Nexus by Ramez Naam

NexusTitle: Nexus
Series: Nexus
Author:
Ramez Naam
Publisher: 
Angry Robot
Published:
 16 December 2012; my edition published 3 March 2015
Genre: 
science fiction, thriller
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:
 
8/10

Nexus is a nanotechnology that allows users to link their minds. Kaden Lane and his friends have managed to modify and upgrade it, so that it connects more nodes and allows the brain to run software. Nexus is considered a drug, probably because it’s taken in liquid form and tends to get used for pleasure or abuse in the way drugs typically are, but that isn’t really what it is. It’s a nano-machine that can be permanently integrated after just one dose. And by using it, people can become transhuman or even posthuman.

And that’s where the trouble lies. The American government of 2040 is strictly opposed to posthumans, and deems them non-human and highly dangerous. The Emerging Risks Directorate (ERD) sends agent Samantha Cataranes to infiltrate Kade’s group of scientists and Nexus users, and when they’re caught hosting a Nexus party, almost all of them get arrested. Kade is blackmailed into helping the ERD to save his friends from going to jail. He knows the organisation will steal the Nexus tech for their covert operations, but he feels responsible for the consequences of what he’s created, particularly the fact that his friends’ lives could be ruined because of it. The ERD also convince him that he will be doing the world a favour by spying on Su-Yong Shu, a Nobel Prize–winning scientist who they suspect has been upgraded to posthuman status and is trying to change the world in ways they won’t accept.

Along with Sam, Kade is sent to a conference in Bangkok, Thailand, to meet Su-Yong Shu. Ironically, he needs Nexus and other transhuman tech to enable him to do this – software to numb his emotions and keep him calm and a combat program to help him defend himself with a minimum of training. It’s even more of a moral quandary for Sam: she’s a government agent fighting transhumanism and posthumanism, but to do that she’s had to become a posthuman supersoldier. She’s driven by childhood experiences that have made her hate this sort of tech, but when she uses Nexus she’s immediately seduced by it. After all, its most noble feature is a beautiful one – connecting people, sharing everything, understanding everyone. By using Nexus, she might be able to come to terms with her past.

It’s this feature that motivates Watson Cole to protect Kade and Nexus no matter the cost. Cole, another supersoldier, committed a great deal of violence on behalf of his government. With Nexus, he connected with his and other victims of political violence and realised the horrors of what he’d done. Even though it still gives him nightmares, Nexus ultimately made him a better person, and he believes it will make a better world, if it’s in the hands of people like Kade.

Obviously there are downsides too. Nexus is mind-hacking tech. A similar drug was used for sex slavery. The ERD is worried about armies of brainwashed supersoldiers and tries to convince Kade to help them by showing him evidence of people who have been hacked and used as assassins. It’s uses are revolutionary, evolutionary and terrifying, and the novel is built on the question of whether or not it should be used at all. Nexus is essentially an ethical debate embedded in what happens to be a pretty good thriller.

Sam’s character is more or less at the entry point of the debate: she has to decide if she’s for or against Nexus, for or against transhumanism and posthumanism for the world. Kade is obviously pro-Nexus, so for him it’s a question of how to use it – give it to everyone, or to an elite? What is the best way of fostering all the benefits of Nexus, while curbing its dangers?

It’s a fascinating discussion, although that’s mostly because of all the possibilities it explores, not because there’s a truly difficult ethical tussle. It’s pretty clear where Naam’s allegiance lies, and the story steers us neatly in that direction with the right placement of good/noble characters vs unscrupulous bastards and government drones. We’re way past the point of asking whether humanity should upgrade itself; it’s just a question of how to do that in the most ethical way possible.

And I guess it’s also an easy question because, in my case, Naam is preaching to the converted. I’m more interested in the stories where things like AI, nanotech or cybernetic enhancements challenge our conceptions of personhood, and create dynamic ways of existing. I’m less interested in stories where these technologies turn out to be more danger than they’re worth. I like sci fi that’s positive about the future, not afraid to face its challenges.

Which isn’t to say that Nexus and its physical enhancements are shown to usher in a utopia. Naam has written a rallying cry for posthumanism, but doesn’t avoid showing us how dangerous it can be. Early in the story, Kade and his friends capture Sam after her Nexus training fails to stand up to the upgraded drug and she accidentally reveals her true identity through the mind-link. Rangan, one of the developers, uses Nexus to restrain Sam by hacking her mind. Sam rightly points out that what they’ve got here is a coercion technology; they have the power to read her mind and force her to do whatever they want. They can control her body while she is helpless to resist. Kade makes a feeble attempt at a counterargument, stating that this is just a safety precaution and they plan to put in safeguards to prevent people from using Nexus for mind control. The naïveté of this is glaring – Nexus will almost certainly be used in horrific ways and as noble as Kade may be, he will never be able to prevent it. Quite often he’s forced to face up to the unintended consequences of his creation, and because he’s a good guy he grapples with the ethics of it.

