Friday, February 28 2014
I recently finished Ramez Naam’s Nexus, a novel about the potential for technology to enhance and/or fundamentally alter humankind in the near future. It’s an exciting read — more of a thriller than a science fiction novel — with well-drawn characters, tight action sequences, and very plausible world-building. At heart of the story is an dilemma: what are you willing to risk to be better — to be smarter, faster, stronger, to live longer and to see, hear, know, and do more?
The main character, Kade, is a graduate student developing a programmable nanoelectronic interface for the brain. It’s like a computer upgrade to your nervous system, allowing users all sorts of capabilities beyond the normal human operating system. It also allows human brains to network with one another, which makes it also a kind of drug. The drug/system is called Nexus 5 — nod to P.K. Dick, one assumes — and is illegal. Kade is arrested, and then pressed into government service as an informant/agent to track down various Nexus users and dealers.
This is all very interesting and exciting, but Naam presents the story with the presumption that readers will be on the fence — that folks will have some serious reservations about technology that lets us become ‘transhuman’ (his word). I’m sure that’s fine for most readers.
Not for me. Would I take Nexus? You bet. In a heartbeat. There was no dilemma for me, from page one, because I already knew I was rooting for better, stronger, faster, smarter. This is not to down-play the very real social, ethical, and political problems these technologies might pose — but just to say that I, personally, would be better off with the tech, and I am not prepared to deny the same possibility to anyone else.
I come to that perspective honestly, of course. The thing about being sick, about having surgery upon surgery, about taking dozens and dozens of drugs, about having a bionic rectum, is that it transformed my understanding of humanness. I find the baseline overrated. Normal is no longer enough, which is why I find controversies like steroids in baseball or Lance Armstrong’s doping to be pointless and exasperating. I am not really that interested in what humans can do, but I am fascinated by what we might become — how we might transcend the limitations that biology has placed on us. I don’t believe our DNA is sacred and I don’t think it’s cheating to give nature a helping hand.
I mean, I’ve already endured mind-boggling amounts of technology just to be a barely functional human: why shouldn’t I be allowed to do what I can to be better than that? If I was eligible for LASIK, I’d do it. If I could convince a doctor to give me steroids or HGH, I would. If I could take Nexus 5, I definitely would.
So throughout the novel, the basic tension that Naam assumes readers will have just isn’t there for me. And it’s still an excellent novel — definitely worth checking out. It’s exciting to see an expert looking into the near future and saying, ‘This might be possible’. Because that would be an awesome future to live in, if I can wait that long.
But it’s alarming that he also sees the potential for such broad resistance to that possible future. His vision of a US government dead set against technologies like Nexus is worrying and chilling, but all to familiar to anyone who follows the DEA crackdown on pain medicine or other useful, illegal drugs. The difference between me on a bad day and me on Vicodin is almost enough improvement to be science fiction, and yet there are plenty of people opposed to my use of that medicine.
Nexus is worth the read just for Naam’s prognostication of a possible future. If he is right, it could be an amazing world to live in — especially if you have a chance to become one of those possible humans. I want to see the sorts of possibilities he imagines — I did from page one, and more so having finished the book.