Recently I got the opportunity to talk with Ramez Naam about his Nexus Saga and his recent release Crux.
Six months have passed since the release of Nexus 5. The world is a different, more dangerous place.
In the United States, the terrorists – or freedom fighters – of the Post-Human Liberation Front use Nexus to turn men and women into human time bombs aimed at the President and his allies. In Washington DC, a government scientist, secretly addicted to Nexus, uncovers more than he wants to know about the forces behind the assassinations, and finds himself in a maze with no way out.
In Thailand, Samantha Cataranes has found peace and contentment with a group of children born with Nexus in their brains. But when forces threaten to tear her new family apart, Sam will stop at absolutely nothing to protect the ones she holds dear.
In Vietnam, Kade and Feng are on the run from bounty hunters seeking the price on Kade’s head, from the CIA, and from forces that want to use the back door Kade has built into Nexus 5. Kade knows he must stop the terrorists misusing Nexus before they ignite a global war between human and posthuman. But to do so, he’ll need to stay alive and ahead of his pursuers.
And in Shanghai, a posthuman child named Ling Shu will go to dangerous and explosive lengths to free her uploaded mother from the grip of Chinese authorities.
The first blows in the war between human and posthuman have been struck. The world will never be the same.
Literary Escapism: The Nexus Saga is multifaceted and quite layered. How would you describe it if at a cocktail party- showing the spirit of the work from your point of view?
Ramez Naam: It’s just your run-of-the-mill near-future political neuroscience thriller with doses of Buddhism, group consciousness, the transhuman transition, and the War on Drugs and War on Terror. You know, nothing special.
Seriously, it depends on who I’m talking to. One of my favorite one-line descriptions comes from a review that called it “Burning Man meets Tom Clancy”. Other times I say it’s fast-paced near-future sci-fi about a nanotech drug that links minds. Other times I say it’s a neuro-tech thriller that’s also a War on Drugs / War on Terror parable.
RN: A lot of the greatest enthusiasm for advanced technology – especially for transhuman technology that can upgrade the human mind and body – really comes from the counterculture. There’s grinder culture, where people are into body modification. There are people who are heavily into smart drugs. There are people who are regulator meditators or heavily into yoga or more esoteric practices. There are people who experiment with all sorts of psychoactive substances, some of them legal, most of them not legal. Those groups heavily overlap with each other, and they intersect with privacy advocates, with hackers, with the DIY culture who are out there using 3D printers or building electronically-controlled flame-throwers at Burning Man or what have you.
So when I sat down to write a book about this new technology that was a quantum leap forward in getting data in and out of the brain and even connecting people’s minds to each other – the Nexus technology – it seemed to me that people in the counterculture would be the most enthusiastic to embrace it, to experiment with it, to hack on it, to see if they could improve on it, to take foolish risks with it, even to break the law in their curiosity and enthusiasm.
LE: What do you think the reaction to Nexus 5 would be if it were released to the public today?
RN: Nexus 5 is a ‘drug’ that’s really a collection of tiny nanodevices that get into the brain and attach to your neurons. If two or more people take it, they can get a kind of weak telepathy, sharing thoughts, sensations, emotions. And with the right tools, you can use it to do more sophisticated things – enhance memory, created virtual realities, tweak behavior, write apps that run inside of a human mind, all sorts of things.
If it were invented today, out of the blue, we’d see this very schizophrenic social response. First, people – especially in the counterculture, but also elsewhere – would be incredibly enthusiastic about this. A drug that lets you touch another person’s thoughts! Wow! That would be off the charts popular. Scientists, too, would be incredibly enthusiastic about it as a remarkable research tool. At the same time, it would be immediately illegal for human use until it went through the whole FDA approval process (which would take several years at minimum and probably close to a decade). And even then, it wouldn’t be something you could take just because you wanted to touch someone else’s thoughts. It would only be legal to prescribe Nexus to treat some ‘disease’. Are you someone who is perfectly healthy but wants the enhancements of Nexus? The ability to touch someone else’s thoughts? Sorry – we have no legal framework to approve anything like that.
