When I first approached the debut novel Nexus, I thought that I'd be reading a near-future hard SF novel about post-humanity. The first sentence of the author bio is: "Ramez Naam is a professional technologist," so I was looking forward to a view of the bleeding edge of post-human technology grounded in today's tech developments. That's not quite what I got. As I read it, I realized that I was rather reading a near-future spy thriller novel, one occasionally slowed down by intense philosophical speculations about post-human technology. On both of these levels, the novel was very frustrating. Finally, upon reflection, I was able to pinpoint a reading that summed up Nexus's flaws and strengths: as a modern-day Edisonade.
Before I examine the Edisonade structure in detail, let me lay out the premise of the novel. It is 2040, and mind control drugs are slowly becoming more prevalent and scary. One in particular, called Nexus, has been surging in popularity. There is a branch of the Dept. of Homeland Security, the Emerging Risks Directorate (ERD), that is dedicated to preventing the spread of these drugs and any other technology that might make humans into post-humans. Inevitably they have made their own post-human super soldiers to fight this fight for them. China is also interested in the technology, having created a clone army of super-soldiers. Nexus is a short-term drug that allows for some level of mind-to-mind communication over short distances. It is a nanotechnology that appeared out of nowhere and that no one has been able to reverse engineer. No one, at least, until a team of grad students in California. They synthesize Nexus themselves, then improve on the design to allow the drug to persist in the body permanently. And they write code that allows the body to be controlled remotely, either by algorithm or by another person dosed with Nexus. The potential for abuse is huge and obvious.
With that background, let’s turn to the Edisonade. This is a term coined by John Clute for the SF Encyclopedia, modeled after the Robinsinade form that takes after Robinson Crusoe. The form dates back to at least 1891, and possibly back to 1868. From the Encyclopedia's definition:
[A]ny story dating from the late nineteenth century onward and featuring a young US male inventor hero who ingeniously extricates himself from tight spots and who, by so doing, saves himself from defeat and corruption, and his friends and nation from foreign oppressors.
Nexus centers on Kade Lane, a young, white, American male inventor. One of the most frustrating things about the book, to me, is that Kade is at its center for no particularly good reason. Science is done in teams these days, and Kade is part of a team. There are also teams in other parts of the world working on the same technology. The idea that Kade alone is so pivotal is an unexamined assumption of the novel. I understand that a thriller needs a single central hero, but Kade is not the most obvious choice (besides, even as a thriller this book often sags under the weight of its SFnal themes and multiple points of view). It is especially surprising since Kade's team includes two members that in some ways should be his superiors. Kade is a grad student working in neural engineering. His classmate from India, Rangan Shankari, is also a grad student and appears to be a better coder than Kade. The other member is Ilya Alexander, a post-doc woman from Russia who is described as a theoretical neuroscientist. In the story she is described as having zero understanding of coding, reduced to saying "I'm not following this hack" (p. 101) and winding up "linked to their [virtual] environments and watching over their virtual shoulders" (ibid). In my experience "theoretical" scientists spend large chunks of time coding simulations that describe the problems they are modeling, so I found this "girl doesn't understanding coding" trope rather unbelievable. Also, she has her doctorate already, and the men are mere grad students—usually an important distinction.
Be that as it may, it is asserted that Kade is the only important one here. By way of "saving himself from defeat and corruption," he is offered deals by all the novel's interested parties. The ERD recruit him to spy on a Chinese lab. The top Chinese scientist tries to hire him for her lab. Various drug dealers try to either ally with or entrap him. In the course of all these people making pitches to Kade, we get an in-depth, 360 degree view of all the implications of a technology with as much potential as Nexus. We see it used both by druggies and by Buddhist monks, who use it as a way of enabling profound empathy and connection between beings. We see numerous people, including the heroes, use it as an instrument of torture. The Chinese scientist sees it as the next step in human evolution, a way to bring about the rise of the post-human race of which she is already a member. Eventually Kade, and Kade alone, is the one to decide how and whether the super version of Nexus will be released into the world. This dovetails nicely with another component of the Encyclopaedia's definition of the Edisonade:
The Invention by which he typically accomplishes this feat is not, however, simply a Weapon, though it will almost certainly prove to be invincible against the foe, and may also make the hero's fortune; it is also a means of Transportation—for the edisonade is not only about saving the country (or planet) through personal spunk and native wit, it is also about lighting out for the Territory.
