In 2032, a group of genetically engineered neo-Nazis create a super virus that threatens to wipe away the rest of humanity. Coming on the heels of a series of outbreaks involving psychotropic drugs that effectively enslave their users, this leads to the Chandler Act, which places sharp restrictions on “research into genetics, cloning, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and any approach to creating ‘superhuman’ beings.” The Emerging Risks Directorate is launched within the Department of Homeland Security, and America’s war on science begins.
This is the world that technologist Ramez Naam sets his first novel, the techno-thriller Nexus. Nexus is a powerful drug, oily and bitter, that allows humans minds to be linked together into a mass consciousness. A hodgepodge of American graduate students develop a way to layer software into Nexus, allowing enterprising coders to upload programs into the human brain. It’s shades of The Matrix, but it’s hardly an impossible idea.
Nexus presents a host of fascinating ideas about the role of human volition, liberty versus security, and technology as a tool either to liberate or enslave. It is an easy, approachable read, but in terms of reviewing the actual narrative, there’s little substance to discuss. Most of the characters are paper-thin, though no obvious “bad guy” ever emerges. Watson Cole, a mentally and physically augmented, guilt-ridden veteran of one of America’s stream of military engagements is the only interesting character. But his conversion to Buddhism and dedication to improving his karma seals his fate from page one.
After the characters are sent on a top-secret mission to spy on–surprise–the evil, Nexus-researching Chinese, the novel devolves into an endless stream of absurd action scenes. There are the usual assortment of CIA mercenaries, underground drug dealers, and oh yes, a jolly Chinese super soldier who works as well-suited chauffeur. I will admit I enjoyed reading a detailed discussion by U.S. officials to determine the protocol for releasing a swarm of semi-autonomous, camouflaged spider drones armed with neuro-toxin darts into an allied country.
A movie deal has already been announced.
Yet while I found myself flipping through action sequences and monologues, the novel did not lack for important, thought-provoking ideas. Particularly in light of our continuing debate about government surveillance, Nexus presents interesting questions about how far we–and by extension, our government–are willing to go to be protected from the worst excesses of technology. The ERD relies upon the very tools it has sworn to destroy: genetic augmentation, mind-control, and technological warfare.
In the novel, these compromises come back to bite the government, delegitimizing a presidential administration. In reality, what tools do we have to ensure government accountability? We throw around words like transparency or oversight as if they’re a panacea that somehow compensates for the vast power asymmetries that exist in the world.
Nexus tries to suggest that a looming war on science will be a replay of the wars on drugs and terror: “[It] will be never-ending, freedom-destroying, counterproductive, and ultimately understood to have caused far more damage than the supposed threat it was aimed at ever could have.” But the book is really about whether the technology is a tool that sets us free or traps us all the more. In this respect, the better analogy for Nexus is not drugs but rather the Internet itself.
Here is a tool that allows us to communicate more efficiently than any other time in history. It lets us learn about any conceivable subject or listen to any song recorded in human history at a moment’s command. It also gives away our deepest secrets. Late in the novel, Naam suggests that “the qi of the world…the life force of the planet [is] data.” This data may unlock the cure to cancer, but it tells Target if you’re pregnant. A handful of tweets can tell IBM more about my personality that I may understand of it myself. Big Data is here. The Internet of Things will be here tomorrow.
By the end of the novel, Naam seems to suggest that science and religion are two sides of the same coin. Science today makes it easier and easier for man to play God, and the big question of the next century may well be if everyone gets their turn to touch the divine–or if God is merely monopolized by the powerful.