Ramez Naam – Nexus

rameznaam-nexusMankind gets an upgrade

In the near future, the experimental nano-drug Nexus can link human 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.

In the past year and a half I’ve come to realise that I can appreciate more than just Military SF, which I always thought was the only kind I’d get. I’ve actually discovered I also like space opera, but even more I like near future SF; I like the concept of it, the fact that the tech is often extrapolated from a still recognisable technology we already use or is a concept which is made possible by such an extrapolation. In Peter F. Hamilton’s Misspent Youth, for example, almost all of the advances that have been made, have been made possible by the invention by the main character of a new way to store data which allows for vast quantities of data to be stored in smaller, cheaper and more quickly accessible manner. Nexus is based on a similar familiar but taken to the next level technology: brain computer interface technology. Yeah, that made me go Huh too, but to give the example that made me go aha, it’s what makes cochlear implants (a device that allows deaf people to hear) possible. Naam gives quite a succinct and interesting explanation of the technology he worked from in an essay in the Extras section to the book, which was quite helpful even for someone who isn’t as well-versed in maths, physics and all the other science disciplines. I found this a really interesting technology to start from and reading the cover copy made me even more interesting to read the book. And while there were a few debut novel flaws in there, Nexus was a riveting read, one I didn’t want to end and which surprised me in a few places too.

While Naam is a previously published author – he published a non-fiction title More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement in 2005 – Nexus is his debut novel and in some places it shows. This was mostly in some of the places where technical discussions were very dense. For example, Kade – our protagonist – attends a scientific conference in Thailand and we get to follow him along around the conference floor a few times. We learn what talks he attends and when we got a look at the tittles for these sessions my eyes just about glazed over. There are a few other places where the information the reader needs to assimilate is rather technical and I had to really concentrate to get what was explained, which made it feel a little bit info dumpy. But the caveat about my non-beta-sciency mind also applies here and this sense of info dumping might be felt less by those with a more natural aptitude for the sciences. In addition there were also some shifts made in the narrative from viewpoint to viewpoint that felt a little clunky, but those were mainly minor niggles.

Beyond those reservations, Nexus was a fantastic debut with a plot that had a few twists and turns which were not just interesting, but very surprising as well. Most of these were due to the unexpected choices the characters make and only one of those was illogical and out-of-character, which can be a concern with big twists. Central to the story is Kaden Lane, a brilliant PhD-student in brain-computer communication. He is young, idealistic, a little naive, and believes that the technology behind Nexus should be freely available to everyone, not just a lucky few who regulate its use and use it for their own advantage. This is an illegal view, however, and inevitably he gets caught. This starts him on a path that has him question everything he believes in and also makes him unsure of whom to trust. Through Kade Naam lets the reader ponder some fairly heavy ethical dilemmas, such as “if my invention can be used to harm others as well as benefit them, do I set it free into the world?” and “When does humanity end and trans/post humanity begin and do we have the right to take their rights away?” I found these quite thought-provoking and Naam very carefully never gives us the answers, he gives us what Kade believes to be right, but he doesn’t know it, rather he knows to do the opposite is wrong. Perhaps this is because there are no easy answers to this and people need to make up their own minds on where they stand. By the end of Nexus, Kade’s naiveté has largely evaporated, to be replaced by a healthy scepticism of the motivations of most of the players, though by then the sides have become less opaque than they are for most of the narrative. At about midway through the book it’s hard to see who the good guys in the book are, beyond Kade, and it’s only after the explosive final chapters that it becomes at least a little clearer; perhaps we don’t discover the good guys, but Kade finds the least-of-all-evil sides, so to speak.

The character we spend the most time with beyond Kade is Sam, a US government agent, who is charged to be his handler. Naam skilfully plays with her convictions, giving us ample and heart-breaking reasons to understand her vehement opposition to any and all Nexus-like substances, yet also letting Sam discover some cracks in her beliefs. I loved her tough-minded, practical attitude, although it’s unfortunate that this seems to just be a cover for her softer side. Sam is another female character that has abuse in her background to motivate her choices in the present. The actual abuse made a horrific situation even more horrific, it wasn’t necessary to include it to make her motivations ring true. Despite this, she’s an interesting and quite sympathetic character, who I rooted for almost as much as I did for Kade.

Despite my reservations, Nexus was a fabulous read. The plot was riveting and this near future SF thriller was not just exciting because of its action scenes, but also because of the questions it poses the reader. It’s a compelling, intelligent and, above all, fun story that will keep you reading for far longer than you intended. I really want to know what happens next and what the consequences of Kade’s choices will be. It’ll be interesting to see how Naam answers some of the questions he poses in Nexus in the next book, Crux. Meanwhile, if you want to start your SF-nal year off right, go pick up a copy of Nexus and read it as soon as you can.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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3 Responses to Ramez Naam – Nexus

  1. Thanks, Mieneke. I’ve been very curious about the book but haven’t tackled it as yet.

    • Mieneke says:

      I’m looking forward rto seeing your thoughts. I know characterisation is as important to you as it is to me and while the characterisation was good, it was the concept that completely blew me away and got my mind churning. Normally the characters are the first thing Italk about, this time they were the last and I think that says a lot about the ideas behind this book!

  2. Pingback: Recaps and Upfronts – January and February | A Fantastical Librarian

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