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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: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

October 28, 2010 5 comments

View of a city skyline with megadonts in front.Summary:
In this steampunk vision of a possible dystopian future, carbon usage and genetic engineering caused the world to nearly collapse.  Whole nations have been lost to starvation due to exorbitant prices charged by the genetic engineering calorie companies and also due to the rising seas from global warming caused by carbon usage.  Domestic cats have been wiped out by cheshires–genetically engineered cats that can appear and disappear, just like the cat in Alice in Wonderland.  Thailand, through strict military enforcement of calorie and carbon consumption, has managed to hold back both the sea with a sea wall and starvation.  The Thai work diligently to rid their nation of windups–genetically engineered living creatures.  As Buddhists, they believe these windups have no souls.  Within this world we see glimpses of five very different lives.  There’s Anderson, a foreigner from Detroit who claims to be running a factory but is actually a calorie company spy.  His manager, Hock Seng, is a survivor of the Malaysian civil war where Muslim fundamentalists attempted to kill all the Chinese immigrants.  Jaidee and Kanya work for the Environment Ministry, also known as white shirts.  They are the military enforcers of all the environmental laws, but they are struggling against the Trade Ministry that wants to open their borders back up to foreign trade.  Finally, there’s Emiko.  She is a Japanese windup girl.  The Japanese created windups due to a severe lack of young people to care for the old.  She came over both as a secretary and lover of her owner who had to do business in Thailand, but he then decided it would be cheaper to leave her behind than to take her on the return trip.  She now is a spectacle in sex shows in the ghetto of Krung Thep.  These lives slowly intertwine, and through them, Bacigalupi shows how easily civil war can erupt.

Review:
I fully admit that this book was out of my comfort zone.  I don’t normally read books on political intrigue and intertwining lives.  I tend to stick to ones that talk about one individual person, and that’s what I was expecting from a book called The Windup Girl.  That’s why I took the time to write a detailed summary, so you all would have a clearer picture of what this book is about than I did.  This is another one of those books that I almost gave up on early in.  Bacigalupi doesn’t take the time to truly set up the world.  Things have names and are briefly or not at all described, so you have to fill in the gaps yourself.  I think if I hadn’t read steampunk before, I would have been at a loss.  For instance, he never explains exactly what a dirigible is, although we know they are sky ships.  It is not until the end of the book when one gets blown up and a character refers to it as a creature that it becomes apparent that they are living creatures used as sky ships.  This is just one example of many ways in which the world building is sloppy.  It takes until solidly halfway through the book for a clear picture of Krung Thep to emerge.  Additionally, this is one of those books that tosses around non-English words where English ones would entirely suffice.  For example, all of the foreigners are called farang, not foreigners.  It makes sense to use a Thai word where there is no English equivalent, but it’s just superfluous to toss them around when there is one.  Technically these characters are supposedly speaking entirely in Thai.  We know that.  Bacigalupi doesn’t need to throw Thai words in periodically just to remind us.  Still, though, I kept reading beyond the first couple of chapters, mainly because I bought the book on my Kindle app, and I don’t tend to waste money.  In the end, I’m glad I kept reading.

Although the setting and world building is rough, the story itself is quite interesting.  Many perspectives are offered on these issues that potentially could become issues in real life.  What are the rights and roles of genetically engineered living beings?  Is nature the way it’s always been better or genetic engineering the next step in evolution?  One of the pro-genetic engineering characters states:

We are nature.  Our every tinkering is nature, our every biological striving.  We are what we are, and the world is ours.  We are its gods.  Your only difficulty is your unwillingness to unleash your potential fully upon it. (Location 6347-6350)

It is an interesting question.  Will our next phase of evolution happen in the traditional manner, or is the next phase actually us using our brains to improve?

The Buddhist concepts sprinkled throughout the text are also quite enjoyable.  The characters struggle to maintain their belief in karma and reincarnation in spite of the issues of windups.  It clearly depicts how religion must struggle to adapt to change.  Additionally, the concepts of fate and karma and how much one can actually do to improve one’s lot in life are explored in an excellent manner through multiple characters.  It reminded me a lot of how the Dark Tower series explores the similar idea of ka (fate).  One sentence that really struck me on this theme was:

He wonders if his karma is so broken that he cannot every truly hope to succeed. (Location 8388-8393)

I was just discussing a similar concept with a friend the other day, so it really struck me to see it in print.

Additionally, the ending truly surprised me, even though it’s evident throughout most of the book that a civil war is coming.  I always enjoy it when a book manages to surprise me, and this one definitely did.

Overall, although Bacigalupi struggles with world building, his intertwined characters and themes are thought-provoking to read.  I’m glad I went out of my comfort zone to read this book, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys the themes of fate, evolution, nature, karma, or political intrigue.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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