All this is deftly intertwined with some pretty awesome action and high-tech espionage, so there’s plenty of entertainment to accompany all the food for thought. Nexus is the kind of sci fi you should be playing close attention to, not only because it makes for such a good read, but because we will eventually be caught up in these debates for ourselves and our societies.

The Silent Sister: Winner

Whoops! Totally forgot to post this. Congrats to Lu, who wins my copy of The Silent Sister by Diane Chamberlain!

The Silent Sister

I hope you can all forgive my absence recently; I’m finding out exactly what it means to be a freelancer!

Giveaway: The Silent Sister by Diane Chamberlain

Morning everyone! As promised I’ve got another giveaway for you. This one’s a mystery with dark family secrets to uncover, and the book is valued at R145.

The Silent Sister

The Silent Sister by Diane Chamberlain (Pan Macmillan)

What if everything you believed was a lie?

Riley MacPherson is returning to her childhood home in North Carolina. A place that holds cherished memories. While clearing out the house she finds a box of old newspaper articles – and a shocking family secret begins to unravel.

Riley has spent her whole life believing that her older sister Lisa died tragically as a teenager. But now she’s starting to uncover the truth: her life has been built on a foundation of lies, told by everyone she loved.

Lisa is alive. Alive and living under a new identity. But why exactly was she on the run all those years ago, and what secrets are being kept now?

As Riley tries to separate reality from fiction, her discoveries call into question everything she thought she knew about her family. (Goodreads)

To Enter:

1. Share this post on Twitter or Facebook.

2. Leave a comment on this blog post and link to the shared post or your profile so I know you’ve completed step one. If you use Facebook, you also have the option of just clicking “share” on the relevant post on my page; as long as I can see that you’ve shared.

Rules:
 – South Africa only.
– Entries are open until midnight on Monday 12 June. I will announce the winner on Tuesday 13 June.
– Just to be clear, you’re only entered if you leave a comment on this post, AND I can see that you’ve shared on Twitter or Facebook.

Thanks to the team at Pan Macmillan for sending me a copy of this book, and good luck to the entrants!

SIlent Sister detail

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Broken MonstersTitle: Broken Monsters
Author:
Lauren Beukes
Publisher: 
Umuzi
Published:
 July 2014
Genre: 
fantasy, crime, horror
Source: 
Umuzi
Rating:
 
8/10

I think Lauren Beukes has hit her stride with crime fiction, or at least her distinct brand of crime fiction – a kind of character-driven, urban-fantasy crime thriller with elements of horror. The Shining Girls was like no other crime novel I’d ever read, and now I’m glad to find something similarly fresh but with a totally different story.

Like The Shining Girls, Broken Monsters juggles multiple POVs, a large cast of great characters, and explores the intricacies of an American city (this time it’s Detroit). Beukes uses the killer as a POV character again, which means there’s no mystery as to who he is, but you do have the opportunity to see him work and experience his insanity more intimately. And, like Harper Curtis in The Shining Girls, Clayton Broom is driven by a force he doesn’t understand and cannot control.

This time though, the killer isn’t trying to snuff out brilliance but create art. The figure on the cover of the South African edition is a representation of the body that sets the story in motion – the top-half of a ten-year-old boy, fused to the bottom half of a deer. But the cover achieves what the killer does not – it is art, with a sense of beauty and magic and life. The boy in the novel is dead and butchered and he’s never going to leap like the killer intended.

Detective Gabriella Versado investigates the crime scene after a rookie discovers the body, and she’s put in charge of the case. Gabi is a single mom and has a slightly uneasy relationship with her teenage daughter, Layla. They can get on pretty well, but Gabi’s always working, and Layla is a typically feisty teenager going through more than the usual troubles. Her best friend Cas has cooked up a scheme for trapping an online sex predator, and you just know it’s not going to turn out the way they expect it to.

TK is a homeless guy who survives by scavenging the abandoned buildings of Detroit. He’s a good man who tries to help others and makes an effort to improve himself, but you know that, sadly, he’s never going to get over the rough start he had in life.

Jonno is, in some ways, like his polar opposite. While TK does meaningful work, and makes real connections with people, Jonno made a living as a blogger writing the kinds of clickbait lists we see on the internet everyday: “‘10 Rules for the New Gentleman’s Guide To Dating’ […] It’s all chum to pull in the likes” (57). He recently fucked up his life and his career, and now he’s in Detroit, ransacking the pretentious hipster scene for the edgy content that will rack up enough likes for his ex-girlfriend to notice.

