Book Review: NEXUS by Ramez Naam


The tagline for the book NEXUS, published by the Angry Robot imprint of Osprey, is “Mankind Gets An Upgrade”, but frankly, I don’t think that does the book justice. Lots of books are about “upgrading” humans, whether through genetic modifications, android additions, or drugs (as is Nexus). The tagline is technically correct: the basic premise of NEXUS is that a drug of the same name has the potential to link human minds together in a kind of Internet-like connectivity. But the idea of “upgrading” mankind is much more subtle in Naam’s narrative. Rather than affixing robot limbs to human arms, the Nexus drugs distributes non-biodegradable nano-particles in the human’s brain, giving him or her internal computing capabilities. My idea for a tagline would have gone more like this: “Imagine putting an OS inside your brain”.

The obviously cool dude

Let me start this review by saying that Ramez Naam himself is clearly an awesome dude. I mean, look at him. That charming, fun-loving smile. Those adorable eyes. Playful pose. Not to mention the fact that he’s a “technologist” (a categorization I didn’t even know existed) whose hobbies include reading neuroscience papers, and his programming and developing work seems like it was probably fairly integral at Microsoft, back when Microsoft actually mattered (no offense, Ramez). And to top it off,as if he needed to be more awesome, he writes. Let’s just say I have a little bit of a scientist-writer-badass crush on this guy.

Now to the book. NEXUS begins with a few tantalizing hints about the power of the drug that will become the subject of the rest of this espionage-political-science thriller. We learn that Kaden, the main character and protagonist, can use Nexus programming to control his own body, to fend off his nerdy-guy awkwardness, to make himself seem sexier, more in control. How the drug can feed him lines inside his head, options of things to say to pretty girls.  We see through the eyes of Sam, a more mysterious protagonist, how even the older versions of the Nexus drug can heighten your awareness, feed you new information, snap pictures, and scan faces through databases. (I mean, wow factor, right?) We learn shortly thereafter that the drug has horrifying potential, too – Kade and his friends are forced to use their superior version of the drug, Nexus 5, to shut off Sam’s vision and movement abilities (from within her own brain! holy moly!) once they realize she’s an undercover operative for a highly secretive branch of the Department of Homeland Security, known as the ERD.

Obviously this drug has powerful capabilities, and we see the problems and potentials arise immediately. Kade and his friends can bind and imprison Sam within her own mind – but just moments before that, they were leading her through a deeply meditative mind-meld that left her euphoric, thrilled, and feeling more connected to others than she ever had before in her life. The potential for greater human connection, understanding, and learning is immense. The potential for abuse, pain, and destruction is terrifying.

In America, Nexus is very, very illegal – and highly prosecuted.  When Kade and his researcher friends get busted throwing a rave and distributing Nexus to beef up the party (times haven’t changed so much in thirty years, apparently), they are threatened with life in prison for themselves and all the guests at their party, as well as immediate termination of all of the work that they’ve done (oh yeah, and they don’t get a trial or rights to an attorney either). Only one of them escapes, who turns out to be one of the coolest characters in the book: Watson Cole, a former Marine turned Nexus evangelist. Kade is presented with one way out: To be a part of a mission to a scientific conference in Thailand with the goal of capturing another researcher who is believed to have done extensive work with Nexus as well – to the benefit of the Chinese army and politicians, and to the detriment of the American intelligence and military programs (again, times haven’t changed so much in thirty years). Kade reluctantly agrees to participate, hoping that it will guarantee his friends’ release and return to a normal life.

While Naam is explaining all of the details about the mission to Thailand, the reasons why this Chinese researcher is so important, and the way that Nexus works, the story gets a little bit bogged down, which was frustrating. I slowed and, admittedly, almost put the book down. The details, while theoretically important, can be hard to get through and will probably present a challenge for any reader without a background in science (or, for that matter, espionage).

The irony is that once Naam gets his characters to the neuroscience conference in Bangkok, the action really starts to jump. Who knew that scientific conferences could be so thrilling?! The bulk of the action (and of the book) takes place in Bangkok at the conference, as Kade meets the Chinese target, is confronted and dominated by a superior form of mental communication, is followed by mysterious monks in orange robes, and is sent untraceable messages by Watson Cole, the ex-Marine. This central part of the book is the thriller, the roller-coaster that rises and falls and hums with tension. It all builds to an enormous confrontation at (yet another) drug party, which is when more frustrating things happen, including the deaths of people I really liked and didn’t want to die. Here again I almost put the book down and called it quits.

But when I woke up in the morning I managed to convince myself that just as cool people die in real life and it sucks, it was Naam’s right as an author to kill off cool characters in his book, even though it might suck, and so I picked it up and continued. And boy am I glad I did. The most beautiful moments in the book come at the end, right before the “final” battle. I see what you did there, Naam, putting all the gems at the end so that we have to power through to finish it off. I see what you did there.

My favorite scene in the book is when Kaden participates in a meditation session with a group of Buddhist monks, and through Nexus, is able to share and relish the magnificent peace of mind that they have trained themselves to achieve:

The effect was electrifying. Kade felt himself buoyed by it. He was not just one. he was many. He was all. The minds in the room were a web, a tapestry, an orchestra of thought without thought. The room breathed in. The room breathed out. A thought occured in the mind of a novice. It rippled across the mind of the room. All observed it. All brought attention back to the breath. (382)

And then, later, the most powerful idea that emerges from the book. Ananda, the leader of the monks in the monastery, asks Kade to compare Nexus to the intellectual tool of reading and writing.

“Imagine,” Ananda said, “a world where it took most of a lifetime to learn to speak, to learn to read or write, where many never even reached that point.”

Kade closed his eyes, tried to picture it.

“Imagine that you could show people a faster way,” Ananda continued. “That in a year or two you could show them the basics of language, of literacy.”

Kade imagined.

“Would you do it?” Ananda asked. […] “Even though it would surely be used at times for profanity or vile speech? […] Even though fools might read dangerous things written by bigger fools, might follow their instructions and hurt themselves or others? […] Even though writing might be used to describe weapons that could be used to kill others? […] Even though charismatic fascists might use the power of speech to stir people up, to incite violence, to stoke hatred, to create war?”

Kade swallowed. “Yes.”(390-91)

What an awesome metaphor! I almost can’t even deal with how awesome it is. Throughout the book, the overarching struggle is with the “rightness”, in ethical terms, of this technology. The characters, whether true believers in the potential of Nexus to merge minds and bring understanding, or terribly fearful of the awful things it could do, or wavering between the two, fight it out to decide humanity’s future – whether to bring Nexus to the democratic masses or crush it beneath the heel of bureaucracy and totalitarianism. But Naam’s perspective, as an author, is clear. Would anyone argue against teaching children to read and write? Why then would anyone argue against giving them a tool to achieve a higher consciousness, a greater understanding, a more powerful human connection?

These two passages come at the end of the book, along with other equally beautiful expressions of writing and techno-philosophy. The rest of the book moves and pulls you along like a raft through the rapids, but after falling through the waterfall, you reach a deep basin of contemplation, which is where the real beauty lies. The whole journey was thoroughly enjoyable, from departure to plunge to gasping intake of breath after surfacing.

Highly recommended, particularly for students of science, sci-fi fans, fans of thrillers and espionage fiction, and anyone looking to learn a thing or two about the brain, Buddhism, or human nature. Check out the Kindle page for more info.

A sequel to NEXUS will be published in September 2013, called CRUX. Tune in to his website here for more details.