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Book Review: Nexus by Ramez Naam (Series, #1)

Gray book cover.Summary:
Science is moving forward to and through transhumanism to posthumanism, and no society seems to quite know how to handle it.  China is using the tech in their armies, Thailand is interested in its use to enhance meditation and zen, and the US government banned many of the different treatments and drugs after they were used by cults to make cloned children into killing machines.  Kaden Lane knows about the potential dangers, but he and his lab partners are still invested in making their brain nanotechnology drug, Nexus, work.  It makes minds meld together, able to feel others’ suffering, and they think it will lead to world peace.  Samantha Cataranes was a victim of a transhumanist mind control cult as a child, now she fights on the side of the FBI putting a stop to any science deemed too dangerous.  When Samantha and Kaden meet, their worlds and worldviews start colliding.

Review:
I had honestly kind of forgotten what this book was about, beyond it being scifi, by the time I picked it up to read it.  I thus was able to experience most of it as a surprise.  It’s a book that’s a modern twist on cyberpunk with plenty of action to boot.

Jumping far enough ahead that some transhumanist elements already exist is a smart move.  It lets the book think forward further than the initial transhumanist elements that it’s generally easy to see the advantages of, like fully functional robotic hands, into the grayer areas with things like cloning and mind control and making soldiers who are super-soldiers.  This is a more interesting ethical dilemma, and the book doesn’t take very long to set up the world and get into it.

Nexus itself is a fascinating drug that combines nanotech and drugs.  It’s easy to see that the author knows his science and has extrapolated into a possible future with a lot of logic based on current science.  That’s part of what makes reading the book so fascinating and slightly frightening.  It feels like an actual possibility.

The world building is done smoothly, incorporating both in-plot mentions and newspaper clippings and internal briefings to establish what is going on in the greater world around Kaden and Samantha.

The characterizations are fairly strong.  Even if some of the secondary characters can seem two-dimensional, the primary characters definitely are not.  Seeing a woman as the world-wise, transhuman strong fighter, and the man as the physically weaker brains was a nice change of pace.  Additionally, the book embraces the existence of gray areas. “Bad guy” characters aren’t necessarily bad, and “good guys” aren’t necessarily good.  This characterization helps tell the nuanced gray area story of the overarching plot.

The beginning of the book was weaker than the middle and the end.  The first chapter that has a character testing out Nexus by using it to land sex with a hot woman almost made me stop reading the book entirely.  It felt like some pick-up artist douchebro was imagining a future where tech would make him irresistible to women.  Frankly, that whole first chapter still feels extremely out of place to me now.  It doesn’t fit into the rest of the presentation of the character throughout the book.  It feels like an entirely separate story altogether.  I would encourage potential readers to skim it, since it barely belongs, then get to the rest of the book.

After the first chapter, the next few chapters feel a bit overly rose-colored lenses at first.  Almost as if the author sees no gray areas and only the potential good in humans.  Thankfully, this is mostly the rose-colored lenses of a main character that quickly fall away for the more nuanced storytelling of the rest of the book.  But it did induce a few eye-rolls before I got further along.

The middle and end of the book look at human potential for both good and evil within the context of both science and Buddhism.  It’s fascinating stuff, and makes a lot of sense since quite a bit of modern psychiatry is working hand-in-hand with ideas from Buddhism, particularly about meditation.  This is where the more interesting insights occurred, and also where I felt I could embrace the book a bit more.

Each of us must walk our own ethical path. And together, men and women of ethics can curb the damage of those without. But for you…if you keep vital knowledge from others, then you are robbing them of their freedom, of their potential. If you keep knowledge to yourself, then the fault is not theirs, but yours. (loc 5597)

Overall, this cyberpunk scifi that mixes transhumanism and posthumanism with nanotechnology, fighting big governments, and Buddhism tells a fascinating tale full of gray areas that will appeal to scifi fans.  Some may be turned off by the first few chapters that lack the nuance and likeable and strong characterization of the rest of the book, but it’s worth it to skim through the first few chapters to get to the juicier middle and end.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: Glasshouse by Charles Stross

April 21, 2011 3 comments

Abstract art.Summary:
Robin lives in the 27th century where your consciousness can be switched from body to body (and not just ortho-human ones) indefinitely.  Frequent back-ups in an A-gate protect you from ever really dying.  Of course, sometimes people go in to get some memories wiped.  This is the closest thing to a chance at a new life.  Robin wakes up in one of these facilities with a far more extensive memory wipe than usual.  People are trying to kill him, and he finds himself signing up for a social experiment where the experimenters are attempting to recreate the second dark ages–the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century.  He thinks he’ll be safe here, but he might not be.  Is he really at risk though or is he just messed up in the head?

Review:
This future where Earth no longer exists and a person is a person because of their consciousness and not their bodies is incredibly richly imagined.  It is abundantly clear that Stross has a clearly laid out society in mind when writing.  This is all taking place within a world within a certain timeline within a certain culture.  That is what makes for the best scifi reading experience, and Stross pulls it off quite well.

The plot is endlessly surprising and nearly impossible to predict until the last few chapters.  Of course any plot involving people who can change bodies with a complex civil war previously fought involving a computer virus that enters people’s consciousness via the A-gates would be complex.  But don’t be deterred!  It is really not difficult to follow, although you may have to stop to think about it a few times.

I also want to say kudos to Stross for writing such an incredibly GLBTQ friendly piece of scifi that isn’t necessarily about gender or sexuality.  It’s the first time I’ve ever seen the terms “cis-gendered and trans-gendered” used in a scifi book.  In this future where people can pick whatever body they want, it’s natural for everyone to spend at least a few lifetimes as both a male and a female, although they all ultimately tend to choose one over the other.  In fact, a plot-point for the book involves the researchers randomly placing someone who identifies predominantly as female in a male body and the resulting depression from that.  Similarly, characters identify as mono or poly, meaning both monogamous and polyamorous sexualities are recognized as equally valid.  It is an incredibly welcoming environment where people are encouraged to be themselves that only makes the experiment set during our own time period all the more jolting.  I could see any queer person finding this story very relatable.

Unfortunately, the strong set-up kind of lost me toward the end.  I’m still not quite sure exactly what I should have taken from the ending, but I felt that it didn’t live up to the incredibly high bar Stross set for himself early on.  I’m still glad I read it as it was a very different, unique experience, but I do wish he’d spent a bit more time figuring out an ending worthy of the meat of the book.

Overall, I recommend this to scifi fans, and highly recommend it to GLBTQ readers and advocates.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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