If TK comes across as an unassuming, unrecognised hero, then Jonno is a kind of thoughtless villain. He isn’t the murderer, but when he finds out about the bizarre killings, he sees his chance to become a social media celebrity. He jeopardises Gabi’s investigation in his relentless bid to make the most horrifying, sensational information public, meanwhile spouting bullshit about finding the truth for the sake of the people.

Social media is a major theme in the novel and forms part of the structure of its narrative. Beukes uses chats, texts, Facebook messages and other digital communication – sometimes in text-speak and/or barely coherent ranting. Issues of privacy in a social media age become important plot points and have profound effects on the characters and their relationships.

The novel also happens to be a great police procedural, capturing the realities of being a cop in “The. Most. Violent. City. In. America” (9) and getting into the weirder information required for the investigation, like the meat glue used to fuse the boy and the deer, or the process of taxidermy. Beukes has clearly done her research, and it pays off.

Equally well-crafted are the characters. If shows like True Detective or Broadchurch appeal to you, where the narrative takes its time to develop the characters instead of focusing only on the murder investigation, then you might like Broken Monsters for the same reason.

Rather than give you a general overview, I thought I’d take an in-depth look at a few small details. On the very first page, while Gabi is checking out the body that sets the whole story in motion, we learn a lot about her relationship with Layla. She happens to think about the myth of “mothers and daughters bonding over fat-free frozen yoghurts” and counters it with her own feeling that “the best conversations she has with Layla are the ones in her head” (9).

So there’s a longing for Gabi and Layla to be a cute, quirky mother-daughter pair, perhaps something like the Gilmore Girls, but we’re immediately told that that idea is a fantasy. When we later see Gabi and Layla together, it’s clear that they could make a great team (I love the line “don’t forget the code to the gun safe, beanie, just-in-case” (26)), but there’s always a fundamental disconnect between them.

This is illustrated on the other two pages of the brief opening chapter. The hybrid body reeks, and Gabi is with a rookie cop who is hanging back because of the smell. She offers him some fruity lipgloss that she bought for Layla, to smear on his upper lip:

“Here,” she offers, fishing a small red tub of lipgloss out of her pocket. Something she bought at the drugstore on a whim to appease Layla. A candy-flavoured cosmetic – that’s sure to bridge the gap between them. “It’s not menthol, but it’s something.” (10)

Again, I love what this says about the characters. Gabi is trying to be thoughtful by buying her daughter a little gift, but she doesn’t hesitate to give some of the lipgloss to a colleague. When she later gives it to Layla, her daughter immediately scoffs, pointing out that it’s just a scam and doesn’t do your lips any good. At the same time though, she’s thinking about how she’d actually like to use some of the lipgloss. A few lines later, she complains rudely that she doesn’t want to hear Gabi’s cop stories, while texting her friend Cas and admitting that she actually likes the stories.

Another interesting thing about the lipgloss detail is that it plays a role in the depiction of Gabi’s character and her relationship with the rookie cop. She’s not actually trying to help him – as Layla snarkily points out later, rubbing menthol or whatever on your upper lip won’t cover the smell of a body (she watches the crime channel). Gabi’s playing a prank on the rookie because he’s an FNG – Fucking New Guy. Because the lipgloss has glitter in it, the squad ends up calling him “Sparkles”. At first Gabi tries to brag about her prank to Layla (who isn’t interested) but later she feels bad about embarrassing the guy because he proves to be a conscientious, observant police officer. That affects the way Gabi treats him later in the story, and subsequently affects the way she thinks about herself, so that that random thing with the lipgloss ends up being meaningful all the way to the end of the novel.

I really appreciate this sort of writing – it’s clever, it’s thoughtful and it makes good use of the words (and thus of the effort we put into reading them).

Oh and, in case you were wondering, this is definitely a fantasy novel. I haven’t gotten into the details of how it’s fantasy, because for most of the story it’s quite a subtle thing, hovering between symptoms of madness and the decidedly supernatural. Sometimes I only realised later that a certain event had had a supernatural influence. If this isn’t enough of a fantasy element for you, then just be patient and brace yourself for the ending.

Giveaway: Gridlinked by Neal Asher

Guys, I need to clear some space on my shelves, so I’ll be giving a few books free to good homes. Can you help me out?

First on the list is Gridlinked by Neal Asher (2001), book one in the Agent Cormac series.

Gridlinked

Blurb on the back:

A technician passing through the runcible of Samarkand at a fraction below light speed causes a fusion explosion that kills thousands and obliterates a terraforming project. Earth Central sends agent Cormac to investigate.