Of course, that wouldn’t stop a huge number of people from breaking the law and taking it, which is a bit like what happens in the book. In the book it’s far more serious, actually, because similar technologies have been used for pretty horrible things like mind control, so Nexus isn’t even eligible to be used as a legal treatment for a disease. As such, it’s classified as one of the most illegal technologies you can have, and clamped down on hard, despite the large interest from the counter-culture.
LE: What inspired the Nexus Saga?
RN: It started with the science side. I did research on brain-computer interfaces for a non-fiction book I wrote called More Than Human, and was just blown away by how far the science had come. We’ve used brain implants to send sights and sounds and physical sensations into the human brain, to let paralyzed people send thoughts out of their brains to control cursors on computer screens and robot arms, and in monkeys to even improve memory and intelligence to make super-smart animals.
So that was the starting point. And then I built an action-thriller plot around that, and around the types of people I saw being most excited about using that technology, and the forces I saw being most frightened of that technology and most interested in suppressing it.
LE: We don’t see much of how the world has progressed in 2040. How does your world differ from today?
RN: The big things have been advances in the technologies that are moving fast today – the so-called exponential technologies – computers, nanotech, biotech. Those technologies have been incredibly promising, but they’ve also been abused. There have been terrorist attacks using biotech that have killed thousands. There have been attempts at creating rogue AIs or new genetically enhanced ‘master races’ to succeed humanity. There have been mind-control technologies created to enslave people or create Waco-style cults.
And so there’s been a backlash. Laws have been created cracking down on the unauthorized use or even research into certain technologies. A new directorate inside the Department of Homeland Security – the Emerging Risks Directorate – has been created to police these areas. And just like in the War on Drugs or the War on Terror today, civil liberties have taken a hit. If you’re suspected of working in one of these areas, your normal protections against search and seizure, your normal right to free speech, even your right to a trial may not stand. People sometimes just disappear. Scientific literature sometimes just disappears. Society has acted to protect itself, but maybe it’s gone too far.
Which is not very convenient for my protagonists, who are young scientists, inside the counter-culture, who are extremely enthusiastic about experimenting with the Nexus drug and making improvements to it.
LE: Music is heavily tied to your examples of how people experience Nexus. This is shown throughout Nexus and highlighted in the opening scene of Crux. Is music a considerable influence for you? What about music inspired you to relate using Nexus to it?
RN: Music is a huge transformer and connector of people. It’s an incredible neuro-technology. The right music can bring a receptive to person to a state of tears or ecstatic bliss. And people use it to connect – they dance together to the same music in part to experience the same emotions. In a lot of ways, that makes music already similar to Nexus. So it’s a natural fit.
In a more practical sense, the same culture that embraces technologies that transform human mental states – whether it’s smart drugs or psychedelic visuals or psychoactives – is also heavily into music and dance. So it’s just inconceivable to me that a technology like Nexus wouldn’t be used on a dance floor, with people using it to drive that sense of mutual connection even further, in very real way.
Did it inspire me? Absolutely. I love to dance, and I’ve had those moments where dancing becomes meditation, where the days stresses or whatever you were thinking about falls away, and there’s no verbal thought left, just the music, and you moving your body, and the other dancers there with you. That’s a very very difficult thing to capture in words, but that sensation certainly contributed to conception of what some sorts of Nexus experiences could be like (they’re not all so sublime) and it was one thing I wanted to be able to convey in the books.
LE: You’ve become known for being the author of Nexus and Crux. However, somewhat noticeably, it isn’t mentioned how Nexus effects the writer/reader relationship. How would this medium be shaped by Nexus?
RN: Great question! In a world where we could transfer thoughts directly from mind to mind, would the book even survive? I’m not sure. Or perhaps sometimes you might choose to read printed words, but be able to choose to also experience an embedded sensation – a smell or an image or a touch or a taste or a composite of many of those things – that the author has chosen to link to the text. It would be fun to see how that emerged.
