Nexus, Crux, Apex: Some Damn Fine Books Y'All Should Read.

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 12.06% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Most new technological achievements in fiction are presented in one of two ways:

  • This new thing will save mankind! And some evil people are trying to stop it!
  • This new thing will doom mankind! And some evil people are trying to make it popular!

Truth is, every technological achievement comes with benefits and negatives. The Internet made it easier for isolated people to find friends, but it also allows pedophiles to band together. The same algorithms that helpfully suggest your next Netflix show can be hijacked by the government to predict your behavior.  There’s never been a technological revolution that didn’t come with a few bodies in the basement, but fiction tends to not have time to deal with complexity.
Ramez Naam’s Nexus/Crux/Apex trilogy sure as fuck has time to look at both sides of the coin, though.
Nexus is a nano-drug that acts as an operating system in your brain, letting you network with others in real time and hack portions of your consciousness.  It’s been open-sourced, and it is also completely illegal, because the US government is – rightfully – concerned that an interconnected operating system that allows people to rearrange their memories at will and to load Bruce Lee fighting programs into their brain is a security issue that will cause massive breaches.
The book sets up a “massive government vs. spunky hackers” plot, but the issue is that the government’s concerns are very real.  The ramifications of Nexus are as huge to this world as the Internet was to us about forty years back, and whereas the hackers are right that the ability to connect with other people and share experiences is empowering, they are also overlooking the many negative ways that bad people can – and, in fact, will – use this experience to fuck other people over.
In this, the Nexus series is wonderfully complex, because everybody has a point.  The government is clinging to the status quo, yes, but that’s because it’s totally unclear whether the government’s citizens would survive the transition to a transhuman future.  The hackers are occasionally a little cocksure.  This is a Pandora, and Ramez Naam treats it  appropriately as a global issue, starting in the US but soon branching to India and China and, well, everywhere.
And more importantly, the technology feels real.  The black-ops tech the government has will absolutely smash the spunky hackers’ limited resources every time unless they can hook up with other, greater, forces. As such, alliances become a huge issue, and the alliances only work as long as everyone’s on the same page – which doesn’t happen for long as the ramifications of what people can use Nexus to do spreads.
Not to mention the fact that “transhuman” is a real concern – what a bunch of Nexus-enabled people can do outstrips normal people’s abilities, even as it leaves them open to hacking attempts and trojan viruses.  And when the governments clash, and the civil wars break out, and the terrorists start playing their hands…
Well, things get delightfully messy.
The book has a couple of minor flaws – to me, the “renegade hacker” syndrome where one man can rewrite major portions of an OS in days was a break from reality, but an acceptable one – but what I loved about the Nexus series was the sense of enlightenment.  The book has intraconnected Buddhist monks providing serenity, and what’s delightful about the series is that sense of transcendence’s ephemerality.
Because the characters each achieve these moments of perfect grace, a time when everything is made clear to them – and then they have to deal with the grimy details of the real world and forget portions of what they’ve learned, but they are on an upwards climb.
Yet what I love about the Nexus series is that the governments have these moments of perfect grace. There are times when everyone in the chain of command is illuminated, seeing everything as it is – and then some of them retain that knowledge and work to forward the future, while others fall back on old patterns and reject it.  There are several moments where we see clearly what should be done, and we also see the counterweighting forces to understand why it’s not done.
This is a marvelous achievement.  And when the trilogy ends, the characters’ storylines are wrapped up, but the politics do not end.  Nobody finishes on the same page.  They can’t.  That is the very point of the Nexus trilogy: that good people can disagree on how to push forward, and this conflict we see in the real world isn’t good vs. evil, just different priorities weighted.
All that happens with a good crunchy action sequence every fifty pages or so.  Pick it up. Discover the future.

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