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
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.