Nexus Archive

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Book Review: Crux

My summer of sequels continues with the sublime Crux, Ramez Naam’s follow-up to last year’s near-future post-human techno-thriller, Nexus.

When I sat down to write my review of Nexus, I remember feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of having to package a complex novel within the confines of a short review. Crux has had much the same effect upon me. In the simplest possible terms, this book is speculative fiction at its finest. Full stop. Crux offers the sort of writing which literary wags could easily point to and declare, “Proper literature looks like this.”

Meanwhile genre readers will smile, knowing full well that their medium has always produced works of this caliber.

For anybody approaching Crux without having read the first novel, the book’s prologue provides a primer on Mr. Naam’s vision of our not-too-distant future. It is a world where a Ph.D. student named Kaden Lane creates Nexus 5, a designer “drug” – more on the danger quotes in a moment – which allows users to hack and subsequently network the human brain. Though Nexus continues in this novel as an allegorical critique on America’s war on drugs, it catalyzes Crux’s much deeper study into a post-human future. NB: post-human does not equal post-apocalyptic or any other sort of end-of-the-world cliché. Tempting as it may be to look at the novel’s union of cyberpunk motifs and climate change as a means of facilitating a dystopian label, the novel is very carefully balanced against such a framing.

I draw attention to this because it’s worth recognizing when a near-future science fiction novel doesn’t unfurl a big banner proudly declaring “We’re all screwed, and everyone is going to die.” Sure, it’s fun to watch writers like Paolo Bacigalupi and Margaret Atwood destroy the world. But it’s hard not to walk away from their novels without a palpable fear for the future outweighing any sense of wonder. By comparison, Crux rallying cry is that post-human problems require post-human solutions. The optimism for the future may be measured, pragmatic, and contingent upon change, but it is there none the less. And given a near-prescient plot point that saw a hurricane affecting political change, I think it is important to recognize the ability – and dare I say need? – for smart fiction to inspire readers to do better with our world.

Crux also sees the return of the Department of Homeland Security’s Emerging Risks Division. The ERD, and those who share its worldview, publically demonize Nexus as little more than a narcotic. In that light, the novel pulls no punches in showing how the ability to network a mind lends itself to the worst sort of abuses and affronts to human dignity. Alternatively, Nexus proves capable of awakening a capacity for learning and socialization in children with autism spectrum disorders while also facilitating next generation research between scientists. A think tank takes on a whole new meaning when a dozen scientists can collectively work on a problem at the speed of thought.

For the latter, and certainly individuals within the book’s target demographic, the ERD’s actions seem retrograde. What progressive nation bans a tool and further exploits a constitutional loophole to strip the users of said tool of their citizenship rights? But just as it was in Nexus, the debate in Crux is so much deeper than a simple binary between conservative and progressive ideologies. The proponents of The Chandler Act – imagine the Patriot Act, on anabolic steroids, targeting post-humans – can easily be read as a good piece of legislation designed to protect the rights of a majority who refuse to, or are incapable of, redefining humanity beyond natural selection. Think on that for a moment; the ERD waterboards and tortures Kade’s friends and Nexus co-developers on behalf of Americans who don’t want to be anything more than human. I’d be tempted to smirk at the idea of the government so effectively entrenching mediocrity through a clumsy law, but the strength of Mr. Naam’s ideas precludes such a simple reading. After all, what would happen if the next generation saw an open source technology that makes a person better than any natural born human?

Suppose I go into a job interview with a Nexus-esque neural computer feeding my brain every feel-good neurotransmitter in the book while reminding me of certain speaking points appropriate to each answer. It might not guarantee success, but certainly it grants an advantage otherwise absent to me. In this scenario a defacto ban on post-human technology would be necessary to protect the rights of a majority incapable of being anything more than they are. And once again, Ramez Naam has found a way to take my natural “damn the man” outlook on life and make me sympathize with the establishment.

Similarly, I’m not sure how much I should read into the Chandler Act’s ability to strip post-humans of citizenship as a parallel to North American immigration laws that redefine certain humans as “illegal.” A case could be made, but I’ll leave that to a critic better informed on the topic.

Moving beyond politics, which is hard to do in such a politically astute novel, Crux expands on Nexus’ exploration of post-human technology and religion. One such study focuses on Kade’s flight from justice through Southeast Asia via a series of Buddhist temples. The other looks at a character from the first book who has become the first true post-human after having her consciousness uploaded into a network of quantum computers. It’s standard enough fare to see science fiction writers using non-terrestrial actors as a lens for religious studies. Seeing similar discussions emerge out of scientific innovation is a delightful subversion of a standard trope. Would Buddhism adjust itself in the wake of technology that can allow novices to achieve an oneness with their fellows? Dare we invoke Descartes mind-body discourse in viewing a person of pure consciousness and computer code within her own digital realm? These questions further demonstrate the awe-inspiring extent to which Mr. Naam has considered the implications of post-human tech. My only regret therein is that there isn’t more room in the novel for probe for answers therein.

I’ll preclude any further rambling by closing on this point; if I don’t see some Nebula and/or Hugo buzz orbiting Crux within the next year I will be genuinely surprised. The novel is a poignant reflection on the sociological, economic, climate challenges of our changing world. Meanwhile, Mr. Naam masterfully mobilizes the zeitgeist of contemporary political and tech culture in his creation of a near-future which tempts readers with equal parts dread and optimism. This is not a book to be missed, and certainly one deserving much discussion in the months to come.

