LitStack Review: Nexus by Ramez Naam

Ramez Naam
Angry Robot
Release Date: December 18, 2012
ISBN 978-0-85766-293-4

Ramez Naam’s taunt, chilling thriller about a neurological threat is the perfect example of the subjective nature of book reviews:  it is sharply written, it moves fast, is chock full of action with compelling characters and a deft exploration of timely ethical issues… but I personally did not enjoy it.

In Mr. Naam’s book, Nexus is an experimental “nano-drug” that once ingested in liquid form allows users to link up, mind to mind.  Its current street iteration, Nexus 3, is already a concern, not just because it’s illegal but also because of its implications – wonderful collaborative work can be done while under the influence of Nexus 3, but there is also great danger for manipulation, coercion and subversion, especially when transhumans (enhanced) and posthumans (radically transformed) are involved.  The ERD (Emerging Risks Directorate, a new division of Homeland Security) not only is interested, they are deeply vested in keeping Nexus in check.

Then Kaden Lane comes on the scene.  Kade is a shy, somewhat clumsy wunderkind, working on a doctorate in brain-computer communication at the University of California-San Francisco and is an expert on many facets of neuro-science, but socially, he’s still a flat out nerd.  He and his friends, Rangan Shankari, an underground DJ with massive neuro-engineering skills, and Ilyana Alexander, another post-doctorate fellow, hers in meta- and group intelligence (and a card carrying social anarchist) have punched Nexus up the scale to Nexus 5 – an iteration of the nano-drug that not only brings an astonishing mind-to-mind high, but also doesn’t wear off; it can become permanently integrated into the user’s mind – and much more.  (“They’d learned to program Nexus cores, to tell them what to do.  They’d added on layers of logic and functionality.  They’d turned it into a platform for running software inside the brain.“)

Kade and his friends are idealists.  They see the enormous potential for Nexus 5 in advancing science and applying collaborative efforts in combating social and environmental ills, as well as its being, well, really, really cool.  But other forces, such as the DEA and the ERD, are just as convinced that Nexus 5 harbors far more threat than benefit, and they have already turned their massive government eye in Kaden’s direction, sending in posthuman agent Samantha Cataranes to infiltrate the counterculture circles he and his friends move in, to learn more of their discoveries and figure out how to reel them in, no holds barred.  And then there is the criminal and political elements, who, once they get a whiff of the powers that Nexus 5 offers, will stop at nothing to absorb the technology into their own schemes.

Nexus reads like the novelization of a blockbuster summer movie.  It’s got likeably naive heroes, kick-ass military characters (including a gorgeous female super soldier with identity issues), it’s got government hubris, villains who may be saviors and saints who may be villains, lots of identifiable ethical issues and emotional angst, worldwide political intrigue with one government squaring off against another, secret covert missions, hippie-like counterculture, and loads of hand to hand combat, fancy weaponry, and lots and lots – and lots – of shooting and fighting and explosions.  Oh, and Buddhist monks.  It’s got Buddhist monks.  Points for that.  Heck, I even know who I’d cast if this was a movie (Jesse Eisenberg as Kaden Lane, Gal Gadot as Samantha Cataranes, Anthony Mackie as “Wats” Cole, a former Marine who acts as Kade’s guardian angel).

And this book is smart; it’s smartly written with lots of intelligent sounding techno-babble that holds together well, complex yet written clearly enough that readers don’t feel like they are drowning in detail; it’s pretty much up to each individual reader how much detail she or he wishes to embrace:

Kade soared through a three-dimensional maze of neurons and non-devices.  Nano-filament antennae crackled with life as Nexus nodes sent and received data.  Vast energies accumulated in neuronal cell bodies, reached critical thresholds, surged down long axons to pulse into thousands more neurons.  Code readouts advanced in open windows around him.  Parameter values moved as he watched.

After the debacle of the party, debugging the code running in his own brain was bliss.  His body lay safely in his bed.  His mind exulted inside the Nexus development environment, tracing the events that had led to the fault.  Here he was in his element.

He traced the events of the night through the logs, through the pulses of Nexus nodes and neurons in his brain, until he found the place where Nexus OS had faulted.  He traced system parameters backwards in time until he understood what had happened.  Nexus nodes had fired in response to excited neurons and triggered and uncontrolled cascade.  They needed more bounds checking.  It was a simple fix.  The code opened itself to him, changed in response to his thoughts.  He compiled it, tested it, fixed a new bug he’d introduced, repeated until he was done.

Just intricate enough, just technical enough to feel advanced and complex, but treated simply enough that even those of us who are not scientifically inclined can follow along (even though we have to take what is being said with an entire shaker of salt, since we’re totally out of our element).  It’s what one might expect from an author who is a professional technologist, was CEO of a company that developed nanotechnology research software, and who, according the jacket blurb, “holds a seat on the advisory board of the Institute for Accelerating Change, is a member of the World Future Society, a Senior Associate of the Foresight Institute, and a fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies”.

Pretty heady stuff, and I admire Mr. Naam’s ability to bring to life the halls along which he walks, for one gets the notion that while Nexus 5 may be fiction, the ethical debates in the book loom in the near future for our non-fiction scientists, engineers and historians.

I did find myself glossing over paragraphs of this book, though, due to my own shortcomings and taste.  While as I’ve said, even one as technically obtuse as myself can follow the gist of the science behind Nexus, the continual minutia of the drug’s manifestation was wasted on me; I stopped reading those explicative passages closely rather early on, skimming them to ensure I wasn’t missing anything vital – I don’t think I did.  Likewise with the trippy parts; while I realize with hallucinogenic drugs as a focal point to the story there needs to be a bit of description about the “highs” in the narrative, I felt they went on a tad bit too long.  Along the same vein, the ethical questions got raised a few times too often; we get it, we got it, move on.

And I will admit that I’m not a shoot-’em-up action sort of gal; I’d rather have a few really focused confrontations rather than pretty much continual combat – and there is a lot of combat in Nexus.  But this is definitely a personal preference thing.  The combat that did transpire was well written, sharp, and appropriately gruesome.  The impetus behind the conflict was not always believable (the pretentiousness of the ERD and other government agencies, while understandable as a culprit, got somewhat ridiculous towards the end of the book), but the action itself was well done.  There simply was too much of it for my taste.

So would I recommend Nexus?  Yes, absolutely I would – especially if you like thrillers that take place in the near future with mind-altering drug components, struggles between good and evil, idealism, government comeuppance, roundhouse kicks to the head, heavy weaponry, kickass combat and explosions.  If you like those things – and good for you if you do – then by all means, make sure you clear a space in your summer reading schedule for Nexus.  You won’t be disappointed.