Book Review - Nexus
Published May 20, 2015
One of my favorite recent science fiction series has been Ramez Naam’s Nexus Trilogy (published by Angry Robot Books). We just recently read the first book (Nexus) in a bookclub that I’m a member of, so I thought since it was fresh in my mind, I’d do a quick review here.
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 agency in Washington DC to a secret lab beneath 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.
Ramez envisions the titular Nexus as a brain-enhancing technology, that effectively makes a person into a transhuman -- literally connected mentally to a programmable interface to their own body. Of course this includes connectivity to others running the same OS. The main character and his close associates have developed a way to run an operating system (OS) on this nano-drug, which allows all kinds of tweaks and applications. Ramez grounds his story in the very believable reaction of governments and leaders to restrict and control these new technologies. The parallels to how our actual history has played out, with regards to the War On Terror and the War On Drugs, as well as any number of minor panics and outrage campaigns, from the PMRC to comics causing juvenile delinquencies, are astounding. That just felt absolutely realistic to me and was one of the main reasons that the story drew me in so quickly.
The vision of a near-future society that is wrestling with issues around surveillance, freedom and control is completely relevant to our own current society. As technology starts to develop in ways that could lead to something like Nexus, that will only get more true. I’ll admit my own biases here, although I think there will be some issues and dangers created by these technologies, I’m very much in favor of them. I hope that a story like this can actually help us to tackle these issues in a proactive way, rather than reactive. With the way he’s written Nexus (as well as his other writing, fiction and non-fiction), Ramez proves he grasps the fundamentals of how transformative network and mind technology like this could be.
The story itself is very much a thriller. It has elements of the spy genre, almost like a Tom Clancy yarn, or with some of the techno-pop flavor of a Michael Crichton book. But describing it in those terms takes away from the originality of Ramez’ achievement in Nexus. The characters are well-rounded and have believable motivations. I found myself wishing I could meet some of those characters, particularly the main character Kaiden Lane. The book opens with Lane and friends experimenting with this technology. As someone very tech-focused myself, I could totally relate to the thoughts and feelings that make up the first chapter, of playing with this incredible new thing. When Lane crosses paths with a government agent devoted to stopping the very technologies that he’s been working on, Ramez is able to shift over to the agent’s point of view and thoughts/feelings in a way that’s just as believable as his take on Kaiden Lane. In fact all of the main and secondary characters are written in this fashion. They just feel like real people. There are no entirely good or evil people in this story, no black and white only. Everything is shades of gray. Every character has elements of both good and evil, just like real people do.
And that’s ultimately the thing that really drew me into the book. It just felt like something that could happen and that could play out in exactly the way that Ramez tells his story. Although I wasn’t particularly a fan of the government agency’s position or how governments have responded to these technologies, that mirrors somewhat how society is already talking about transhumanism and the potential of human enhancement technologies. In that sense, Ramez’ book has a lot of potential to add to the debate.
I don’t want to give away too much of the story, because it’s really worth experiencing for yourself. I read it when it first came out in 2013 and several times since then. When I joined the bookclub (which is focused on science fiction and fantasy), it was my first suggestion to the group. The club finally read Nexus as our discussion item for March. The overall consensus was very positive; everyone seemed to think it well-written, believable and overall a good story.
There are two other books in the series (that’s why it’s a trilogy), Crux and Apex. I’ll have reviews for those coming up soon as well. In the meantime, you can get Nexus on Amazon (Kindle or paperback) or iTunes (iBooks). I highly recommend it.
Also, you should check out Ramez's TEDxRainier talk... it's fantastic.