Crux by Ramez Naam

Published by Angry Robot Books



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Book Review: Nexus

Nexus by Ramez Naam is the second novel I’ve read from UK based publisher Angry Robot Books. Much like my first experience with this imprint, vN by Madeline Ashby, Nexus offers a narrative exploration of humanity’s relationship with advanced technology. In doing so, Naam mobilizes language orbiting contemporary debates on copyright in the digital world, net neutrality, and some good old fashioned Marxism. While the aforementioned concepts are essential to the story, the central conflict lives within the resoundingly grey area of trans/post-humanity. Put into a single question, Nexus asks at what point does our technology change us from what we are, into what we are not? And perhaps more important, who do we select as the arbiter of a decision that speaks to neurology, engineering, philosophy, and metaphysics?

Set some thirty years into the future, the plot focuses on Kaden Lane, a neuroscience PhD candidate at the University of California, San Francisco. Kade, his lab mate Rangan Shankari, and their friends are all practitioners of a designer drug called “Nexus 3”. However, Nexus isn’t so much a drug as it is a lattice of data relays which take up residence inside a person’s mind. The Nexus nodes allow users to experience the thoughts, memories, and consciousness of other users. Adept users, such as Kade and company, can even use Nexus to manipulate the motor cortex of another Nexus user.

Were that not enough, Kade and Rangan have found a way to evolve Nexus into something which takes up permanent residence in a person’s mind. In combining this wetware with an open source operating system Kade has turned himself into something new, a human capable of fully networking his mind with other Nexus users. This potential frontier in evolution, a technology which could unite vast swaths of individuals into a rapturous gestalt of collective understanding and empathy, or in the wrong hands be used for radical thought control, slavery, and domination, attracts the attention of the Department of Homeland Security’s Emerging Risks Division. In a world filled with Chinese clone soldiers, potentially emergent AI, bio-neural hacks to augment any mood or sensation, and human enhancement through nanotechnology, Kade’s discovery of “Nexus 5” leads to his arrest. Therein he must either work with the ERD to bring down another post-human or spend the rest of his life in prison.

Given its direction and philosophy, Nexus is reminiscent of other memorable “us versus them” narratives. Throughout Marvel Comics’ X-Men series readers witnessed the struggle between Homo Sapiens and Homo Sapiens Superior as the government sought to regulate and control those outside the normal definition of humanity. 2011’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution explored questions of state versus free market control with respect to human augmentation through cybernetics. Yet where those stories dealt with relatively small groups of individuals, superheroes and those with the money to afford implantation and regular gene therapy, Nexus expands the scope of potential transhumans to seemingly all of humanity. I mean if perpetually destitute graduate students (though maybe it was only us social science grads who lived on ramen and the scavenged leftovers of catered conference talks) can afford to permanently augment themselves with a neural architecture, which makes assimilating new data akin to Neo learning Ju Jitsu in The Matrix, why not everybody else?

Asking “Why?” and “Why not?” forms the basis for Nexus’ core philosophical inquires. Though always seamlessly woven into the narrative, Nexus revels in daring the reader to justify their thoughts on technology beyond the confines of a black and white paradigm. The Nexus drug is aptly named in that it is the focal point for every one of the book’s big questions, none of which are particularly easy to answer.

While the novel may be driven by near-future human augmentation technology, much to the delight of futurists, all of its attempts at parsing a grand design for humanity stem from current world issues. Through skillful narrative exposition and the odd bit of character dialogue that borders on a prose soliloquy we learn that the United States revokes citizenship from people who stray too far from the Supreme Court’s definition of humanity. Moreover, the DHS, FBI, and CIA make use of warrantless surveillance and networks of unmanned drones possessing rudimentary AI. Soldiers are augmented to be more than human, but left to their own devices when the enhancements lead to cancers. All of these examples should resonate with current issues of immigration, reproductive rights, state surveillance, veterans’ affairs, and America’s various wars on terror/drugs/crime. While Mr. Naam is ever the foresight specialist in his story telling, he artfully anchors the text’s speculative and heavily scientific building blocks to readily accessible sociological challenges.

At the same time, the novel is not a technocrat’s manifesto for nanotech augmented anarchism. Despite my instinct to take up a radical banner as Kade and Rangan were interrogated and tortured (sort of) in federal custody, Naam’s writing managed to evoke some genuine sympathy for the establishment. Despite their questionable methods, the ERD and their agents are trying to protect a great majority of people from an exponential growth in technology that exists outside of their functional world views. Though it can be hard to see benevolence in the ERD’s contemporary analogues, there is a certain resonance to the ideas at hand. Digital libertarians complain about the FBI meddling with the internet, yet said agency as well as many others offer a tangible benefit to people who use the internet without holding a personal stake in how it operates. Once again, Naam skillfully mines the present to draw out logical near-future extensions of today’s issues.

As a story told from the intersection of theoretical neuroscience and contemporary geopolitical issues, Nexus is a fascinating study into how technology might inform human evolution. At times it is also a scathing commentary on the United States’ “War on Drugs” and “War on Terror”. Perhaps equally so, the novel is a critique of how ivory tower approaches to scientific progress can necessitate invasive third party oversight. Though a many headed hydra of foresight, Nexus is always thoughtful and never particularly dense or heavy handed in its prose. Indeed, there’s a near poetic quality to the way in which Mr. Naam describes the otherwise cold linkages of Axons and Dendrites within the human mind. Bearing that in mind, I would not be surprised if Nexus becomes as influential within academic and scientific quarters as it is certain to be for a more general audience.

Nexus by Ramez Naam

Published by Angry Robot Books

Available as a print and eBook as of December 18th, 2012.