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Nexus: Mankind Gets and Upgrade
by Ramez Naam
Angry Robot 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Jon Hanna, 2/20/2013

Contemporary culture is obsessed with their “smart” devices, right? Now imagine that we no longer need to actively tote the electronics. Think it, and you can communicate it. Not only that, but like the lead character in the cheesy TV series Chuck, you can access and rapidly download helpful programs—such as “Black Belt: Karate” or “Pilot: Helicopter”—and effortlessly embody any number of new skill sets. (It sounds good, although screening one’s calls may be harder when your cell phone is hardwired to your brain: “I’m not in my head at the moment, but leave a message and I’ll get back to you when I return.”) A mere twenty-seven years in the future, forbidden pharmaceuticals fused with novel nanotechnology may present the post-human possibility of telepathic transcendence. But at what price?

In his first novel, software developer Ramez Naam paints a future that is bleak, hopeful, and, well… complicated. The story constellates around, Nexus, an illegal “substance” that allows its consumers to experience the thoughts and feelings of others who have taken it. The drug-like qualities of enhanced empathy and intensely shared sensuality make Nexus popular among the usual suspects. And, as one might imagine within the predictable setting of advanced control culture a few decades from now, cloak-and-dagger government agencies have a vested interest in prohibiting, tracking, and exploiting its use.

Having thoroughly enjoyed Naam’s (mostly) non-fiction book More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement, I immediately bought a copy of Nexus the day I heard of it. Although it took over a month before the Amazon Merchant from whom I’d purchased the book actually delivered it, Nexus was worth the wait.

Even the most “experienced” of authors struggle to express the ineffable in their attempts to characterize the sorts of mental changes that psychedelics produce. Yet with his descriptions of Nexus’s effects, Naam’s visceral poetry consistently delivers, leaving the reader—hoping to score—asking: “Is it 2040 yet?” Similarly, Naam’s background in computer technology has allowed him to envision a future that feels realistic: not only possible, but perhaps probable.

While reading Nexus, I couldn’t help but reflect on the similarities between it and George Orwell’s 1984, which I revisit every 5-10 years or so. Like Orwell, as a writer Naam is a talented wordsmith, nailing an excellent balance between dialogue, narrative, and descriptive passages of the novel’s various settings. The plot centers on Kade—boy-scientist who hacked and improved Nexus—and Sam—girl-agent of Homeland Security’s Emerging Risks Directorate—who is charged with apprehending the developer of this potentially dangerous mind-control technology. Similar to 1984, the political environment surrounding a sort-of love story causes the characters to question their own beliefs, positions, and motivations, as identities blur and reconfigure. Meanwhile, the reader begins to wonder who s/he should be rooting for and how it will all turn out. Naam has skillfully crafted characters you care about—even those that you are certain you don’t really like.

The mind-drug-tech topic initially attracted me to Nexus. However, I was delighted to discover that—topic aside—the book is a riveting, action-packed, page-turner. Despite its 460-page length, I devoured it in 2-3 days, and was left with the mild depression that often hits after one finishes a great book, wishing that there were still more to read. It is easy to imagine Nexus becoming a blockbuster movie, similar to Minority Report (but with better dialogue and acting). I eagerly look forward to Naam’s next novel, Crux.

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