Artificial intelligence, bioengineering, brain drugs, nanites, espionage, self-determination and mind control: An Appreciation of Ramez Naam’s Nexus, a 2014 Prometheus Award winner for Best Novel

To highlight the Prometheus Awards’ four-decade history and make clear what makes each winner deserve recognition as notable pro-freedom sf/fantasy, the Libertarian Futurist Society is presenting a series of weekly Appreciations of past award-winners.
Here’s the latest Appreciation for Ramez Naam’s Nexus, one of two 2014 Prometheus Award winners for Best Novel:

By Anders Monsen and Michael Grossberg

Nexus offers a gripping exploration of politics, international espionage and new extremes of both freedom and tyranny while imagining how artificial intelligence might pave the way for a post-human future.

Ramen Naam’s ingenious and multi-leveled 2013 novel is set in a plausible near future on and around the Earth where emerging technology opens up unprecedented possibilities for mind control as well as personal liberation and interpersonal connection.

The fast-paced suspense thriller – the first in an exciting and imaginative trilogy that includes the Prometheus-finalist sequels Crux and Apex – centers on a young scientist caught up in danger and ranges from academia to government bureaucracy and from underground San Francisco parties to a secret Shanghai lab.

When an experimental nano-drug called Nexus begins to spread with the ability to link people together, mind to mind, some want to use it positively but others want to prohibit it – or worse, manipulate and pervert the drug for social and political control.

In his insightful 2013 review for Prometheus quarterly (Vol. 31, No. 3), former Prometheus editor Anders Monsen wrote:

“Ramez Naam’s debut novel brims with post-cyberpunk panache. Reminiscent of the crackling pace and prose of Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson, not to mention their ability to extrapolate current ideas into future possibilities, Nexus embraces the idea of human change through technology. All is not golden and light, as Naam looks at a wide spectrum of implications of nano-technology, from mind-control to scary body modifications, but also the ability to heal and improve oneself.

The book deals with the implications of widely available dangerous knowledge, government agencies that use the very weapons they heavily restrict and campaign against, agencies that show no qualms against using massive force in urban areas, blackmailing and kidnapping people whom they wish to silence. Naam has a deep background in technology and trans-humanist ideas, and writes tense, almost cinematic, action scenes.

Samantha Cataranes, is a US government agent tasked to track down people experimenting with illegal technologies, especially mind and body enhancing drugs and bio-engineering modifications. Her current target is Kade Lane, a post- graduate student working on a new version of a drug called Nexus. This drug contains software tools that allow users (or controllers) to program their bodies and minds.

Kade and his friends have perfected Nexus 5 as Nexus OS, letting them essentially re-write their minds to suppress or enhance drugs produced in the body that alters their mood. They can gain confidence, calm nerves, speed up reactions, and even interact with other Nexus OS enabled individuals. This interaction forms a sort of hive mind.

Cataranes and her superiors are very interested in neutralizing Kade’s experiments. The U.S. government agents want to shut down his activity, but they realize his potential to gain access to a Chinese-controlled scientist, Su-Yong Shu, who appears to have progressed far beyond Kade toward a post-human future.

Su-Yong Shu is a respected neuroscientist whom the US government suspects of making radical advances in neuro-biological mind control, and of working with the Chinese government. The U.S. suspects her and the Chinese of being able to subvert people and turn them into meat-puppets, ideal tools of assassination and infiltration.

After a ruthless raid where Catarenes infiltrates Kade’s operation and experiences first-hand the hive-mind effect of Nexus OS, Kade is forced to collaborate with the government agency. He attends a conference in Bangkok, planning to meet Su-Yong Shu. There he runs into other forces, who also have progressed into the realm of mind-and-body modification.

The various factions wrestle over Kade’s allegiance, seeking his knowledge and skills for their own ends. He must try to navigate the various and treacherous factions and determine how best to deal with the Nexus potential, given its transformative effects. One side wants to control and limit Nexus, while others want to use it for their own ends, to control by leaping into a post-human future where they hold the keys.

Complicating matters is Watson “Wats” Cole, an ally of Kade. Wats is a former soldier, haunted by the loss of his team, and worried about his augmentations spawning cancerous cells in his body. Wats hopes to release the Nexus OS globally and freely, viewing the hive-mind potential as liberating. After the initial raid, he goes underground, planning to liberate Kade from his government controllers.

Both Wats and Cataranes are bio-enhanced; the government who seeks to limit public release of mind and body-altering technologies are more than willing to use those tools themselves. Naam explores a variety of ways nano maybe used, both for good and evil. While Cataranes and Wats have heightened abilities for combat, or neural links to intelligence databases, other augmented people become walking bombs.

Kade ultimately must make a choice that affects not only his future, but the entire world. He isn’t the only person faced with choices. Cataranes and her superiors also realize the impact of what Kade’s work with Nexus implies for humanity, or rather those who would embrace Nexus.

What are the implications of any technology? The internet makes communication so much easier, but also generates spam and online bullying. Like nuclear power, which can harness energy but also kill and poison, the Nexus OS offers a vast potential for good and evil at the same time.

The idea of nanotechnology dates back several years. It has appeared in fiction from Greg Bear’s Blood Music to Ian McDonald’s young adult novel Be My Enemy, and on TV and cinema with the Borg since Star Trek: The Next Generation (the Borg are mentioned in the novel as a potential effect of the hive mind of Nexus, which would obliterate individuality).

Nanites, tiny robots that live and operate inside humans – usually in the blood stream – have been seen both as ways to improve humanity (by eradicating disease and viruses) and control people. Technology both excites and frightens. Visions of tiny machines running amok inside your bloodstream, or replicating endlessly into gray goo that consumes everything in its path, make for good thrillers. Good novels need the human element, which Nexus brings to the table with a variety of characters.

Naam’s captivating near-future thriller is ambivalent, making arguments for both sides. The feds come across as nasty and hypocritical, but many of Kade’s so-called friends have the same hubris that governs so much of present political thought, that some people know what is best for others, that they belong in charge based on their vision, that the ends justify the means.”

Note: Ramez Naam’s Nexus trilogy includes Crux, a 2014 Prometheus Best Novel finalist, and Apex, a 2016 Prometheus Best Novel finalist.

Ramez Naam (Creative Commons license)

Naam, an American technologist and sci-fi writer who is co-chair for energy and the environment at Singularity University, also has written several non-fiction books, including The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet and More Than Human: Embracing the Promises of Biological Enhancement.

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: A 40thAnniversary Celebration and appreciations of the next novel to be recognized with a Prometheus Awards: Cory Doctorow’s Homeland, the other 2014 winner for Best Novel.

* See related introductory essay about the LFS’ 40thanniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

* Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers.
Libertarian futurists believe cultural change is as vital as political change (and often more fulfilling, positive and productive long-term) in achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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