Author: Ramez Naam
Publisher: Angry Robot
Page count/size: 464pp/B-format pb
Release Date: 3 January 2013
Reviewer: John Howard
Ramez Naam’s first novel tackles a well-used theme in science fiction: the possibility of humanity developing into a new and enhanced version of itself, and the conflicts involved. In the 1940s and 50s in particular the new humans were often mutants, mainly through atomic radiation. This would frequently give them superiority – for example enjoying telepathic powers – and so they would be feared and despised, hunted down and killed by ‘ordinary’ humans. More recently genetic manipulation has become another way for humans to be improved, often leading to a branching-out of the human race and its division into (original) humans and the enhanced, perhaps living in different parts of the solar system.
In Nexus the agent of change is a nanotech drug, the Nexus of the title. When swallowed it rewires the brain and effectively ‘upgrades’ the user. They can communicate telepathically with others who have taken Nexus; they are the first members of a new human race. This happens in the near future. By the time the novel opens in 2040 Nexus has been banned and agencies created to put a stop to further developments. But illicit research does take place and there are wary debates on the pros and cons of using Nexus and its consequences.
The young scientist Kaden Lane and his friends take the risk of experimenting with Nexus 5. Up against them is Samantha Cataranes, an agent from the ERD (the USA’s Emerging Risks Directorate). Caught, Lane agrees to help the ERD and go to Thailand to infiltrate the laboratory of the Chinese scientist Su-Yong Shu, who is suspected of working to overthrow the anti-Nexus protocols and so threaten ordinary humanity. Lane and Cataranes are catapulted into a fast-moving and violent series of chase and pursuit adventures against the backdrop of two groups of people or world-views: those who wish to use Nexus and improve it for the good of the human race, and those who want to eliminate the drug entirely, crushing those who use it or advocate doing so.
Nexus is a near-future thriller that tries to explore the tensions between the human and concepts of the posthuman or transhuman. The good that Nexus can bring through unfettered communication direct between minds is contrasted with the possibility of its ruthless manipulation by a potentially tyrannical elite. As the body count goes on rising Naam does give us plenty of ambiguity and shows that labels do not necessarily represent what they say they do. Grasping that is perhaps an essential task for the upgrading of humanity, but it won’t be a pleasant trip to the sunlit uplands of ‘Humanity 2.0’ Although Nexus sometimes begins to outstay its welcome, especially in the sentimentality department, it is a hard-hitting romp of a novel that fulfils expectations. A good debut.