Book Review: Nexus

Book Review: Nexus by Ramez Naam

In the not so distant future, technologies for human alteration and augmentation have advanced rapidly, so that many people are considered “transhuman” and there are a few that are possibly “post-human.”  One of the new developments is Nexus, a “nanodrug” that allows humans to communicate mind-to-mind to some degree.

Nexus

Kaden Lane and his friends have developed a new variant of Nexus they call Nexus Five.  It makes the effects of Nexus permanent and gives the user new capabilities that are near or at superhuman levels.  Young and idealistic, they want to help the world with this new technology.  Samantha Cataranes and the agents of the Emerging Risks Directorate want to protect humanity from the misuse of new technologies like Nexus Five, even if it means holding back progress by the strongest means available.  These two groups, and several more, are on a collision course.

After several horrible incidents (one of which Samantha was a direct survivor of) involving various new human enhancement technologies, the governments of the world decided that people who had passed a certain line were no longer human in the legal sense, and thus had no human rights.  In the U.S., the ERD has taken this to an extreme, censoring, imprisoning or even killing as necessary to prevent what they see as harmful alterations to humanity.  Of course, to battle criminals with these enhancements, the government agents themselves have to become transhuman, a bitter taste in Samantha’s mind.

Kaden and his friends are caught early on before they can spread Nexus Five beyond their immediate circle, and Kaden is extorted into working for the ERD.  It seems there’s this Chinese scientist, Su-Yong Shu, who is violating the international agreements on behalf of her government, and she’s taken an interest in Kaden’s work.  The ERD wants Kaden to go to a scientific conference in Thailand to be contacted by her and eventually infiltrate her laboratory.  If he doesn’t do what the ERD wants, his friends will be imprisoned incommunicado permanently.  Naturally, the agent assigned as his partner is Samantha, the one who busted him.  She is against her will dosed with Nexus Five to help in the assignment.

While firmly in the science fiction camp, this book has the structure of a techno-thriller.  Every so often, the action is interrupted for “Briefing” sections that fill in some of the future society’s backstory.  The technologies have both good points and bad ones–it’s pointed out by a minor character that because many of the enhancements are produced illegally due to the heavy restrictions, safety and side effects aren’t tested as rigorously as they would be if researching the technology was legal.

One of the things I like about this book is that most of the characters are at least trying to do the right thing.  The ERD really does good work pursuing criminals who abuse new technologies.  Kaden and his friends want to improve everyone’s lives.  Su-Yong Shu wants to protect her people, even as her government perverts her work.  A scientist-monk wants to invite people to live in harmony.  But these goals come into conflict, and there are a few people in the story whose motives are greedy and self-serving, and they force the story on to a violent path.

Kaden and Samantha both grow over the course of the story, Kaden learning to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions (and to think more carefully what those actions should be) while Samantha moves past the pain of her past to find a new way into the future.

Early on, there is a scene where a faulty “sensual enhancement program” turns a consensual encounter into involuntary sexual assault, and one character’s backstory involves rape and sexual abuse.  The abuse of mind control technology is a constant theme.

In the author’s note, he discusses the real-life technologies he’s extrapolating from–it’s fascinating stuff.

Recommended for science fiction fans up for discussions of transhumanism and the possibility of post-human people.

Magazine Review: High Adventure #126 Adventure Fiction Spectacular

Magazine Review: High Adventure #126 Adventure Fiction Spectacular

This issue of the pulp reprint magazine concentrates on stories of adventure around the world.  Three of the stories are by “Major” George Fielding Eliot, who was born in Brooklyn, raised in Australia, fought at Gallipoli and was a Canadian Mountie before settling down in the U.S. to a long writing career.

High Adventure #126

“Arms for Ethiopia” Lawrence Ward is the college-educated son of a gun-runner, who’s come to Africa to assist his father in smuggling weapons into Ethiopia in contravention of international sanctions.  When his father is badly wounded in a mysterious assault, the capable but somewhat naive Lawrence must complete the mission against all odds.  This 1936 story leaves out the reason Emperor Haile Selassie needed the arms; the Italian government wanted to expand its power and was about to invade Ethiopia from its territory in Eritrea.

