by: Ramez Naam
Nexus is a thriller by Egyptian futurist, technologist and author Ramez Naam. It introduces us to a near-future world where the eponymous drug, Nexus, allows people to directly link to the minds of other users. An interesting concept, with some solid science behind it, but the story suffers a little from pretty tropey flat characters. If you like futurist fiction where the science seems likely, but is still advanced enough to be pretty cool, especially if the whole hivemind/empathy thing tickles your fancy, then this is a great read for you.
In the near future, the experimental nano-drug Nexus can link humans 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.
It amuses me to no end to see people criticize science fiction for being ‘too unrealistic’ in general. As long as our current understanding of the basic laws of the universe is either followed, or it’s made clear that they know they’re breaking the rules, you should really just let it go. After all, most often, sci-fi happens in other worlds, or so far in the future that we really have no idea what is or isn’t “realistic." If somebody in the 1700s wrote a story about the distant future where I could type words into a box, and you could read them instantly from anywhere in the world, they’d be told to be realistic too. With Nexus it is even more absurd to see (and I have seen) people level that same issue. This is a much nearer future, and the technology in question is the drug Nexus which essentially networks brains together rather like how computers do it. They can share experiences, feelings, communicate mind to mind, all that good stuff. Here’s the trick though, that’s not actually science fiction. That already exists.One study I found involved a mouse that was hooked up to a brain scanner and had a lever it could push to signal a robot arm to dispense water. After they did this for a while and got a handle on how the mouse’s brain fired when it pushed the lever, they disconnected the lever and had the scanner’s system signal the robot arm itself. Not only did it work, the mouse eventually managed to figure out that it no longer needed to push the lever and could just think about pushing the lever and there’d be water. Consider for a moment how cool that is. A mouse is communicating, wirelessly, using only its thoughts, to impact other equipment that can receive it. People are controlling prosthetic limbs this way, and we’re not far off from where this could easily include things like instant messaging software or similar tech. So in reality, this isn’t even that much of a stretch. So anybody else thinking of saying this looks crazy, consider that Naam himself is definitely hanging around the forefront of this kind of thing, and that this may not be so far out there as it looks.
So the tech is compelling and well-thought out. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always make a sci-fi book a good book. Naam’s characters suffer from being plucked from the annals of Story Archetype Monthly and dropped right into the novel without much of a brush-up. We have our plucky and idealistic young genius protagonist. We have our ass-kicking female military agent who naturally has an accompanying dark past and secret weakness. We have our intensely loyal to the point of insanity Government Man, and his accompanying ‘brilliant, on board, but slowly developing second thoughts’ scientist assistant. We even manage to fit in a ‘former soldier who gets pulled into one last job out of a sense of obligation and duty’ they’re all here! There’s nothing necessarily wrong with doing this. Sometimes deep character development isn’t really what you’re trying to do. Nobody enjoys James Bond because of the depth of all the secondary characters. And you can certainly enjoy Nexus without finding the characters especially compelling. This feels mostly like a case of a scientist writing a novel which is much preferable to a novelist trying to do science. And there’s nothing wrong with how these characters are used. Naam is certainly a competent writer even if he’s still stretching his fiction legs a little bit.
I like to give a lot of slack to debut authors when only one area of their storytelling feels weak to me. It just speaks to a level of experience, not ability, and I’m always willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Ramez Naam has crafted a compelling and interesting story, well thought out and well told. The characters he had were used well, the story was paced appropriately with a lot of really solid beats. There’s a subtle humour underlying some of even the more tense scenes which I really appreciated. After all, you don’t get nominated for the John W Campbell award for no reason. (For those who don’t know, the John W Campbell is the award for Best New Writer in science-fiction/fantasy, and has been awarded to such authors as Spider Robinson, CJ Cherryh, Orson Scott Card and Stephen R Donaldson [Fun fact: George R R Martin was nominated in 1973 and didn’t win]) Naam is a writer with a lot of potential. He has better science chops than a lot of SFF writers, and his storytelling is only going to get better.
Dan Received an Advanced Review Copy of this book from Angry Robot via NetGalley.