Novel: Nexus by Ramez Naam

For a face-full of near-future world-building, intense violent action, and the usual Angry Robot attitude, go no further than Nexus (2013) by Ramez Naam. It’s a longish book that feels short thanks to smooth, simple prose and a gripping central premise.

In the mid-21st century, Kaden Lane is a pioneer in the development and improvement of a nanotechnology-based drug called Nexus, which enables the user to engage in mind-to-mind communication. Unfortunately for Kade, the government gets wind of his work. Rather than slap him in jail for violating the US’s draconian anti-science laws, they decide to use him as a bait in a scheme to smoke out and neutralize suspected Nexus dealers and scientists at an international science conference in Thailand. There, Kade has to make impossible choices when caught between opposing forces in a secret war to control the future of posthumanity.

For all the action and intrigue here, my favorite aspect of the novel is its rigorous and thoughtful examination of the central idea. How would the telepathic effects of Nexus work, and how would people want to apply them? Naam makes the science feel real, but even more convincing are the human reactions to its potential. From knee-jerk fear to wide-eyed optimism, these reactions fuel the plot with conflict, but also, more importantly, speak to a central theme about the ethical conundrums of introducing new technologies to the world. Many will want to use them to make the world a better place; others will abuse and control them. Naam skillfully thrusts his protagonist in the midst of a very thorny debate, and the resulting drama is thought-provoking.

There are some stretches of the novel, in the latter stages, where the big-screen ultraviolence started to get long in the tooth for me. In my view, the intriguing build-up, the ideas, and the philosophical disputes made for better reading than the action scenes. But overall it’s a solid blend of near-future speculation, complicated intrigue, and bracing entertainment that, in the end, resolves rather powerfully. An impressive debut.

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