In the near future, the experimental nano-drug Nexus can link human together, mind to mind. There are some who want to improve it. There are some who want to eradicate it. And there are others who just want to exploit it. When a young scientist is caught improving Nexus, he’s thrust over his head into a world of danger and international espionage – for there is far more at stake than anyone realizes.
Not a book afraid to pack action alongside science, Ramez Naam’s debut novel is something of a curio. Opening with a bizarre, sexual and unflattering exploration of this mind-melding drug it builds to a Matrix-style showdown via an exploration of what it means to be human. The technological aspect of the novel is unrivaled thanks to the fact Naam is an accomplished technologist, once involved in the development of Internet Explorer and Microsoft Outlook (see more on his website).
The plot hinges around the development of the titular drug, Nexus. Allowing human brains to be collected into a type of ‘hive’, there are those looking to develop and enhance the drug, and those who believe its use could spell the end of the human race. The best way of describing the sensation of taking Nexus seems to make a parallel with “assimilation” (a phrase commonly associated with Star Trek’s Borg – and indeed used in the book). Not to spoil any of the surprises in the plot, it rattles along at an exceptional pace, and has much in common with fellow Angry Robot author Adam Christopher, in that you never can guess in which direction the plot will go.
The world itself is drawn very broadly. Although technology has moved along apace, we are left to wonder how this has affected the wider world. There are ‘briefing’ segments that break up the main plot, framing events in the context of interviews or news reports. Sadly, this is neither innovative, or effective. There is one sequence set in the dangerous markets on the back streets of Thailand that chillingly hints at the extent ‘designer’ technology has taken with respect to human modification that is much more effective and evocative of this dangerous, twisted world.
Naam’s (frequent) action sequences are powerful and pull a lot of punches. His language is peppered with action words that hammer home the, at times, comical violence. Yet he has the skill to incorporate dense scientific concepts in an easy-to-follow manner. Nexus is his first work, and whilst this shows, it is a promising debut from an author who can clearly balance fact with fiction to tell a story coherently.
Some of the characters are disappointingly clichéd – especially the mixed web of ERD agents and superiors. There’s a lot of stereotypical emphasis on chain of command that feels a retrograde step for a novel that is clearly looking to the future.
The relationship between ERD agent Sam and Nexus hacker Kade is much more promising. Kade has high hopes for mankind’s ability to use this technology for the greater good. It can be argued that Kade’s naivety is completely flawed. Others will comment on him being able to retain his humanity. I feel that his naivety, reinforced several times threatens to seriously compromise him as a character.
The overlapping feelings between him and his captor, Sam, make for a more engaging ride. Initially cold and distant we discover much more about Sam’s past that genuinely make you wonder whose side, if any she is on. Her use of the Nexus drug and reluctance to go deep in the rabbit hole it opens pose some interesting dilemmas for her character that heighten the tension.
Overall, Nexus is an impressive, if slightly flawed debut from Naam. His handle and grip on the science side is flawless, but his characterisation is more dubious. Without stronger and less clichéd characters to drive his solid story, it runs the risk of being derailed. Nexus most likely succeeds if you don’t think about it too hard, for if you do, the internal logic begins to unravel. With a suitably applied update to his work in the future, Naam could be a name to rival the science fiction makes science fact greats. Recommended – but more for the science than the fiction.
Nexus is available now from Angry Robot Books.