Prior to Nexus, Ramez Naam has considered transhumanism, which describes the augmentation of humans by technological means, in a non-fiction context. I think that’s what makes him a technologist. More recently, he has critiqued transhumanism in his fictional book Nexus, which might also be what makes him a technologist. From this, it’s clear that Naam thinks that it’s very important that people seriously engage with the issues surrounding the increasing interface between technology and humanity. And he will get you to do that even if he has to package it in a spy thriller, damn it.
Nexus’s basis is, unsurprisingly, the eponymous drug Nexus. As its name implies, Nexus is a conduit between drugtakers’ brains; people on the drug are able to connect with fellow users and are essentially forced to experience the others’ minds’ fully. This is an apparently wonderful experience, and allows for an unheralded kind of communication. Further, as an enhancement of Nexus users’ collective cognitive abilities, the drug is a transhuman dream, paving the way for posthumanism. The American government and other world organizations generally prohibit the drug, and do all they can to prevent humanity from taking those transhumanistic steps.
Our hero, Kade Lane, with his name’s frustrating vowel pattern repetition, has reengineered Nexus to act as a permanent brain enhancement, rather than something that can be flushed out of one’s system like a drug. As you can imagine, his ideals, as evidenced through these actions, are quite at odds with the authorities. Conflict ensues.
This conflict is literal and figurative: it is present in both the plot of the novel and in the ideologies it critiques. Much space is given to the exploration of the morality of Nexus’s mind-linking as a question of liberty vis-à-vis safety, with nods to Benjamin Franklin and American political thought. Lane is on Team Freedom, while the antagonist arm of the American government that opposes him believes that unchecked technological advance of this kind does too much harm.
The argument is presented as resolved in favour of liberty, with analogies drawn to the inception of language and the invention of the book. While Naam deals with this debate relatively adequately, the liberty–safety dichotomy is his only real stated concern, with particular emphasis on mind-control as a harm to be avoided. To my mind, less practical philosophical arguments arise when considering technology that can so significantly alter the human condition.
Most importantly, the choice to interface one’s brain with another’s naturally and completely destroys the concepts of privacy and trust, at least as the technology is presented by the novel. I conjecture that human relationships based on trust thrive, or at least have much more significant social and emotional impact. Without trust humans and their creations are literal and uninteresting; that aspect of the human condition that is the complexity of human relationships is utterly degraded. I don’t wish to harp on about this subject as my view is more a personal emotional reaction than the subject of deep philosophical inquiry, but I do wish that it was addressed in the novel, as nothing was offered to distract me from my viewpoint.
Further, if, as Nexus suggests, there were to be worldwide adoption of this interface, the posthuman hive-mind would no longer resemble a human relationship. Again, I can’t argue with Naam’s view on posthumanism in this respect, because he only touched upon it peripherally.
Of course, concession must be made to Naam for his choice of vehicle for the presentation of his view of transhuman metaphysics. Though he and his characters spend a fair chunk of their time musing on the implications of Nexus, the book is, at heart, a potential action movie. And it is a good action movie. I certainly didn’t lose interest at any point. The resolution was satisfying, and the characters, while not particularly deeply explored, behaved relatively consistently. However, if philosophy is to be packaged in a novel, I would prefer to be left with fewer questions than have been answered. In this case, Naam is excellently poised to comment on any and all aspects of his philosophy, as it goes to the centre of his professional interest, and for me, he comes up short.
Otherwise, I only had one other major frustration with the novel. By and large, it felt American. This is not itself a turn-off, but one particular section deferred entirely to the ethics and politics of the American Revolution. This overtly political statement was irritatingly contrary to the tone of the novel otherwise, which was largely an attempt at even-handed critique. That said, I admit that I have a strong emotional reaction to dogmatic patriotism, so perhaps the passage might not stand out as much for others.
As a novel, rather than a philosophy, Nexus has significant narrative power. It is testament to Naam’s pedigree as a lover of technology that his world and concepts are convincingly presented to the extent that it is primarily what he has omitted that is questionable. Hopefully in his other forays into fiction he explores more than just the liberty–safety paradigm when critiquing technological advancement. Regardless, Nexus is a successful thriller where things explode and people die so if you don’t need to consider whether or not trust is integral to emotional engagement with the human condition, check it out.
Want a copy? Head to Pulp Fiction Booksellers, if you’re in Brisbane.
Review written by guest writer for The Novelettes, Alexander Kucharski.