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Wednesday
Dec192012

Nexus by Ramez Naam

Published by Angry Robot on December 18, 2012 

What does it mean to be posthuman? It means with the right software, you can fight like Bruce Lee and perform like Peter North. It means your mind can network with those of other posthumans. It means your intelligence is vastly superior to that of mere humans. But can humans and posthumans coexist? Does the rise of the posthuman necessitate the death of the human? The questions posed in Nexus aren't new, but they have rarely been explored in such an entertaining fashion.

Although it is swallowed like a drug, Nexus is a nano-structure that creates an interface between the brain and computer software. It acts as a networking platform and an operating system. It creates the potential for one Nexus user to control another. Nexus is both a regulated drug and a prohibited technology. In short, it is illegal. Should it be?

Kaden Lane is one of a select group of people who, in addition to researching Nexus, is permanently infected with it. He thinks Nexus should be available to everyone, although he's worried that some users (and some governments) will abuse it. Samantha Cataranes works for a division of Homeland Security that responds to emerging risks. She views Nexus as a risk. She could lock up Kaden but she'd prefer to enlist his help for a more critical mission: determining whether the Chinese are using Nexus to create remote controlled assassins. If Kaden doesn't want to spend the rest of his life in prison, his task is to cozy up to Su-Yong Shu, suspected of being the primary architect of China's neurotech program. She is also suspected of being posthuman.

Kaden is a well-rounded, believable character. He isn't the only one. Samantha is Kaden's backup on the mission, a role that troubles her because she will need to use Nexus. The thought frightens her because she knows she enjoys Nexus despite her moral opposition to it, adding a layer of complexity to her character. Watson Cole, on the other hand, has no such qualms. Nexus gave him the gift of empathy. Once a battle-hardened marine, Cole is now a disciple of peace. Cole has a mission of his own: to make Nexus available to everyone, so they can experience the same transformation. While Cole's transformation occurs before the novel begins, Kaden and Samantha are continually questioning their beliefs, reevaluating their loyalties, evolving in response to new experiences and discoveries. They are fascinating characters.

Nexus gains intellectual heft from a contemporary philosophical debate that Ramez Naam projects into the future. Drugs and technology can be abused or they can be used responsibly. Should government prevent abuse by prohibiting the possession of anything new that might be abused, or should government tolerate a degree of abuse to promote individual freedom and societal advances? By developing and potentially releasing the means to develop posthuman life, is Kaden "threatening to make real humans obsolete," as Samantha argues, or is he empowering people with options they've never had before? This is the sort of debate that science fiction does so well -- anticipating ethical dilemmas of the future and, in so doing, shining a light on ethical dilemmas of the present.

Nexus tackles other issues as well, including the acquiescence of scientists in the suppression of science (scientists who protest put their research grants at risk) and the tendency of American foreign policy to disrupt or destroy the lives of innocent foreigners. Other things I liked about Nexus: the imaginative surveillance technology; the eagerness (as always) of the government to become just as bad as the bad guys it condemns; the grounding of repressive legislation in fear that the government instills, and the willingness of Americans to surrender their rights in response to those fears; the layers of intrigue; the characters' ever-changing perspectives of right and wrong; the true and surprising nature of Su-Yong Shu; the incorporation of Buddhist philosophy; the use of a virally infected religious cult and a Waco-like incident to explain Samantha's background; the extrapolation of the "war on drugs" and "war on terror" to a "war on science"; the paradox that sharing minds might promote individuality rather than "groupthink"; the battle between the government, as it attempts to suppress information released virally, and net users who labor to defeat the government's efforts.

And then there's the writing. Neem writes clear prose that, if not particularly lush, is well suited to the kind of story he tells. Action scenes are vivid and more imaginative than most thriller writers manage. Once the background is established, the pace is furious. A touch of melodrama in the ending is easy for forgive, as is a needlessly preachy epilog.

Nexus is intense, exciting, and thought-provoking. It's also fun.

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