Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Ramez Naam's NEXUS #OneBookAtATime

I think I do a pretty good job of keeping up on developments in art and science via my RSS feeds, but somehow I seem to have missed the news that Ray Kurzweil and Robert Ludlum had a bastard child together and sent him back in time to grow up as a little Egyptian boy. But, you know, I can't keep track of everything. And better late than never, on such discoveries, I say.

Fortunately for me, I'm not dependent on myself alone to stay on top of matters. I have people like Lee Harris and the rest of the gang at Angry Robot books on my team. And boy, am I glad they found this Ramez Naam guy.

Nexus is that rare treat, a serving of what I can only call neuropunk, a still unusual genre, the best other example I can come up with is probably Bruce Sterling's Distraction (which just happens to be one of my all-time favorite novels), though a case could certainly be made for Alastair Reynolds' Conjoiner-heavy Redemption Ark as well.* Like Distraction, Nexus concerns itself with human enhancement technology that poses some sticky ethical, legal and political questions but is out there in the world regardless, and gaining traction. But where Distraction takes place in an America that is so close to being a failed state as makes no odds, and deals at least in part with political figures who are exploiting the tech for various ends, in Nexus, the American government is still iron-strong and opposes the tech with all its military might, repressive policing and scare tactics. It's impossible, therefore, not to see parallels to the "wars" on drugs and terrorism in which our country is still engaged.

Which is where the Robert Ludlum/Tom Clancy DNA comes into the equation, for while one hero, Kaden Lane, is a neuro-hacker extraordinaire, who has, with the help of a small team, added so much functionality to a mindlinking nanotech street drug (that would be Nexus) as to make it a whole new thing, our other is a government agent Samantha Catarenes, herself cybernetically and biotechnologically enhanced to the eyeballs because sometimes to fight monsters one has to become a bit of one, who is so ideologically opposed to what Kade and his people have done that it's a wonder she doesn't claw his eyes out on their first meeting. Nexus has already shown tremendous potential as a tool for coercion, after all. The irony of a government using old-fashioned forms of coercion to suppress a new coercion tech that they don't control is addressed, but only barely; the tension is mostly between those like Kade and the ambiguous pseudo-villain Su-Yong Shu (a Chinese neuroscientist who seems suspiciously way smarter than everyone else on earth) who value its potential to liberate and enhance and transform humanity, and those like Sam and her masters, who are hung up on how much worse it could make life for those who don't choose to take advantage of its offerings. As if anyone wouldn't, am I right?

But never fear, the novel rarely sinks to didacticism. It's too busy also being an action thriller! There are lots and lots and lots of fight scenes, with everything from fists to stealth helicopters. Being the sort who twiddles her thumbs through big explosive action scenes in movies, I could have done with a bit less of this, but I understand why it was there; most other people twiddle their thumbs through the parts I find interesting. And some of the action scenes are quite important to the plot, and to the plot of the book's sequels, to which I am eagerly looking forward.

Some of my friends have complained that there is too much infodump in Nexus, but aside from the unnecessary and distracting "Briefing" interludes**, I didn't see that. Briefings aside, it was just right, balanced out by some nice character moments and some themes I wasn't expecting to encounter here, like the potential dovetailing of Buddhist practice with neurotech (most of the story takes place at a giant international neuroscience conference in Bangkok), though this last element made the excruciatingly long and over-the-top fight scenes all the more jarring.

This first novel is obviously just laying the groundwork for potential big, big stuff in Crux***, due out in September. And a lot of how I'll ultimately evaluate this novel will depend on what Naam does in the sequel. If it's just another violent technothriller with cool transhuman elements, I might be disappointed. At this point, though, I have faith that Naam has something more interesting in mind, that he's brave enough to try really exploring how tech like Nexus (which is not as far-fetched as some might think, as anyone who follows a science blog or two, or who reads Naam's non-fiction More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement [which I declined to finish because I sing in the choir he's preaching to there, and because his publisher apparently blew the editing/proofreading budget on whores and coke or something, but which you might still want to check out if that doesn't bother you as much as it does me] will know already) might fundamentally change our world. All signs point to that being the case, so far.

*In fact, one could read Nexus as a sort of earthbound version of the origin story of the Conjoiners without doing oneself any great mental violence. Har har.

**Why are so many authors relying on this device of fictitious "documentation" these days? It looks to me almost like a lack of confidence in one's storytelling chops, if not an insulting attitude towards readers who "aren't getting it." Authors, once you've earned that willing suspension of disbelief (and Naam did, right away, with a gloriously bizarre and hilarious first scene that I'll remember for a long, long time), readers happily fill in the blanks themselves. They might not fill them in exactly the way you want them to, but that's not your call! Give it a rest and just tell us a damn story.

***And I, for one, am grateful that the sequels won't be Sexus and Plexus. What whaaat?

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