LE: Many authors suffer from the sophomore slump when writing their second book. Did this affect your approach when writing Crux? If so, how?
RN: Well, I was certainly nervous! Nexus was incredibly well received, far better than I expected, to be honest. And I didn’t know if Crux would hold up to that. Fortunately, Crux was mostly written by the time the reviews for Nexus came out, so there was really nothing to do but finish work on the book I had, and just do the best job I could making it the best book I could.
LE: With the introduction of the character Bobby, you choose to highlight how Nexus effects autism. Out of the positive real world applications, what made you single out autism?
RN: At the very end of Nexus, I had a number of short vignettes, maybe a dozen, no more than two or three sentences each, showing different people around the world thinking about this technology and how they could use it. A movie producer thinking about the future of entertainment, an Admiral at the Naval War College thinking about soldiers linked in combat, a software entrepreneur thinking about business opportunities. And I had a mother looking at her autistic son who she just couldn’t reach, wondering if Nexus could help her touch his mind, longing for it.
And more than one person – these were beta readers, reading the book well before it was released – told me that that particular passage gave them chills. It’s such a basic thing, a parent wanting to be able to make a connection with their child. And autism is becoming more and more common in our society.
So that was the start for me, and from there Bobby’s story, and both the heartbreaking and uplifting parts of it, just sort of wrote themselves.
RN: The core issue being wrestled with in both Nexus and Crux is choice vs. control. Who gets to decide about the use of a technology like Nexus? Can the government say ‘this is too dangerous – this would make us inhuman’ and ban it? Or should individuals get to decide? No such issue is ever black and white, and I try to make clear that there really are dangers and ways that it would be abused – just like terrorism is real and drug abuse is real today. But I also try to show how banning something for which there’s a huge demand, or violating people’s personal freedoms and privacy to try to clamp down on something, often produces far more damage to society than the thing you started out trying to fight ever would have.
So in the end, this is really a book about freedom, and about choice, and about trusting individuals to mostly make the right choices, and giving them the freedom to do so. Not in an all-or-nothing way. Not in a way that says ‘anything under the sun is legal’. But in a way that guards against abuses and crimes, that punishes those who use technology to hurt others against their will, but that embraces the freedom of individuals to choose their own path, to make their own choices, and to use technology to enhance their own lives.
LE: Crux takes a decidedly more political turn than Nexus. What is the inspiration behind this? What was the process behind choosing to make certain politicians from certain parties and have certain ideologies, most notably the President Stockton and Daniel Chandler?
RN: Nexus and Crux are both fundamentally thrillers. They move fast, and one of my first rules was to never let the reader put the book down. But I also want people to come away having some new thoughts provoked too. So there’s the neuroscience, there’s some Buddhist thought sprinkled throughout, there’re ethical quandaries and hard choices the characters have to make, and yes, there’re some real political issues.
For me, the politics are a natural outgrowth of where the US and the world are today and what’s happened in the dozen years since 9/11. What we’ve seen is a real shift in civil liberties in this country. It started immediately, within hours of the attacks on the World Trade Center. And in emergency situations certain measures are called for. But that abrogation of civil liberties hasn’t gone away. Americans have fewer legal protections from search and seizure today than they did in 2000. The NSA taps 75% of the telecommunications traffic inside the United States. Airports are effectively Bill-of-Rights-free zones. And there is very very little evidence that these losses of civil rights have saved any lives at all.
In parallel to those changes driven by the War on Terror, the US now imprisons a higher fraction of its population than any country on Earth. Think about that. We’re the land of the free. But we have a higher fraction of our populace in prison than China does, than North Korea does, than Iran does. I’m not saying we’re less free than those countries. We have all sorts of freedoms here than people in China and North Korea and Iran don’t. But the prison situation in the US is really shocking when you look at it. And the driver for our high imprisonment rate is overwhelmingly the War on Drugs, which, again, has been a large driver of a reduction of American civil liberties.
