Tuesday, February 24, 2015

CYBERPUNK REVISITED: Nexus by Ramez Naam




Dossier: Naam, Ramez - Nexus (Angry Robot, 2013; Random House, 2015)

Filetype: Book

File Under: Cyberpunk Legatee

Executive Summary: "In the near future, the experimental nano-drug Nexus can link human together, mind to mind. There are some who want to improve it. There are some who want to eradicate it. And there are others who just want to exploit it. When a young scientist is caught improving Nexus, he’s thrust over his head into a world of danger and international espionage – for there is far more at stake than anyone realises.

From the halls of academia to the halls of power, from the headquarters of an elite US agency in Washington DC to a secret lab beneath a top university in Shanghai, from the underground parties of San Francisco to the illegal biotech markets of Bangkok, from an international neuroscience conference to a remote monastery in the mountains of Thailand – Nexus is a thrill ride through a future on the brink of explosion."


Or - geek hero with ridiculous luck goes on global spy adventure with dangerous super-soldiers and dabble in post-humanism, sees lots of weird stuff, and gets in trouble.

High Tech: The titular drug is a nicer way to jack into a singularity than the old Gibson cords - a vial of nanotechnology washed down with juice, resulting in an acid-trip of emotions and visions as the taker is given access to their own soul and those they can connect to on the same high. The complications to this joy arise from Nexus 5, the latest version, which can allow mind-control and brain augmentation to a terrifying extent. But also a cool extent - languages and fighting skills are options, as is the ability to control each others' bodies. This results in government secret services and rebels all out to control this potent human-boost, and threatens what it means to be human.

Low-Life: The span of this (long) debut novel is pretty vast. Whilst never diving offworld, we go globetrotting with the main character Kade Lane from San Francisco to Thailand, and meet people from all walks of life (though mainly cybersoldiers and scientists, they are a pleasingly varied bunch in terms of ethnicity) and it therefore is hard to pin it down the gritty streets a la classic Cyberpunk, but the underground drug scene briefly seen at the start paints a lightly rebellious underclass emerging against the suppressive yet still democratic U.S. government whilst sadly reminding me of the Matrix cave-rave... shudder... It might be 2040 but they still like backpacker trance, it seems. However, the bulk of the story is an action thriller mainly set at a scientific conference so is a bit like Big Bang Theory but starring Jason Bourne.

Dark Times: No simplistic fantasy dystopian state here. Naam, whose expertise, and initial writing career, is in computer programming and exploring post-humanism, brings his theories and opinions on the concept of altered and superior human brains, via the drug's inserts, to the structure of a spy thriller. Yet despite plot mechanics that are familiar from countless airport thrillers and movies (not an insult by any means, by the way), the author keeps things pretty believable. The U.S. government is realistically anti-drug and pro-conformity, and understandably keen to not let the supposed enemy (China again, not the Cyberpunk dominant Japan of old) from using it. Everyone wants what Kade's skills can bring, and he just wants to do the right thing.

Legacy: Too soon to speak of any legacy, but it seems Nexus, with a sequel now published, has become both a respectable genre success and also a flag-bearer for pro-singularity commentators and posthuman/transhuman debates. It will be interesting to see how hard sci-fi continues to tackle the old cliches in this area and if it will ape Naam's trick of empathy for the changes, whilst playing on the fears they bring.

In Retrospect: Despite my above assertion that legacy is not to be talked about with a novel only a year or so out of the gate, I myself came to the book after enjoying Naam's short story 'Water'. I was however, confused by the relative heat the story was getting over, imo, much better works in the collection, yet I soon learnt of Naam's background and TED-friendly speeches and writings in nonfiction, and realised Nexus was worth a look based on he being an author of ideas. So to find these ideas inserted onto a fairly clunky thriller with some 2-d characters often spouting b-movie dialogue, was a disappointment. The title even has the tagline: 'Mankind gets an upgrade'. This suggests a writer who despite his tech know-how and spiritual complexity still wants applause at comic-con (probably crap but I mean he craves the populist vote as much as the scientific; he does ref the The Matrix and Blade Runner rather than Gibson in his talks).

So whilst the world he paints in process is fascinating and the Nexus-trip descriptions and the effect on the characters' lives compelling, but I yearned after the first hundred pages for the anxious chase to stop and for it to settle into more cyberpunk gritty everyday and less Tom Clancy blockbuster panic. However, the swarm of ideas and science held me on to the story, despite frequent stodgy infodumps, and I look forward to not the sequel which I fear will up the action but to his next new world, where I hope for more exploration of where humanity could head in our lifetime.

Analytics

For its time: 3/5
Read today: 3/5
Cybercoefficient: 6/10


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Posted by: English Scribbler, who would happily trade some old memories for a Bruce Lee neuro-upgrade.

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