Nexus, by Ramez Naam

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Publication date – December 18, 2012

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) 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.

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.

Thoughts: Nexus is the kind of book that, once you get into it, you’ll never really be able to pull yourself out of. Naam spends hundreds of pages telling a compelling story of mankind’s future, asking amazing questions about technologically-advanced directed evolution, benefits and drawbacks to advancement, safety versus freedom, where lines should get drawn (if anywhere). It’s an incredibly intelligent novel, filled with concepts that get you thinking, and it walks that fine and difficult line of combining science and morality in such a way that it doesn’t feel like you’re being drowned in either one.

The story is largely told between the alternative viewpoints of Kaden Lane and Samantha Cataranes. Kade, designer and programmer of Nexus 5, taken by the government and made into an unwilling spy to help take down the things he believes in most, all to keep his friends out of jail. Sam, a government agent with a troubles past who firmly believes that stopping the spread of Nexus is the right and safe thing to do… until she experiences it for herself. Nexus is a complex book with complex themes, a thrilling look into the near-future with a richly-detailed backstory filling in the gaps between now and then, all of them plausible, all of them terrifying and hopeful for different reasons.

Naam knows how to weave a story that hooks you early and keeps you pushing forward, and the creativity behind even just the concept of Nexus would be a strong enough combination to ensure that I kept reading, even if the plot were weaker than it is. Rather than being an actual drug that somehow enables telepathic and empathic communication between users, Nexus is more of a machine, a piece of nano-technology that, once ingested, spreads to the brain and maps out pathways of thought and then uses radio signals to communicate between itself and the Nexus nodes in the brains of others. It’s not a wholly original idea at its base level (how many sci-fi novels have talked about neural implants for mind-to-mind communication), but it’s presented so well and so realistically that it’s easy to believe that we could well be seeing this sort of technology in a few decades. Naam includes a small section at the back of the book to talk about the real-world technology that inspired him, things that already exist and are being used today, laying the foundation for a very believable story and very believable consequences of advancing on that technology.

One thing I loved about this book is the way morality is not presented as a black-and-white issue. There are arguments going back and forth about whether freedom is more important than safety, or vice versa: let the advancement of the Nexus technology continue and allow people to use it for their own purposes, or tightly control it and not let any leak out because of the risks involved. If someone can access your mind and feel what you’re feeling, overpower your will and control you, where do you draw the line? Do the risks outweight the benefits? Is it better to let people make their own judgment and risk some people misusing the technology, or is it better to keep it away from people to minimize the potential damage? It’s the same old song and dance that’s been repeated time and again when technology advances. If there’s any potential for misuse (and there always will be), should it be controlled? And it’s not presented as hypothetical misuse, either. Multiple scenes in the book demonstrate some truly despicable behaviour from people who’ve gotten power from advanced tech.

Likening it to something that people are still talking about today: net neutrality. Is it better to restrict freedom and access and allow for harsher punishments in order to keep channels of piracy and terrorism down, or will that be harming the innocent more than punishing the guilty?

Nexus also explores the issue of what it means to be human, and who gets to make that call. If people have physical or mental advancements thanks to gene therapy or technology, do they still get to be called human? Where’s the cut-off point for that definition? Is humanity a way of thinking, a purely genetic definition, a combination of both? There are some tough questions asked, very few answers given, and both sides of the argument are presented pretty evenly. Neither side of the debate is wholly wrong or right, and Nexus has some wonderfully complex ethically dilemmas that bear thinking about and discussing.

Between the philosophy, Naam’s incredibly engaging writing style, a diverse and realistic cast of characters, and the fact that this book has now twice satisfied a deep craving for some incredibly social sci-fi, I can say with certainty that it will be a book I return to again and again in future. And I expect that I’ll find the sequel to be the same way. This is a book not to be missed, especially if you’re looking for serious mental stimulation without having a book talk over your head, and that will still take you on a thrilling trip all over the world. Nexus is the kind of book that redefines boundaries, and is one that I’d feel confident in recommending to just about anyone I know with an open mind and an interest in speculative fiction. If you haven’t read this one yet, you’re really missing out.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

10 comments on “Nexus, by Ramez Naam

  1. I read a short story by him, Water, that’s set in the same world as these books. I absolutely loved it, definitely need to read his books ASAP.

      • Yea, I loved what I saw there. Especially the whole element of corporate exploitation due to social necessity of the implants. I’m buying those books later this week, definitely.

    • I first read Nexus last year, but honestly, after also having read Water, I think that short story would put him on my radar even if I hadn’t already read other things he’s written. He’s got an interesting creative mind, that’s for certain!

  2. Fantastic review. Naam is one smart, brilliant BRILLIANT guy. And what’s amazing is that this book is so easy to get into and I never felt lost or got the feeling of being talked down to. I’d always just thought that me and cyberpunkish novels don’t mix until I read this one and enjoyed the heck out of it, really opened my eyes.

    • It’s impressive to think of just how much of this novel relies on advanced technology and yet it’s all explained so easily, so deftly, that even those who aren’t big into tech or neuroscience can still understand the concepts. I’ve notice a lot that people who have a field of specialty often explain it as though those around them are more familiar with what’s going on thanthey are, because the specialist is so wrapped up in their field that they don’t know how little most people actually know. So it’s a point of note that Naam doesn’t fall into that trap here.

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