When I was 15, I read a book called Neuromancer by an author named William Gibson and it completely changed by conception of science fiction, technology and the world. Up to that point, the edgiest things I had read were the Dragonlance Chronicles, the Robotech novelizations and the Dragonriders of Pern. All good fun books for a young teenager to read but pretty prosaic as far as fantasy/science fiction but oh my god! Gibson transported me to an alternate future several decades in the future where technologically augmented assassins battled Yakuza on the streets of Chiba City and Digital Cowboys entered the web and stole and traded information. It was a heady stuff that I sensed was a realistic possibility given the way technology was progressing and to this day, there Is still a part of me that wants to jack in and do battle with rogue AIs and nefarious hackers. I wasn’t the only one so affected. Thousands of writers, screenwriters and film-makers were influenced by Gibson’s seminal Cyberpunk work. Without Neuromancer, there would have not been any Matrix, Inception, or Snowcrash.
I have read a lot of books over the years, many of them extraordinary works that I have deeply enjoyed. I spent the entire previous year on a mission to convince everyone who wants to read quality fantasy, loves the Game of Thrones or Quentin Tarantino’s movies, or just wants to read a great story that Job Abercrombie’s books (starting with The Blade Itself) are the fantasy equivalent of Ecstasy suffused Prison Sex on top of a Chocolate Chip Cookie. But there have only been a few books (like Neuromancer) that have altered the way I look at the world and expanded how I think about Science Fiction. I guess this is my way of saying that you need to drop what you are doing and go read the game changing book Nexus by Ramez Naam.
Ramez Naam is an Egyptian born Computer Scientist who writes on trans-humanism and nanotechnology and he knocks it out of the park with his debut novel, Nexus. It is set a couple of decades in the future where nanotechnology has progressed to the point where humanity is increasingly becoming smarter, faster and deadlier than ever before. An increasingly draconian USA is locked in a cold war with a proto-fascist domineering China while shadowy corporations, rogue scientists and brazen and brutal criminals threaten to bring everything down. The old order is crumbling where rapid technology and super-empowered individuals seek to throw off the shackles of nation-states for good and ill. In other words, the fabled technological singularity has occurred and humanity is changing into something else, much to horror of normal un-augmented people and their governments.
Naam’s writing style is uncommonly assured and his characters, while archetypical in many respects, have fascinating depths that I don’t think I have necessarily seen before in writing. There is the young idealistic scientist with a designer nano-drug that allows people to link their minds together and share what each is feeling; The augmented counter-narcotics officer sent to watch over him despite a huge problem with the past that makes her the worse choice for the mission; the former US Marine NCO, lethal and brain damaged by his former captivity; and the superhuman Chinese scientist with plans to deal with everything and everyone. As the book goes on, hidden depths are revealed and frankly, I ended up questioning the motives of every single one of them. And finally, there are the action scenes. I won’t spoil anything accept to say that the mid-book shoot out in a Bangkok apartment building was one of the most intense lyrical scenes I have read in years. It was a brutal ballet of bullets, double crosses, triple-crosses, explosions, rescues and tragedy. It was beautiful.
Most of all, Naam’s book rises to Neuromancer heights because amidst all of the fighting and betrayal, it asks a very important question: Is the benefits of changing ourselves with technology worth the cost? Does technological augmentation (which already exists and getting more advanced by the month) make us more or less human? What ethically is the limit? In many ways, Nexus, is the best superhero book in years so it is certainly not billed as such. If you have superhuman abilities that make you smarter, deadlier, better looking, stronger and quicker than anyone else, how does that change your point of view? How can you not on some level believe that you are better and more capable than normal people? Once you get to that point, what stops you from taking advantage of others, even if it is for their own good? The characters of this book are confronted with that question and there comes a point, when confronted with the hate and fear of the ‘normals’, that they begin to question whether they owe normal human beings anything…and I am not sure I disagree with their point of view. This is heady stuff because most superhero stories refuse to tackle that question, giving normal points of view and actions to beings that are not at all like the rest of us. In Nexus, these characters have to deal with it head-on and it reminds me of the scene in Watchmen where the anti-hero Rorschach looks down at the teeming crowds screaming ‘Save Us!’ and he whispers ‘No’. This attitude whether justified or not by the actions of the normal, is horrifying because the logical endpoint of this line of thinking is the perversion of the Ubermensch of Nietzsche and ‘Master Race’ ideals of the Nazis. The characters of this book are running along that edge and it remains to be seen in future books if they go that route.
Naam’s book is a powerful debut and a book that will stay with you for a long time after you read it. Buy it for the action and suspense but be prepared to think a lot about the future, humanity and a changing morality in relation to increasingly advanced technology. The sequel to Naam’s book comes out later this year and I could not be more anxious to get my hands on it and see where this brilliant story goes.