Monday, 14 April 2014

an entertaining, if overly explosive, near, nanotech future in Nexus

From The Week of April 6th, 2014

Although progress has been a constant throughout human history, successive generations building on the discoveries of those who came before, it has often come so slowly, so gradually, that humans have rarely had to confront the notion that progress might change their entire world. Certainly, there have been inventions that instilled such fears, particularly those produced by societies beginning to industrialize, but even these advancements only affected certain walks of life. Only in the last 50 years has technological progress reached a sufficiently high velocity to challenge our deeply instilled sense of stability, of sameness. And the result? Nearly universal anxiety about where our civilization is headed, whether or not we are enslaving ourselves to the utility of technology, and the degree to which we are raising children zombified by being forever plugged in. We want the world to be predictable. We want to be what we know. It's precisely this hunger that Mr. Naam exploits so well in these first two volumes of an engaging future of the synthesis of man and machine.

The year is 2040 and, quietly, humanity is on the brink of a revolution as consequential as it is irreversible. Nexus, a drug based on neurological nanotechnology, allows for the voluntary linking of human minds. Not only can experiences and emotions be shared, but thoughts can be exchanged effortlessly, individuals entwined until they can become united far more than they were apart. Moreover, Nexus allows humans trained in its use to hack their own brains, unlocking doors to potential previously only dreamed of. Homeostasis can be monitored and tweaked. Bodies of knowledge, of skill, can be compiled into apps that Nexus users can run, empowering them with instant abilities. Even memories can be blocked, manipulated and selectively forgotten. The brain has not be cracked. It has been reduced to a coding platform that is the playground of geeks everywhere.

But this is also precisely why Nexus is banned throughout the West. The potential for Nexus to create transhumans, to create species distinct from baseline humanity, terrifies western governments. Coming on the heels of any number of disastrous encounters with cloning and mind-control, it is seen as an existential threat to an entire way of life. Which is why it must be controlled at any cost. In America, this responsibility falls to the ERD, the emerging Risks Directorate, a branch of Homeland Security which arms its agents with the newest bio-enhancements and unleashes them upon the producers and peddlers of Nexus. Arrests are made, careers threatened, lives ruined, but for one promising scientist, kaden Lane, their threats are provoking, not quelling. For they have evoked in him a desire for revenge and freedom that might just accelerate humanity's date with destiny, permanently upending the world order.

An entertaining if formulaic jaunt through an exciting, potential future, the first two volumes of the Nexus series are worthwhile science fiction. Ramez Naam establishes an engaging world of bright parties, experimental drugs and unshackled ambition that feels pleasingly and authentically global. Nexus may have been dreamed up in Silicon Valley, but it's adopted, played with and accelerated to its potential in an increasingly powerful Asia which has had little, if any, history with, much less time for, the tricky balance of state power versus individual freedom. It is a playground of experimentation that proves deeply fertile for nexus, a playground that the West, through means both covert and otherwise, tries to manipulate and pollute. In this way, Nexus becomes a future analogy for today's oil politics, with the US acting as it sees fit, with little to no care for the consequences, let alone for international law.

At the series' heart lies a fascinating question. Should knowledge, that could potentially be put to ill use, but that also has immense utility for those who will not abuse it, be regulated by governments? Nexus will change the world. It will break down the traditional notion of the individual and create a new kind of permanently connected person, one incubated in the ideas and philosophies of we rather than I. But however revelatory, howevermuch it may expand the horizons of the human experience, this is potentially powerful for certain abusive personalities who could use this technology to enslave their followers, or their dependents. But should such potentialities be a death knell for any technology? By positioning his heroes as non-conformists, and by giving near omnipresent surveillance technologies into the hands of his government villains, Mr. Naam convincingly argues that knowledge should be free and that we ought to trust in the goodness of people to ensure that it is not put to wicked ends.

Superficially, however, Nexus and Crux are techno thrillers. The author may ask interesting, philosophical questions about the nature and responsibilities of knowledge, but these queries are far-too-often sandwiched by adrenalized action scenes aimed straight at Hollywood. While there's nothing inherently wrong with this approach, it does cause the characterizations here to suffer. Mr. Naam never manages to create anything close to a functioning, rational actor. His characters are puppets being jerked around to his masterful end. Often, the action and the technologies hide these flaws, but they inevitably re-surface to remind the reader that the author cares far more about saturating his pages with set pieces of total mayhem than he is in developing real people we can relate to.

This is a fascinating journey, one that won't soon be forgotten. Mr. Naam is right to point out that, with the advent of certain technologies, our world could radically change in months, maybe even weeks. But one doubts that such change, however exciting and chaotic, would be quite so bloody, or labyrinthine. (3/5 Stars)

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