Cormac must find a resolution without the support of the AI grid, for thirty years of being gridlinked have left him devoid of humanity. But he does have the help of Shuriken, a throwing star with a mind of its own, as well as Golem combat androids and the ambivalently motivated ‘dracomen’. And he’ll need all the help he can get as he’s being tracked by a vicious psychopath, backed by augmented mercenaries and a killing machine called Mr Crane…

To enter:
1. Follow me on Facebook or Twitter.
2. Leave a comment on this post (and leave the name or Twitter handle you used to follow me, if it differs from the one you use here).

Rules:
– I plan to do several of these, so for budget reasons this giveaway is currently limited to South Africa.
– Entries close at midnight on Thursday 4 June.
– The winner will be selected randomly and announced on Friday.

I have to thank the good people at the South African offices of Pan Macmillan for sending me this book years ago, and offer my apologies for not getting around to reading it. Hopefully it’ll go to someone more appreciative :)

Gridlinked detail

Book Lounge Launch of Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes

Last night was the launch of Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes, and I think it’s quite possible that I was there because of this gorgeous cover:

GL Full

I splurged on the first edition because it’s a stunning piece amidst the generic or boring covers that most books get, and because I’ve slowly been building a collection of favourite and beautiful books in hardcover. For me, the cover can be a major selling point, the reason that I’ll spend extra for the best possible edition instead of waiting for it to hit the bargain bins, opting for a cheaper eBook (if there is one) or borrowing it from the library.

Having bought a first edition, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to get it signed, so off I went to the Book Lounge, where some dedicated soul had reproduced the cover on the window:

Gl window display

I wasn’t just there to indulge my book fetish of course; I love hearing authors talk about their work, and Rose-Innes had a great discussion with Hedley Twidle, a lecturer in English Language and Literature at UCT.

GL Launch

You can read Twidle’s review of Green Lion over at Books LIVE. I loved the observation he made at the beginning of the conversation: he referred to Ivan Vladislavić’s quote on the cover, which says that the novel is “as full of life as the Ark”, and noted that the ark is, of course, full of the very last of all types of life.

That grim paradox seems perfect for Green Lion. It’s set in a future where many more wild animals and environments have been lost, and Table Mountain has been fenced off as a kind of ark where surviving species are preserved. Rhodes Memorial has become a research institute where attempts are being made to bring animals back from extinction, like the attempt to bring back the quagga. It’s the home of Sekhmet, the last living black-maned lioness, at least until she mauls someone and escapes. Con, a friend of the man who was mauled, travels up the mountain to track her down.

This was the inciting image, says Rose-Innes – a man travelling up a mountain, finding revelation, and coming back down. What she did then was fill in all the human impulses leading up to that. She described the story as wedge-shaped – it begins with all the chaos of human complexity, then narrows to focus on one moment of disaster and transcendence.

IMG_0041

It’s also a novel about Table Mountain and Cape Town, but she sought to subvert the usual images and approach it from a fresh perspective. The wilderness she depicts is hybrid and corrupt, abutted by human construction. Having destroyed so much, people are now fenced off from nature in an attempt to save it. Rose-Innes describes it as the poignant human impulse to stop death, but emphasises that that cause is fraught with contradiction. We seek to preserve animals not for their own sake but because of the emotional and symbolic meaning they hold for us. Animals are fetishized and idealised, symbolising what is beautiful, meaningful and lost, but these ideas are divorced from the reality of the animals themselves. We need to rethink our ideas of pristine nature, which often exists in isolation from nature. I’m guessing then, that this is how a man gets mauled in the beginning of the novel – because his idea of the lion is a fantasy far-removed from the reality of a dangerous carnivore.

IMG_0061

The term “green lion” comes from a similar sort of mysticism. In alchemy, Rose-Innes explained, green lion (possibly sulphuric acid) is a substance used in the creation of the philosopher’s stone – the ultimate goal of alchemy. The reference to this fruitless quest parallels the implausibility of bringing dead things back to life in the novel.

The novel is a bleak vision of loss, says Rose-Innes, and that makes me a little apprehensive about reading it, because environmental destruction and extinction are issues that I find deeply disturbing. At the same time though, I’m fascinated by the portrayal of our relationship with animals. Our use of animals as tourist attractions has always bothered me. I hate zoos. I’ve never been especially interested in game drives. I love animals, so I’m grateful that these things play a role in conservation, but most people aren’t interested in conservation for its own sake; they just want to protect the animals they like. So it’s always the beautiful or majestic endangered animals that are chosen to represent conservation projects, because no one would care about some dull brown bird or ugly frog, regardless of its role in the ecosystem. And what happens if we lose that emotional connection to animals and environments? There’ll be no respect for life to back it up.

So, death and futile conservation. Not a happy subject, but I’m keen to see how the book tackles it. Perhaps the beauty of the book itself can help me handle whatever lies in its pages.

 

GL Umuzi