Science fiction is filled with brain bending concepts, and is a fantastic template for looking at where humans are going, as well as how we got there. One of the joys of reading science fiction is how easily authors can use its form to spur discussion on a whole variety of interesting topics. But, like any template, it can be used effectively, or it can fall short, particularly if the balance between story and philosophy are out of whack.
Nexus, the first novel from Ramez Naam, is unfortunately off balance. In the future Naam envisions, a new drug has been developed to upgrade the human brain. Now, those who use this drug are wired together much the same way a computer is wired into a network, or even the web. Users can access other people’s knowledge and skills instantaneously. The concept is an excellent Sci-Fi idea, and it’s bolstered by Naam’s own reporting and research in the ways technology is allowing humans to upgrade themselves. He has a fascinating book on the subject, More Than Human, which was a fascinating look at biological enhancement and how that field is developing. It makes sense, then, that he would want to further explore the advantages and traps of how we use science to speed up our evolution.
Unfortunately, Naam is less successful as a storyteller than he is as a futurist. Not content to explore just the ethical and moral implications of Nexus, the drug that allows humans to network their minds, he brings in a government conspiracy plot to drive the action. He also presents portions of the story as “briefings,” which felt at times like info dumps. The science at the center of this story is knotty enough, he could have teased out the various threads of how this could be a benefit for society, as well as how it could be misused, for pages. Some sites have listed this as the first of a series, and I would be curious to see more of how Nexus affects and influences society, without the conventional action thriller frame.
Overall, I did enjoy reading Nexus, Naam’s a crisp, efficient writer and his characters are certainly interesting, I just felt there was more that could be done here. When I saw the synopsis of this book, and saw the concept, I saw the potential here for Naam to create something more in the vein of what Asimov did with robots (which is not to say I expected this book to become iconic out of the gate, that wouldn’t be a fair way to approach it). Setting aside those expectations, Nexus is a quick, entertaining book, but really should have been deeper than it turned out to be.