Crux and Apex
by: Ramez Naam
Crux and Apex are the second and third novels in the Nexus series by technologist and futurist Ramez Naam, and continue his examination of the possible consequences of the spread and development of the mind-sharing substance Nexus 5. Both thoughtful and thought provoking, Naam’s theories about how the world would develop socially and politically felt very realistic and in some cases tragically likely to be how things would go under these circumstances. While he does occasionally get a little bogged down in over-description of somewhat technical things, the story does flow pretty well. The characters, especially Kade, feel like the people they are: overwhelmed, facing consequences they could never have fully prepared for. Given the overlap in what I’d say about these novels, and not wanting to worry about repeating myself, I’m going to provide one big review for both novels instead of one for each. Obviously spoiler warnings for each book are in effect, but since these are book two and three of a series, if you’re worried about spoilers, go read Nexus, the first book before you read my reviews here.
Six months have passed since the release of Nexus 5. The world is a different, more dangerous place. In the United States, the terrorists – or freedom fighters – of the Post-Human Liberation Front use Nexus to turn men and women into human time bombs aimed at the President and his allies. In Washington DC, a government scientist, secretly addicted to Nexus, uncovers more than he wants to know about the forces behind the assassinations, and finds himself in a maze with no way out. In Thailand, Samantha Cataranes has found peace and contentment with a group of children born with Nexus in their brains. But when forces threaten to tear her new family apart, Sam will stop at absolutely nothing to protect the ones she holds dear. In Vietnam, Kade and Feng are on the run from bounty hunters seeking the price on Kade’s head, from the CIA, and from forces that want to use the back door Kade has built into Nexus 5. Kade knows he must stop the terrorists misusing Nexus before they ignite a global war between human and posthuman. But to do so, he’ll need to stay alive and ahead of his pursuers. And in Shanghai, a posthuman child named Ling Shu will go to dangerous and explosive lengths to free her uploaded mother from the grip of Chinese authorities. The first blows in the war between human and posthuman have been struck. The world will never be the same.Apex
Global unrest spreads through the US, China, and beyond. Secrets and lies set off shockwaves of anger, rippling from mind to mind. Riot police battle neurally-linked protestors. Armies are mobilized. Political orders fall. Nexus-driven revolution is in here. Against this backdrop, a new breed of post-human children are growing into their powers. And a once-dead scientist, driven mad by her torture, is closing in on her plans to seize planet's electronic systems, and re-forge everything in her image. A new Apex species is here. The world will never be the same.
I saw a chart somewhere recently, probably Twitter, that broke down what all of the near-future societies in SFF look like, and they put it at something like 70% hideous dystopia where everything sucks, 25% perfect paradise where everything is great and 5% remotely realistic world that might be what it actually looks like. I feel like Ramez Naam has set up a nice little cottage in that 5% where everything he writes strikes the chord of realism that is so often lacking in modern SFF’s love of dystopia. Nexus 5 basically joins the minds of its users. When we first see Nexus in use, it’s serving the role of Ecstasy at a rave. Naam doesn’t shy away from any of the positive or negative uses of Nexus, but instead tries to show the full range of possibility. In one scene we see a parent, weeping tears of joy because they can communicate with their autistic child. In another, we see somebody using Nexus to literally hijack people’s minds for blackmail, extortion and murder. Monks use Nexus to reach a state of meditation they’d never imagined possible, and terrorist organizations send sleeper agents as assassins. The whole range of possibility is considered and included here, which is fantastic. This series could so easily have become ‘The evil governments and terrorists would ruin everything’ or ‘The monks and hippies make everybody happy and no problems exist.’ It’s a great strength of this series that the balance is struck.
One of the other great things about this series to me is that the process takes time. After the global release of Nexus 5 at the end of the first novel, we pick up six months later, and there are only something like a few million actual Nexus users at that point. This feels about right to me. When presented with the idea of access to other people’s inner minds, most people tend to back away, as much from not wanting others to know what’s in their mind as the reverse. While there are ways to block people’s access to all of your thoughts, I think most people would be extremely hesitant to adopt something like this. So it falls to hippies, monks, the scientifically curious, and sadly, the malicious to be the early adopters. Governments start trying to adapt to the existence of what they can pretty much only view as a threat to national security. When you operate through obscurity so much, the openness promised by Nexus must seem insane.
I really enjoyed how Naam focuses on the philosophical implications of what something like Nexus would mean. Broadcasting emotions, sharing data, while these things foster communication and understanding, they don’t come with a magical level of acceptance as well. Science Fiction often likes to suggest that telepathy would end violence and end war because having introspective access to somebody else’s mind would somehow make you unable to kill them because now you understand them at some magical level that would make it impossible, and that has always bothered me. Nothing about Nexus or any other method of mind-to-mind communication feels like it would automatically change minds. I think that it would just make it easier for hateful people to find the people they hate to hate them more effectively. There would eventually be no war or violence if by the simple expedient that there’d eventually be no more people, or few enough people that they could all go find their own place to be. The frank appraisal by Naam of humanity as ‘not likely to get much better because of this, at least, not right away’ seems pretty much spot on to me.
So is the idea of Nexus and mind/emotion sharing horrible? Part of me feels like the good displayed in the Nexus series is enough good to outweigh the bad. Any new system is going to be abused by people, and just because something can be used for evil doesn’t make it evil or something we should ignore. Things are inherently amoral (not immoral) and the morality only comes in when people use something in a certain way. The potential for good seems like it should outweigh the abuses it makes possible, and given enough time, protections would be developed to stop the worst of the abuses, and systems would be in place to track and punish people. It could be made to work like everything else is made to work, through our fallible human trial and error. The possible benefits, even just those shown by Naam in this series are stupendous.
But then on the other hand, people use Nexus to literally take control of other people’s bodies. Suggestions are implanted which are impossible to ignore or even tell apart from their own thoughts. Kade at one point deals with somebody who was using Nexus to take control of people to rape them, by physically changing the Nexus inside them to make them violently ill if they even thought about raping somebody. On one hand, doesn’t that sound great? You just go around to everybody mandatorily and ‘fix’ their brain so they’re unable to even think about murdering, raping, stealing, etc. and we get world peace overnight. But by stripping away the choice, even the choice to do evil, from somebody, you strip away that vital thing that makes humanity so wonderful and terrible and powerful, which is free will. The possibilities for influence, for control that Nexus gives to those certain few who have the intellect and the drive to use those abilities in that proactive of a way pushes me to side with the folks in the novels who are really hesitant to even consider such a thing. At least now, if somebody wants me to act in a way they desire which is contrary to my own desires, they have to either convince me with logic, or try to coerce me with force, both of which give me some options for how I might oppose them. The idea that I might be made to not just act in a way contrary to my own will, but not even know it’s been done to me is just about the worst thing.
So the highest praise I can give to Ramez Naam and the Nexus series is that they really made me think. I’m a philosopher by education as well as inclination, and even when a lot of SFF can pull me in and engage me with the story, it’s rare that any elements of the novel give me food for thought outside my time reading the book. This series has sparked multiple conversations with people who haven’t even read the books, on the whole range of subjects that the series addresses. I definitely recommend these novels, and hope that this isn’t the last speculative fiction we see from Naam. He straddles the line between speculative fiction author and science popularizer that I think will be increasingly vital as time goes on. As more and more of the elements of science fiction become science fact, the more people who are given the chance to see what might be, and think about what they would do in that situation, the better off we’ll be when those things become reality.