TBTW: Nexus by Ramez Naam
If you enjoy science fiction because it makes you think in a new way about everything that is happening in the world around you, then this is the next book you need to put on your reading list.
The book Nexus is about a technology – Nexus 5 – that allows software to be installed onto the nodes in your brain. All of a sudden, people standing side by side can be talking to each other, but also communicating through their thoughts. With a little practice, one can move the other’s body, with or without their consent. They can show each other history (instead of tell), create false memories, and communicate directly with one, two, or hundreds at a time.
The book is set in the year 2040. Not even thirty years in the future. At first, such a timeline seemed impossible. No way, 30 years from now, am I talking to my best friends and random strangers via thought. But then I thought about 30 years ago. I thought about the year 1985. The internet didn’t exist. Cell phones didn’t exist. If we consider the incredible technological advances we’ve made in the last 30 years, it doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched. If we think about the medical advances made in the last 30 years in neurology, it seems almost plausible. And that is scary. Is this is the real world that we’ll be living in when we get to 2040? If I become a lawyer, am I going to be defending or prosecuting people with superhuman strength? As it is, anyone with a blackbelt is considered a deadly weapon – what happens if the physical enhancements in Nexus become real, and anyone with enough money can literally be transformed into a deadly weapon? If I become a doctor, will I be re-installing minds after the body has moved on? If I am a politician, if I go to work, say, for the Office of Science and Technology Policy, will I be trying to regulate drugs that allow you to literally read other people’s mind?
In a note from the author at the end of the book, I found this sentence: “While the idea of a technology like Nexus that allows people to communicate mind-to-mind may seem far-fetched, precursors of that technology are here today.”
Are there already politicians dealing with this stuff? Are there doctors working in semi-secret labs run by the CIA inserting drugs like this to create connections between spies and their handlers without any trace? Are there lawyers figuring out how to argue it is all legal? (Or that it is all illegal?)
Does it matter?
Nexus brings up not only the scientific considerations, but also the moral ones. As the main character, Kade, fights against the US government, the Chinese scientists, the Buddhist monks, and the clone armies, he is constantly facing moral questions at every turn. The scientific questions are mostly answered, although he and Samantha are always discovering new uses for the Nexus in their brains. But they must each face their desires, their intentions, their expectations for the innate morality of humanity. Is one negative enough to justify denying the world of dozens of positives? Who gets to decide?
Nexus is Ramez Naam’s first novel (though not his first book), and in some places it shows. Sometimes the dialogue seems forced, sometimes the action seems strained. Nonetheless, his style is easy, and every so often the details unfold in beautiful ways. He flows effortlessly from one character’s story to another, often starting with the same words he left off with, making the transitions effortless for the reader as well. The story is well designed, with enough reality to make it hit home. Published in 2013, there is a realistic tilt in the political conflicts and the characters have opinions that are in line with their respective governments. It is clearly well-researched, and, unlike other science fiction books I’ve read recently, never made me feel like it was straying into the implausible. (Except maybe the moving, color-shifting tattoos. That seems a bit farfetched.)
Another thing that made me love Nexus? It starts in San Francisco. It makes references to the Bay Area, to cities you pass as you head down 101. An early party in the book is located in Hangar 3 at the former NASA Ames Research Center. Like so many books before it, Nexus is grounded in reality – and openly accepts Silicon Valley as the center of whatever is to come. Well, Silicon Valley and China. As a Bay Area girl myself, I can’t help but love a book that makes a nod to my hometown. (And if you also love books in San Francisco, just because they’re in San Francisco, check out the fantastic novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore, or Little Brother, which is also science fiction.)