by Joy Ralph
Imagine you could run a computer operating system in your head. Imagine if your friends could too. Chatting with them becomes almost like telepathy, but with a little more security (one hopes). This is the world Ramez Naam presents us in his trilogy of novels: Nexus, which introduces the eponymous operating system and its creators, as well as a panoply of concerns whose interest ranges from the benign (bringing people together, furthering understanding and communication, expanding human potential for compassion) to the inimical (state control of thought/action, mandatory obedience, brainwashing and other infringements on personal autonomy), Crux, which explores a number of these potential pathways further, and Apex, which is the climactic chapter, concludes with a sense of shy hope for the potential of human compassion. While the government response to NexusOS and its capabilities is reminiscent of the arguments currently being heard about back-doors and vulnerabilities to encryption routines and systems it appears, in the end, common sense may prevail.
The May 2015 publication of Apex, the third volume in the Nexus trilogy, wraps up a gripping and emotionally vivid story that inspires equal parts wonder and paranoia. The eponymous Nexus operating system is computer software that runs on nanobots in the brain and nervous system of anyone who ingests the easily-swallowed liquid containing the initial dose. Amazingly, this is a quite possible future technology. Naam explains his research in the afterword for each novel, and over the course of time taken to write the entire series it has remained a viable path of research. Like the nations and states of the story (who have signed an agreement prohibiting that very research) it is easy imagine possible uses and abuses, from the remote control of someone else’s mind and body to a potentially intimate mind-to-mind level of communication. Based on a combination of instant messaging and reciprocal system-state information sharing, for example: monitoring a person’s heart rate and blood pressure by querying their nanobots, it becomes much easier to detect when that person might be lying. Unsurprisingly many military leaders and governments, even those who are party to the accords making such things illegal, are extremely interested in the ways this technology might enhance troop performance or present possibilities for espionage.
Like ours, the world of Nexus also includes successful (and also banned in many places) human cloning experiments, and a powerful US governmental agency has been tasked with keeping the citizenry safe from these and other “post-human” threats. Any research they confiscate or conduct is solely with the aim of protection and vigilance, and any enhancements their agents may possess are entirely for keeping up with those of the criminal element.
The real advancements are being made by programmers like Kaden Lane, Ilyana Alexander and Rangan Shankari, a trio we meet working out of a lab at UCSF. They have succeeded in making some significant changes in their version of Nexus, taking it to a far more useful (or dangerous) level. They envision Nexus as a platform for connecting people, for enriching people’s lives. Nevertheless their work is technically illegal, and the government pursues. Agent Sam(antha) C. is dispatched to collect Lane and extort him to work as a spy under threat of imprisonment of himself as well as his cohorts and research participants, triggering the saga to follow.
Naam is a skillful and subtle writer. He introduces the technology organically as the first novel opens, with Lane field-testing the latest build of the OS by running some routines for dating/flirting at a party. Like much software, these routines have some bugs, with the imagined embarrassing consequences. Naam deftly weaves emotional resonance into the narrative, and the frustration of events experienced by the characters is strikingly resonant—enough so that I initially thought I didn’t like the first book, until realizing I was unhappy instead with what the protagonists endure.
The characters also find themselves with altered perspectives. Everyone of course has an agenda, sometimes more than one. Kaden wants to shield his research participants from government interference, and he worries about taking responsibility for the development and distribution of the improved version of Nexus. Ilyana has more political awareness and is fiercely protective of her rights to study and conduct research unhampered by the authorities. Rangan wants to help people connect, for serious reasons but also, as a DJ, for fun. Sam is dealing with past trauma as well as beginning to suspect the degree of her agency’s hypocrisy is greater than she previously imagined. Ideals are challenged and reality intrudes with force. As the second novel, Crux, proceeds, the cast deals with the consequences, intended and otherwise, of their choices and actions.
Apex, the trilogy’s conclusion, contains some fairly epic changes and challenges for everyone. Naam does not pull his punches, nor does he provide an overly-tidy solution to the very real issues he has raised, but there is hope to be found in the aftermath of near-destruction despite the deaths and the unsettled questions.
Naam does not pull his punches, nor does he provide an overly-tidy solution to the very real issues he has raised, but there is hope to be found in the aftermath of near-destruction despite the deaths and the unsettled questions.
That realistic approach and willingness to end with a sense of ambiguity is one of the things I enjoyed most about these novels. I’m still uncertain whether I would take Nexus if offered the opportunity. A recurring theme in the trilogy is “trust, but verify” and the price of that trust being violated would be frighteningly high. It’s hard to imagine taking the risks involved in running the Nexus OS without being a programmer and having some recourse to possible attempts at coercion or hacking. But the idea of connection and communication (if not communion) with people is very attractive.
The Nexus trilogy is a fascinating speculative adventure and a considered exploration of how technology intertwines with philosophy and what it means to be human. It’s also a gripping adventure with noir elements, and a story about actions having consequences that may or may not be foreseen. Naam’s series is SF at its best, following humanity and logic both down the chain of what might happen if things were just a little different. His science is top-notch and cutting edge, his story is thrilling and terrifying by turns, and his characters slip in and take up residence in your heart.