Novel * Ramez Naam * Nano-Drugs is Mess You Up * 2013
Envy is unbecoming but let me tell you a thing that is true: people like the author of Nexus make everyone else feel worse about themselves. Here we have a published author, one who has been able to publish his whole sci-fi trilogy and hey, it’s deserved because this book at least is pretty good. Yet this thing is like a hobby, a ‘whatever I guess I’ll write a book because how hard could it be,’ because Naam’s day job was helping develop software for Microsoft and starting nanotech companies and being all sciency. He’s probably also excellent at sports and your mom would love him. Anyway polymaths are the worst and yes I’m just salty because mathematics elude me which makes real science all but impossible for me and I’m bad at sports. Your mom would probably still love me, though. Anyway, I guess I’m still qualified to talk about Naam’s novel, which is a decent techno-thriller. One of the critic blurbs refers to it as an “airport” novel, which sounds like a burn to me but actually describes the book pretty well.
This novel moves. Not only does the plot race along at a breathless clip – action, action, action – but Naam’s style is comprised of short, staccato sentences that just zip along. As a book it works, and you can blast through the thing in no time. Like waiting for your plane in an airport, perhaps. The action scenes, of which there are many, are brutal but quick. It’s paced like a Bourne movie (I know I know, but I haven’t read the books), and there are a lot of fights popping off the entire time. There are sections of the novel which almost feel like you’re reading a screenplay, and while that may sound bad it works more than it doesn’t. Now the downside of ripping through a novel like this is that while the action is tight and controlled and exciting, the characters skew towards being flatter than you might like. There’s Main Guy, Kade. Then you’ve got Woman Lead, Samantha. And the rest. Again, this sounds bad but really you just have to adjust to what kind of novel this is and go with it.
Weirdly, Nexus is also a book of ideas. It’s not socially profound like a Huxley novel, but Naam is a man of science and ideas and this novel is uncomfortably rooted in real world science. Now I say it’s not profound, but again I don’t mean that as a knock against the book. It’s not trying for a place in the literary canon here. Naam is much more interested exploring the ideas behind nanotechnology and its place in neurology. Oh, and also writing a rip-shit action story. He succeeds in both areas. Nexus is about a drug of the same name. This drug allows people to directly interface with each other’s brains. It also installs some kind of operating system in your brain which allows you to override all kinds of things, including motor signals. Nexus is a near-future novel, and everything here is based on current and ongoing research. We’re probably not quite to the level of mastery displayed in the book; certainly if there’s a drug out there which would allow people to connect mind-to-mind in a reasonable facsimile of telepathy it hasn’t been announced. Such a thing would be a volatile discovery, which of course Nexus takes to various extremes.
Nexus, in between sick chase scenes, is asking a couple of very important questions of its readers. Are we as a species ready to cope with the fundamental questions of new technology? What does the notion of “post-human” mean, and is society going to be able to function if and when humans start evolving beyond our natural abilities? These questions are at the root of most good science fiction, and of course there are as many answers as there are sci-fi novels. Personally, I have two great literary loves in my life. Science fiction and Modernism. Sci-fi is obviously forward looking, and even at its most apocalyptic tends to be optimistic more often than not. Nexus is certainly a positive, optimistic book. Modernism, of course, is generally pessimistic in tone. While many of the Moderns were out there trying to “make it new,” and there were whole movements out there embracing technology and change – there were manifestos and everything – most of the actual literature seems like a lament for the fracturing of society. I’ve written about several examples right here on this very blog, but I bring up the Moderns because they have the same concerns about humanity’s ability to deal with technology.
The good guys and bad guys are pretty clearly delineated in Nexus, with the good guys embracing the free dissemination of the Nexus drug and the bad guys are basically the government who want to suppress it and keep it out of the public’s hands. In between is Samantha, the Woman Lead. She’s a government agent who has been augmented to be more than human. Now, Sam has a whole tragic history which has led to a deep distrust of technology like Nexus and doesn’t care for her augments but understands that they are necessary to keep the playing field level with baddies who are trying to make Nexus and the like easily accessible. Sam and the government are of the opinion that humanity can’t handle a drug like Nexus. The ability to interface directly with other people’s minds is just too dangerous, because of the opportunity to misuse it. Sam, who grew up in a fucked up cult situation, is all too aware of the potential for telepathic domination and subjugation. Nexus straight up allows you to control other people’s motor functions, after all, and the danger involved is legit.
Despite the danger, you’ve got guys like Kade out there trying to improve the product and push humanity ever further toward artificial evolution. Early in the novel, Sam is infiltrating Kade’s hippie commune in order to put the government clamps down on Nexus production and distribution. In order to keep her cover, she takes Kade’s newest version of Nexus, and her mind is totally blown, man. The peace-and-love hippie circles that ensue are probably the novel’s weakest moments, but they’re necessary to illustrate the power of human connection. And while I could live without the whole “let’s just hold hands and vibe with the universe, man” bits, I can live with them for that reason. Also these moments are generally undercut by scenes of horrific violence, so it all balances out. These experiences also wear away at Sam, who goes from black hat bad guy to white hat good guy over the course of the novel. Eventually she just gets it, and is able to move past her horrible cult childhood. Yeah, it’s all a little ham-fisted, but this is a book of broad strokes.
In the end, the good guys win. The government baddies, and of course the higher up the chain you go the worse they are, are unable to control the dissemination of the Nexus formula. Kade is able to transmit the knowledge needed to make it in basement laboratories and the NSA are unable to stop it. The Internet always wins. Nexus makes the proclamation that humans are more good than evil, and that the ability to connect directly with other humans outweighs the immediate and obvious dangers of evil people misusing the ability for profit. Perhaps it’s my inclination toward Modernist thought and writing, but I’m not so sure. I remember Brave New World and the effects of two apocalyptic wars on society. In terms of human history, those wars and those books were not that long ago. If history indicates anything, it’s that we’ve had trouble keeping up with our own technology, that it ends up getting the better of us because the powerful and ambitious wind up exploiting it to further their own aims. I look around at the word of 2017 and I’m not exactly filled with hope for society figuring everything out anytime soon. Maybe something like Nexus – the instant ability to empathize with anyone and everyone would change all that – but who knows. There are serious discussions to be had about these issues, and books like Nexus, despite being an action-thriller, help us prepare for them.