Sunday, June 15, 2014

Review: Nexus by Ramez Naam

John W. Campbell Award (not a Hugo Award) for Best New Writer Nominee: Ramez Naam.

To check out this nominee, I listened to Nexus.

Spoilery thoughts behind the link:

A new "drug" has been created, called Nexus. It's composed of nanites which infiltrate your brain, where they resonate with someone else nearby who has also taken Nexus. It enables you to get inside each other's heads, see through each other's eyes, remember each other's memories, and control each other's bodies. The street version of the drug breaks down and clears out of your brain after a few hours. After serious abuse of this and other similar drugs (imagine the possibilities for enslaving and controlling others), Nexus and other similar drugs have been deemed illegal by an international accord. Similarly, work towards creation of a superhuman or non-human intelligence, either AI or many human minds linked together through something like Nexus, has been made illegal.

Our protagonist and his buddies have, of course, been working on a new and improved Nexus. This new version installs itself permanently in the brain, and our guys have figured out how to build an operating system on top of it, so they can use it not only to connect to each other, but also to build further software on top of it. The U.S. government catches them, and offers the protagonist the choice of helping them in a few stings or he and his hundred or so friends go to jail forever. He chooses to help the government, of course, reluctantly.

I love the concepts. Not only do we have the Nexus drug, but we also have a drug called Empath which works similarly, but lets people experience each others' emotions as if they were their own. We learn that there are children who were born with Nexus, due to their mothers taking Nexus and other drugs while pregnant - the one we've been introduced to so far is an amazing and innocent miracle child whose presence is love and healing. Other groups of people around the world are also working on advancing the nanite science.

We have the conflict between the different parties with their differing philosophies. The Buddhists who want to spread the technology equally to all on the planet to promote greater harmony among all peoples. The governments who are (mostly) normal humans (their enhancements don't count apparently) who fear the emerging super-humans and want to quash them all before they can get strong enough to pose a threat to "normal" humans. The Magneto-scientist who wants to give these advancements only to an elite set at first, until she gets enough to wage her war against the "normal" humans who hate them, and then through this elite group who are superior to everyone else, rule all of humanity. It turns out, in the end, Magneto-scientist is much more advanced than we at first suspect. Our protagonist winds up caught between all of these factions, and has to figure out who to help and what to do. Meanwhile, his love interest government watchdog is undergoing her own character transformation from someone who thinks the Nexus technology is the ultimate of all evils to someone who begins to see its benefits, healing some of her childhood trauma along the way.

That's a quick summary of a lot of the things I loved about this book. The ideas. And the conflicts that are emerging as a result of the ideas and new technologies - you know I love me some X-Men.

So, on to the things that bothered me.

Invading someone's mind against their will is said to be like rape. Or was it "worse than rape?" Why, then, is nobody particularly bothered when someone does it to them? They're bothered and fight it when it's happening, but then they never mention it again among the zillion other things they're angsting and upset about. And they're angsting and upset about a LOT of things. That doesn't sound very similar to any rape experience I've ever heard of. They seem to, for the most part, be just fine around someone who just mind-raped them only yesterday. Well, maybe not just fine, but their angst about those people never touches on their recent mind-rape. This was very jarring.

Also jarring me out of the reality a bit was the question - How does Wats get all this stuff? And get it into Thailand? He has a hidey hole, he has false identities, he has fancy camo gear stuff, he has fancy weaponry, he has fancy magic auto-pick thing that picks any lock.... ??? I can suspend disbelief and believe the military and CIA and ERD can sneak just about anything they want to into a foreign country. But a single man working entirely on his own? Hmm.... He does discuss where his immense amount of funding comes from - a settlement from the Corps for the damage they've done him and the cancer he will likely soon develop and die from. But how does he acquire these bulky high-tech things and get them into the foreign country? I suppose he could buy them there... But then he wouldn't be laying very low.

Now, on to the things that really pissed me off.

The violence.

So very, very violent. Unnecessarily, graphically violent.

There was violence from the start. I'm usually willing to kindof fade out my brain through some amount of violence if the story is giving me enough of something to make up for it, and this one was, with the interesting ideas. So I was kindof noticing that the violence was increasing a bit at a time as the story went on, but I was mostly ignoring it.

Then I got to the slaughter scene at the Nexus and Empathy party our protagonists attended. So much. So much horrible violence.

You DON'T kill the amazing magic innocent glowing Buddha-like little girl who has just healed and bonded with one of your protagonists, and you especially don't kill her just for that protagonist's character development.

Also, you could see it coming, and I want to say "You don't do this" but too many people still do it and it's getting really old: the first major character to die was the man with the very dark skin. Why is this still a trope? Seriously.

But then, just the whole slaughter scene. Oh. Em. Gee. Over a dozen people were linked via Nexus and Empath, and were experiencing every thought and feeling that everyone else in the circle was experiencing. Including the protagonist and love interest government watchdog. So when the slaughter began, it was REALLY intense. And it was described very graphically. This was NOT a horror I needed in my head. It was so intensely graphically violent, I literally almost had to pull my car off the road to throw up. And all of it is so COMPLETELY UNNECESSARY. I turned off the book and managed to get home without vomiting.

I can't even begin to describe how angry I was with the level of excessive unnecessary graphic violence. I get really upset when a book engages me as much as this one did, only to kick me in the nuts, as it were.

So, I know, for this award, it's a little different. I'm evaluating the author, not the particular book. In this case, well... My reaction to this book is so strong, I will not pick up another of this author's fiction books unless someone I trust tells me the things that bother me so much about this book are less present or are absent. Can't we keep the awesome ideas without all the horrors that I'm not sure I'll be able to get out of my head, even if I had brain bleach?

On a side note - That's 0 for 2 on books this year with a sleeve of suspicious-looking pills for cover art. Should I completely avoid books with such cover art in the future, or should I give a third one a chance before nixing it?

Up or down ballot (note for myself) - DOWN. With regrets. I love this author's ideas SO much. But I really don't want this kind of horribly graphic unnecessary violence to be the direction the genre continues to move in.

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