Review: Nexus

Posted: June 25, 2013 by in Books We Love (5/5 single_star) Meta: Ramez Naam, Techno Thriller

I’ve been suffering a bit of a reading slump of late. I’ve got plenty of awesome material to pick from and a complete and utter lack of motivation to read. Maybe it’s the summer heat? Regardless, NEXUS by Ramez Naam (Amazon) has shattered that lethargy and cleansed it in napalm. Optioned for a film by Paramount and Darren Aronofsky, NEXUS is probably the best book of 2012 that I’ve read in 2013. It’s a perfect summer beach read, a stimulating near-future thriller loaded with equal amounts action and speculation. NEXUS offers human characters, real (scary) science, and deep ethical dilemmas. This fiction debut is the contemporary evolution of cyberpunk: the future isn’t about virtual reality but augmented reality. Pardon my drooling, I had a blast reading this.

Here’s the Amazon blurb:

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.

Asked to describe NEXUS in as few words as possible I might call to comparison movies like THE MATRIX, LIMITLESS, or even TERMINATOR. I might also mention video games such as DEUS EX and the upcoming WATCHDOGS. None of these would provide the ideal essence of NEXUS, but each does contain a common cable connected to the techno-thriller super computer that is NEXUS. A long time ago I read Michael Crichton’s PREY (Amazon), a cautionary tale of the dangers of nanotech. Though Naam keeps the scientific lingo to accessible levels for the average reader, I consider NEXUS to be a far more disturbing novel in terms of plausibility and the implications of the applied science. Crichton posed a theory to what happens when tiny little death robots go haywire. Naam asks what happens if we inject them into our heads and use them to ascend to a greater state of being.

Nexus 5, the creation of our protagonist Kaden Lane, is cool. With the help of his friend Rangan, Kaden has turned a pseudo-drug into a platform that can operate software inside the brain. This capability is demonstrated in a number of ways, from a hilarious sexual misadventure to a stress reducing program and even a Bruce Lee inspired combat simulation. You know what they say, “There’s an app for that.” The possibilities are endless but so is the potential for abuse. Nexus 3, the last known iteration of the drug, is banned around the world and in the United States the Emerging Risks Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security actively hunts those that would manufacture and distribute it. Nexus 5 poses a threat to the safety of humanity and Agent Samantha Cataranes is determined to shut it down.

NEXUS is driven by two very different protagonists with conflicting beliefs. Kaden Lane, is naive and sheltered. He is an incredibly intelligent young scientist with a desire to connect humans at a greater level. Samantha Cataranes is a tough but damages Federal agent. Her body features upgrades that turn her into a living, breathing weapon but she is haunted by the events of her past. Samantha has a very credible reason for fearing the progress of technology and wanting to fight those that would use it for evil. The combination of Kaden’s idealism and Sam’s pragmatism makes for a compelling read. Other viewpoints are brought into the fold along the way, Ilya’s civil libertarian spite for the increasingly fascist US government, Su Yong Shu’s posthuman anger at those who would do her cause harm, Anand’s Buddhist serenity, and Becker’s fear of “elevated” humans. NEXUS is a melting pot of morality and there are no easy answers to be found within.

An aspect that I considered to be extremely cool (and I’ll admit that others might not) was the attention given to Buddhism. Prior to reading NEXUS I’d had little exposure to the belief system but the novel inspired such a connection that I’m highly interested in learning more about it. I hope this doesn’t scare any potential readers off – NEXUS is by no means preachy, and neither of the protagonists are Buddhist themselves. Naam simply provides an interesting alternative way of thinking.

NEXUS is a smart thriller, fast paced and speculative, a clash of ideologies bound to leave you wondering, "Where do I stand?"

And isn’t that something – a summer blockbuster that will leave you thinking. For all the awesome superhuman action and the suave espionage (Q never gave Bond any gadgets this cool), NEXUS poses some very serious questions that require contemplation. I used to read a blog dedicated to transhumanism and though I found interesting material to peruse I never bought into the whole “singularity” thing. On the other hand, the “emerging risks” of the world Naam has written strike me as utterly believable. I don’t fear a machine uprising or a zombie outbreak, but I wouldn’t be surprised to read headlines that could be taken straight from this book in the next thirty years. Naam has done what all the best sci-fi authors are capable of – speculating the future of technology and how it will affect our culture. Though Nexus 5 is the focus of the novel it is far from being the only dangerous technology. The question comes down to whether or not people should be trusted to make their own decisions regarding their own lives and bodies at the risk of slavery, prostitution, assassination, and worse. The opposition is no better, using the very tech they fight to end.

“There is a war coming. A world war. Not between China and America. Between humans and posthumans.

NEXUS is a smart thriller, fast paced and speculative, a clash of ideologies bound to leave you wondering, “Where do I stand?” It was a pleasure to devour Ramez Naam’s fictional debut and I cannot wait to move on to the sequel, CRUX (Amazon).

  • Recommended Age: 14+
  • Language: About average, nothing gratuitous but it's there
  • Violence: I was surprised by the level of violence in the book, there's some intense action
  • Sex: One hilarious mishap at the beginning

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