CRUX: Ramez Naam’s new novel continues his SF masterwork Nexus

(Meta-comment: This is a quick, non-spoiler review….)

When I read it last year, Ramez Naam’s novel Nexus fairly blew me away – I’d rate it one of the best SF novels I’ve read in years.   The core concept – a programmable “drug” called Nexus that lets you introspect and reprogram your brain via Linux-like commands – was fleshed out in an impressively plausible way, drawing heavily on the author’s solid technical background as well as his futurist imagination.   I loved his focus on the potential of such a technology for transforming social interaction and creating new avenues for human empathy, spirituality and personal growth as well as power and manipulation.

This year we have the sequel, Crux – and it’s in every way a worthy continuation.  There are, admittedly, no new ideas on a par with the Nexus drug introduced in the first novel.  But the various threads left dangling at the end of Nexus are extended and further entangled and enriched, in intriguing and satisfying ways.   The story tracks the increasing adoption of Nexus throughout the world, and the alarm of various governments and their attempts to control the drug.   Picking up where Nexus left off, it follows Kade (one of Nexus’s creators) and his enemy-turned-friend Sam, as they continue their furtive travels, hiding from those who would capture them and exploit their Nexus knowledge, and trying to guide Nexus-related developments in positive directions.

Collective intelligence plays a major role, in the context of communities of children who grow up using Nexus together, and adapt their minds and social interactions to the drug.   The new theme of mind uploading is introduced, and in an ironic and likely realistic manner – the early-stage mind uploads depicted are not entirely mentally healthy, adapting awkwardly (and worse) to the uploading process.

Crux continues in the same international, cross-cultural vein as its prequel.  The US intelligence community plays a nefarious role, in a way that rings particularly topical given the recent Snowden revelations.  But the Chinese government doesn’t get off easy either, manipulating its own citizens toward nationalistic goals with a ruthlessness equal to that of the US intel agencies, and perhaps greater foresight.   In Naam’s world, the empathy and synergy enabled by Nexus creates positive collective states of consciousness spanning cultural and natural boundaries; but the heartless self-serving of national power structures is equally global.

One of the more unique aspects of Crux is the way its action scenes interweave physical action and mental, Nexus-based action.   I’m not generally a huge fan of action scenes in novels, but I felt Nexus’s numerous fights and chases were well done — artfully portrayed and generally advancing the plot and characters.   The action scenes, in Crux, however, are something else.   Crux’s lead characters are largely expert at using Nexus, so that when engaged in combat, they can manipulate the minds of themselves and others in various ways, using mind-battle techniques alongside physical-battle techniques both tactically and strategically.   Whether or not our future actually holds anything like this, it’s well worked out and fascinating to contemplate.

Ethical issues lie at the core of Crux – in fact an ethical issue is revealed well into the book as the “crux” to which the title refers.   The core ethical dilemma considered has to do with the temptation to use advanced tools like Nexus to wield power over others and try to personally guide the future of humanity.

Put simply: If one finds oneself in a position of great potential power, is it wiser to

  1. try to use every means at one’s disposal to force humanity and its successors in a good direction – or
  2. play a less aggressive role, and at most try to nudge the natural process of socio-technological evolution in the right direction, figuring that society as a whole has more wisdom than any clever would-be savior.

Naam’s sympathies are clearly with the less-aggressive nudging approach; there is a strong vibe of “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”   Open, distributed, heterogeneous development of transformative tools like Nexus is portrayed as the best option – not because it’s particularly safe; but because the alternative, in which a few people call the shots for everyone, runs such a huge risk of falling prey to megalomania or narrow-mindedness.  But the ethical issues, like a lot of other things, are still left dangling at the end of Crux.  It’s clear at least one more sequel is on the way; and I’m eagerly awaiting it.

I hope this review will help me get on the beta-testers list when the real-world version of Nexus (i.e. the programmable version of the drug, not just the novel) is released!   No updates on that yet, though, alas…

 

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