book review | Nexus continues in Crux by Ramez Naam

August 9, 2013 by Giulio Prisco

Readers of Ramez Naam‘s techno-thriller NEXUS will not want to miss the awesome CRUX sequel, to be published August 27.

Set in a not-too-distant future, these novels tackle head-on an important conflict of our times: between the libertarian approach (those who think that people should be free to experiment with emerging technologies without harming others) and the authoritarian approach (those who want to control emerging technologies that can be abused for evil ends).

I cannot recommend these two sci-fi thrillers highly enough, and I am very happy to see that NEXUS has been optioned by Paramount for film.

CRUX is the second fiction work of the author of More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement and The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.

Nanobots link brains

Naam’s first novel NEXUS introduces Nexus — a drinkable, strongly neuroactive, and very illegal street drug.

But not just a drug: it fills the brain with nanobots that can listen to and influence neural activity, and communicate wirelessly with other Nexus nanobots at short range — even with nanobots in another brain.

Nexus signals can be amplified by repeaters — which permits really wild Nexus parties, and transmitted via radio and over the Internet.

In 2040, neuroscientists Kade, Ilya, and Rangan reverse-engineer the Nexus nanobots and develop a new, fully programmable version, with “Nexus 5″ operating system software. (Not to be confused with Google Nexus devices.)

Nexus 5 makes it possible to write programs that run directly in the brain of Nexus users. These include mood-control tools, cognitive enhancers, augmented-reality apps to add new multi-sensory layers to the users’ perceptions, and more practical apps to fight like Bruce Lee and dance like a master — not to mention sex.

Other apps permit long-range telepathic communications and fusion of individual minds into group minds. Buddhist monks had already found out how to use traditional meditation techniques to unleash the power of Nexus nanobots and achieve group consciousness, but the new version is easier to use — instant mind-meld for everyone.

Something happened. Eleven more minds grew larger in her perception. They brightened, swam more fully into focus. They were so full. So alive with thoughts and memories, emotions and desires. Her breathing synchronized with theirs. She closed her eyes and she could see and feel their individual lines of thought.

Nexus released into the wild

Meanwhile, advanced neuroscience and “transhumanist” human-augmentation technologies such as super-strong muscles and graphene-hardened bones are used by both the U.S. and China for war and intelligence, but civilian research is strongly limited by restrictive U.S. laws and international agreements.

The “Chandler Act” is a Patriot Act against human enhancement, reminiscent of the War on Drugs and the War on Terror.

The NSA and the new DHS Emerging Risks Directorate (ERD) brutally fight against the spread of Nexus. But molecular specs of the drug and the Nexus 5 operating system are posted to P2P networks and become an instant hit.

Every hour more variants of the package appeared, mutated, replicated. At 9.08pm EST on Monday, the NSA declared failure to control the propagation of the files outside the United States, sent home the exhausted staff who’d been fighting the infestation for nearly thirty-one hours. Around the globe, the battle over distribution slowed, and curiosity about what had been distributed grew.

“The most important questions in technology are choice and access,” Ramez told me. “When people get access to new technology and can choose for themselves how it’s used, we benefit. When we fight against that, things go wrong.”

The CRUX sequel

A few months after that, as CRUX begins, there are millions of users of Nexus 5, growing fast.

I especially appreciate that transhumanist hackers are portrayed as the good guys in a fight for freedom against the enemies of progress.

Although Ramez tries to present the point of view of the bad guys fairly. Samantha (Sam), a young ERD agent with superhuman physical and mental enhancements, was abused as a child by a ruthless sect using mind-control drugs to force members into submission, and her whole family was killed. She is afraid of Nexus because it can be abused for mind control and coercion.

Nexus can be used, indeed, to hijack the minds of other Nexus users, steal bank access codes, sexually abuse others, or commit murder and atrocities via unwilling, remotely controlled human drones.

But it can also be used to help others, improve communication and mutual understanding, heal mental disorders, and solve complex problems together much better than a single isolated mind.

It is contact with Nexus children — the true posthumans, born with Nexus nanobots in their brains — that eventually persuades Sam to switch sides.

Posthumans on the run

The adventures of Kade, Sam, and Feng, a genetically engineered Chinese super-soldier who becomes Kade’s friend and bodyguard, continue in CRUX with a very fast-paced run through Buddhist monasteries, shelters for Nexus children, tropical beach cities, and the seedy underworld of Southeastern Asia. Good movie material.

They are escaping from the ERD and other branches of the U.S. government, now fully committed to the brutal repression of Nexus and the extermination of enhanced humans. But other powerful players are also looking for them. Everyone wants to control Nexus and human enhancement technologies — including criminals, drug cartels, and a ruthless billionaire on a mission to save the world.

In the U.S., Ilya and Rangan are held in a future Guantanamo, and tortured to give up the backdoors that permit controlling the mind of Nexus users. Half a planet away, Kade, on the run, tries to use the backdoors to stop a growing wave of mind control crime, and the terrorist guerrilla of the PLF (Posthuman Liberation Front), who uses remotely controlled human drones to kill those who stand in the way of post-human evolution.

But who, really, runs the PLF?

The first human upload

Meanwhile in China, in a high-security vault under Beijing, the first human upload lives in a quantum supercomputer. A neuroscientist has been copied from her dying body by molecular devices that could scan a brain at nanometer scale, and has been uploaded to a quantum computing cluster powerful enough to simulate a human brain, using mathematical model to run it.

Software beings, all of them. Digital representation of brains. Like her. What mattered was pattern, not substrate. A physical brain was an information processor and nothing more. A mind was the information being processed, not the physical brain that did the processing. A digital brain, with digital neurons and digital synapses and digital signals passing through it, could process that information just the same, could give rise to a mind just as well.

The pattern of her brain, the precise wiring of her hundred billion neurons and the hundred trillion synaptic connections between them, was captured, simulated, and run. She awoke as software running on the massive cluster beneath Jiao Tong University. She was angry, grieving, but alive. More alive and more aware than ever.

She used to remotely control a clone of her original body, and live in the real world. But now, the hardliners in the Chinese government hold her prisoner in an isolated supercomputer, and force her to use her superhuman abilities to work on military programs.

She is gradually going insane from sensory deprivation and lack of contact with the outside world, her virtual environment collapsing around her struggling mind. But in Shanghai, her 8-year-old daughter, a superhuman child born with powerful genetic enhancements and a Nexus master, is determined to free her mother.

Making transhumanist technologies credible

Martin Higgins, the author of Human+, interviewed Ramez Naam in a podcast. Ramez’ observes that transhumanist propaganda makes future scientific advances look weird, and turns people off.

In contrast, the scientific and technical advances described in NEXUS and CRUX will just happen, and be accepted by the public, when the time is right, Ramez believes. Satisfying widespread human desires with non-threatening public perception is the key to social acceptance of developing “transhumanist technologies,” he notes.

Both novels include well-researched science appendices showing how the technologies described in the novels are actually being developed now.

CRUX ends with an unexpected twist that will leave many readers impatiently waiting for a third novel, which Ramez said will come out in late 2014 and is “going to be explosive.” I definitely look forward to reading it.