’re all interesting in terms of portraying different perspectives on the developing technology, but they still fall into familiar roles.  I also had some difficulty in feeling an emotional connection to the characters. In the case of Kade, his behavior in the first chapter, in an app-assisted sexual misadventure, left me thinking of him as a pretty sleazy guy.  In a general sense, though, I felt like there was a certain lack of consistency in the characters’ emotional reactions to traumatic situations. 

I think the strength of the story is really how it combines an intriguing technological idea with a fast-paced thriller plot.  The story doesn’t get bogged down in lengthy explanations, instead allowing the reader to build up a sense of the near-future world and the Nexus technology through the events of the story. The showing-over-telling when it comes to the technological aspects also kept the jargon down to a readable level and allowed the plot to progress quickly.  Ramez Naam is also a technologist and non-fiction writer, so it is a bit chilling to think that the technological developments may be reasonable extrapolations from existing technology.  The first novel feels like a complete story to me, but it also clearly leads in to the next book.  The way it ended really makes me want to know what will happen next, so I will probably read Crux at some point in the future!

My Rating: 3.5/5

Nexus is a techno-thriller that gives a chilling look into the direction mind-linking technology might take, and how it could change our world.  Nexus 5 is a system that can be run on a human mind, allowing networking between minds as well as a new level of control over one’s own body.  The story was fast-paced and exciting, though the intensity of the violence sometimes exceeded my comfort level.  The characters did not always seem emotionally consistent to me, and they also sometimes felt more like standard types representing various viewpoints than well-developed individuals.  However, I am very interested in these kinds of near-future stories about the effects of technology extrapolated forward from current research, and I will probably be continuing the series with the second novel, Crux!

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