Author: Ramez Naam
Publisher: Angry Robot, December 2012
Length: 464 pages
Price: $14.99 US/ $16.99 CA
In the year 2040, governments are either embracing the new possibilities brought by nanotechnology or waging war against it. Often, waging war against a thing means using the very thing you’re waging war against, keeping it for oneself while trying to keep it out of the hands of the general populace.
Kaden Lane is a doctorate student at the University of California, San Francisco. He and his friends are up-and-coming new voices in the field of neuroscience. But when Kade and his friends are caught using and improving the banned nano-drug Nexus in their research, they’re pulled into a war they never intended to fight.
As various governments fight to keep the general populace and other governments from using new technologies to evolve into Transhuman and Posthuman beings, powerful new laws and international agreements are written. Human rights are redefined, liberties taken away.
Ramez Naam is an expert in the technological field. He has been involved in the production of some of the most widely used software in the world, as well as nanotechnology research. Naam is an advocate for human biological enhancements, and was even awarded the HG Wells Award for Contributions to Transhumanism by the World Transhumanist Association. His previously published nonfiction work, More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement, supports his advocacy of these enhancements.
Given Naam’s background, it should come as no surprise that Nexus is a brilliant story, filled with smart, well-informed opinions from both sides of the debate on the ethics of biological enhancements; and of course, the concerns of those who fear unknown quantities simply because the future is unknown are covered, as well. Naam’s experience with emerging technologies lends realism to the scientific work carried out and studied in Nexus, ensuring that all of it is believable, and making a strong bond between the reader and those being vilified by people in power.
Naam’s writing is strong, clear and concise, with perfect ebb and flow in pacing. Readers are allowed to read at their leisure throughout the bulk of the story, but are pulled along at breakneck pace during action scenes filled with excellent tension and potential dangers ready to explode at any minute. Characters are wholly believable, with complete personalities and understandable back-stories that enable readers to relate to each and every one of them, in turn, but always coming back around to root for the protagonists in the end. Throughout Nexus, new twists and turns are introduced with new characters, each with their own motivations, causing readers to invest heavily in getting to know each of them and explore their own thoughts on each character’s motivations before deciding whether they are in agreement or disagreement with their views. This is no easy feat for a writer, but Naam makes it look like nothing in the world could be more natural.
At the heart of Nexus is a deep exploration of the course we as a society are currently on and where it is bringing us. In Nexus, one need only be suspected of being in breach of the Emerging Technological Threats Act to be scooped up by Homeland Defense’s Emerging Risks Directorate, or the ERD. These suspects have no right to a lawyer, no right to a trial by jury. They can be detained indefinitely, subject to the whims of a few select people; they just simply disappear one day, the story of their arrest appearing in the news as a government victory over potential terroristic threats to national security. Sound familiar? It should. These are the very provisions in the recent US National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, that caused such an uproar with activists online and was sadly dismissed as inconsequential by most members of the general public.
In so much of the scientific progress we make, the potential for abuse exists. With each new discovery, we must ask ourselves anew, “What price are we willing to pay to make this leap? Is this my decision to make for all of humankind?” And this is the crux, the main theme of Nexus. With technology moving and evolving so quickly that we, as a society, cannot keep up, science becomes as dangerous as it is beneficial. But which outweighs the other? Who gets to decide these things and enforce them? All-powerful government agencies who can strip basic rights away from human beings on a whim? The folly of that is as ludicrous as there being no oversight at all. As with all things, there must be balance. Too bad that’s something humankind has never been too good at …
Parts of this story are truly terrifying, which is really saying something, as it isn’t a dystopian future Naam paints, but the future reason and logic tell us to expect based on our current course; there is no reason to believe this isn’t what our future holds. Only if a willingness to explore and fully understand new things trumps fear can we ever hope to change this. One of the most moving and powerful scenes in the book sums it up nicely. In part:
“Power is best when it’s distributed most broadly. That’s what Democracy means. That’s what freedom means. The right to determine your individual destiny belongs in your hands, and no one else’s.”
Nexus is a story everyone should read. As a cautionary tale, it will likely be considered in league with Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World in the years to come. The question is, will we learn from this one?