There are a few ways in which Nexus puts a new gloss on this very old form: for one, there’s the interesting shift from "lighting out for the Territory" involving opening up geographical regions for physical expansion, to having it open up new realms of abstract space in human psychology and interactions. I should also note that in the case of "saving his nation from foreign oppressors," in the post-9/11 era this book recognizes that the threats come both from foreign powers (largely China) and from within, as shown by the unsubtle abuses of power wielded by the American ERD. The fact that the Buddhist monks in Thailand are able to make more benign use of Nexus than our hero does mitigates some of the yellow peril tone of the book, although it also starts to feel like simple exoticism.
That's about it for the truly interesting bits of the book. And even those parts tread ground that many other science fiction authors have been plowing for the last twenty years. To name just two examples, Greg Egan tackled a lot of questions about artificial neural engineering and free will back in the 1990s, and Rudy Rucker has been writing about ubiquitous nanocomputing and the potential for connecting the whole world in a Net for many years. Much of the book seems to draw on movie plots such as The Matrix, where Neo is, again for some undefinable reason, the most important hacker in all the world upon whom the fate of the universe rests. I was happy to see that Naam at least resisted the temptation to give Kade super martial arts abilities—Rangan writes a program called "Bruce Lee" for him, but it mostly results in him getting his ass kicked by professional super-soldiers.
The interesting parts of Nexus are vastly outweighed by the mass of unexamined assumptions that lead to very troubling race and gender dynamics. Everyone's interests are subsumed in the quest to get Kade aligned to their cause. One female scientist is dismissed as completely unimportant and with little technical competence. Kade's graduate advisor is apparently female, but she only gets two sentences and a pronoun—not even a name—and is obviously clueless about what's going on. The Chinese post-human super-scientist is a woman, but has only gained her achievements by being engineered. Apparently this happened while she was "on maternity leave"—in fact, both she and her child were experimented upon. (I suppose this is a mild improvement on the "woman leaves promising career track to be a mommy" assumption faced by many women in the sciences, but not by much.) But even with her super-enhanced brain, she still needs Kade to bring her plans to fruition.
There's the female super-soldier who starts out as a true believer because the ERD rescued her from years of rape at the hands of a mind-control cult, but is converted to Kade's side because of his "purity of vision" and the access to her own psychology that Nexus gives her. (Side note: can I add my voice to the plea to stop using rape as a back-story motivation for women? It's disturbing and very unhelpful. Having a woman overcome a history of rape and abuse by becoming a super-soldier subservient to the bureaucracy of an overreaching and patriarchal government agency is not actually empowering.) There's also a black male super-soldier who was convinced of Nexus's transformational potential after he was captured by rebels in Afghanistan, during which his captors used Nexus to help him understand their plight. After that they all died. He puts everything on the line to get Kade into a position to make his world-altering choice, and while I'm trying to avoid spoilers, we all know what happens to the black guy in these movies. Finally, a lot of the action happens at a scientific conference in Thailand, and I'll just say that Naam has not instilled in me the confidence that he is portraying that country in the most accurate and sensitive possible light. In the end, the only 100% good guys are Buddhist monks, who have more or less magical healing powers.
Overall I felt that this book failed on every level that I wanted it to succeed: from a writer described as a technologist, I wanted a more hard SF technology based on the plausible contemporary technology. Instead I got handwaved magical nanotech. I wanted a page-turning thriller, and instead I got poor pacing and action sequences that were bogged down by describing every action of too many combatants from too many points of view. I wanted speculation about the philosophical and political consequences of brain augmentation technology—and here I came closest to my wish, with a very nuanced consideration of many different aspects of the technology. But there's little here that hasn't been handled by other writers, and the book was not introspective enough to address the fact that our initial team of heroes is introduced doing illegitimate human trial experiments without any regulatory oversight, treating it like a fun drug party, and that upon being discovered they immediately use their mind control powers to inflict torture on the ERD agent who comes after them—which agent is later converted to their cause. And I might have wished for a story that brings the Edisonade into a more enlightened world in which there does not have to be a young white male American inventor at its center, and in which the yellow peril is not raised as a threat—but that is exactly what we have here. Overall, I have to recommend giving this particular SF thriller a pass.
Karen Burnham is vocationally an engineer at NASA's Johnson Space Center, and avocationally a speculative fiction reviewer. She edits the Locus Roundtable blog, and she can be emailed at email@example.com.