The period racism is toned way down in this particular story, although Somalians might bridle at being described as stereotypically arrogant.  Our hero is quick to pick up on local customs and figure out how to navigate them, while being blind to the treachery of his fellow Westerners.

On the other hand, Lawrence and his father are criminals looking to make a big score.  The only thing that makes them the good guys is that they keep their word.

“The Lorelei of Lille” is a fact-based story of Louise de Bettignies. who served the Allies as a spy during World War I.  When she arrived as a refugee in England, the interviewing officer was struck by her intelligence and observational skills.  She was sent back to France to gather information on troop movements and artillery emplacements, and served extraordinarily well as the leader of the “Alice Dubois” spy network.  Eventually she was caught and imprisoned by the Germans, dying of incompetent medical care before the war was over.  Mr. Eliot may have cribbed much of this story from the book Queen of Spies by Major Thomas Coulson which was also published in 1935.  It’s still one of the rare pulp stories starring a woman of action.

“Siamese Sorcery” takes place in Siam (modern-day Thailand) as financially embarrassed American Bill Dorrance investigates a cry for help.  It turns out that there’s a dying Englishman to rescue, and this sets Bill on a quest for an Emerald Buddha statue.   Bill and the English people in the story are blind to the racism and religious prejudice that convinces them it’s A-okay to steal a religious artifact from the local priests.  The temple is guarded by panthers, which presents some logistical difficulties.

Fortunately for Bill, he doesn’t have to deal with the larger implications of his actions, as an Annamese gangster nicknamed the Toad kills off all the priests in an effort to secure the statue for himself.  Too bad for the Toad he’s never studied Shakespeare, as that is the final clue needed.  There’s a couple of missing pages toward the beginning of the story, so it doesn’t flow as well as it should.

“The Trail of Fortune” is by John Murray Reynolds, who is best known for creating Tarzan knock-off Ki-Gor.  Aelward of Colchester is a Saxon driven out of his homeland by the Norman conquerors, so he and his friends go a-Viking, eventually ending up in the Varangian Guard of Byzantium in Constantinople (now Instanbul.)  Aelward soon finds himself falling afoul of Clitus, an ambitious naval Strategos, and having warm feelings towards Princess Maran.  When Clitus strands the Varangian Guard in Laodicea of Phonecia (modern Beirut), Aelward must find a way back to Constantinople before the treacherous warlord has a chance to overthrow the emperor.

Lots of exciting battle in this one, and the only story this issue where romance plays a major part.

Overall, a fun fast-paced issue, but the cultural blinders in a couple of stories may diminish the pleasure of some readers.

Book Review: Koko

Book Review: Koko by Peter Straub

Koko

Four Vietnam veterans, among the very few remaining from their old unit, meet at the Vietnam War Memorial’s dedication.  One of them has noticed a series of murders that indicate another member of their unit is alive and a serial killer.  He convinces the others to go searching for Koko.  What they don’t realize is that Koko is also searching for them.

This is a meandering thriller by the author of Ghost Story.  Much of the story is spent chasing false leads, and it’s not for nothing that the nominal leader of the group, Harry Beevers, is known as the “Lost Boss.”  Indeed, his bad decisions make much of the storyline possible.

There are some very good bits–I was moved by the scenes at the Memorial, and there’s some great descriptions of the various places the characters visit.  Most of the protagonists are broken one way or another, and their conflicting interpretations of events help keep up the interest.

TRIGGER WARNINGS for rape, child abuse and sexualized violence.  Also, while the author is pretty even-handed, many of the characters indulge in period racism, sexism, homophobic slurs and transphobic slurs.  There’s also a Manic Pixie Dream Girl subplot, which I know annoys some people.  Milwaukee residents may find the depiction of their city rather insulting.

Some of the characters from this book show up in a kind of sequel, which I am told is better.  If you’re a thriller fan, and you run across this used, get it, it’s worth one read at least.

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