Now, I am a huge optimist in general. I look at the world, and I see that, over the long haul, things have gotten better and better. I think, in general, they’re continuing too. But this particular trend of shrinking civil liberties is one that concerns me greatly. And so when I thought about this radical new technology, it seemed very plausible to me that it would run smack dab into something like the War on Drugs or the War on Terror, which meant that politics suddenly would become an important thread of the story.
All of that said – I want to be clear that I understand why civil liberties have changed in the US. And I don’t think the people who, say, created the Patriot Act or who head the NSA today or who set US drug policy are scheming villains laughing softly as they conspire against us. Nothing of the sort! I think they’re by-and-large well-intentioned men and women who believe that they’re doing the right thing to protect America from threats they perceive, with trade-offs that, to them, look overwhelmingly worthwhile. So it’s very important to me in my portrayal of such characters in Nexus and Crux that I show the reasons why they’re doing what they’re doing. Everyone has a reason. Everyone believes they’re on the right side. And if I do my job as a writer well, then I should sway you, as the reader, into believing them too.
As for political party, I’m a liberal myself, but the assault on civil liberties has come across the political spectrum, and the defense of civil liberties has too. In the novels I show the key laws that have clamped down on the rights of those tinkering with transhuman technologies having been written and championed by a Democratic Senator (Chandler) and now being implemented by a Republican President (Stockton). And that, to my mind, maps pretty closely to what we see today when we look at civil liberties issues like NSA surveillance – the support and opposition slice right across party lines.
RN: Nexus was really about introducing the world, the science, the situation, and the core cast of characters. And having tons of fun and action, of course.
With Crux I expand the story somewhat, showing you more points of view. The real story is about more than just a few characters – it’s about a whole world on the edge. These exponential technologies are either going to get suppressed, they’re going to change the world explosively, or they’re going to get channeled in some productive way. Letting you see the action from more different perspectives – often from characters who have very different viewpoints on what’s right and wrong and what the best outcome would be – really brings home the scope of what’s happening to that world.
LE: Some of the themes in Crux can be construed as a bit extreme. Are you ever concerned that readers will not separate the views in the work from the man who wrote them? What themes within Crux do you believe most reflect you and which are exaggerations or pure fiction?
RN: Oh goodness. I hope they can separate me from the book! There’s more than one point of view in Crux I hope they can separate from me. For example, one of the characters whose eyes you see through is, in his mind, a freedom fighter. To almost everyone else, he’s a terrorist. He’s a member of the Post-human Liberation Front, a group that’s willing to kill people to try to end the restrictions on certain lines of transhuman technologies and research. And as I’m writing this character, it’s my job as the author to get you inside his head, and make you see the world the way he sees it, absolutely as convincingly and clearly as possible. If I do a good job, it has to work for you. You have to actually sympathize with him, root for him a little bit. Even though he’s a murderer.
But at the end of the day, the purpose of that is to elucidate the issues, to use that viewpoint to draw the reader in, and hopefully for all of us to come out of the book with a better understanding of how a cycle of violence and repression can take ordinary people and radicalize them, and how monstrous acts can start to look perfectly ordinary when your own world has been shattered.
So I hope readers don’t walk away thinking that I’m him. Or, frankly, that I’m any of the other characters in the book. I’m just the guy behind the keyboard.
Lastly, what’s next?
RN:There’s one last Nexus book to go. I’m working on it now, and it’ll be out in late 2014. And it should be the most momentous of them yet. Stay tuned!
Meet Ramez Naam!
Ramez Naam is a computer scientist who resides in Seattle, Washington. In 2005, he was awarded the HG Wells Award for Contributions to Transhumanism for his non-fiction book entitled More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement.In his technology career, he has been involved with several Microsoft endeavors, most recently the Bing search engine. Ramez has devoted the last several years focusing on artificial intelligence, neural networks and high-scale information retrieval.
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