Ramez Naam astounded me with Nexus. In this novel Naam has not only extrapolated a very believable, very frightening, future world, he has populated his creation with interesting characters who don't just talk or info-dump to each other. They think, they feel, they doubt. Through these people, Naam tells one hell of a story.
Naam knows how to hook a reader. Consider this opening:
THE DON JUAN PROTOCOL
Friday 2040.02.17 : 2255 hours
The woman who called herself Samantha Cataranes climbed out of the cab and walked towards the house on 23rd Street.
The chapter title is definitely intriguing, the timestamp says "yeah, we're in the future here and by the way, we're on military time." And why exactly is this woman "calling herself" Samantha Cataranes?
A good writer tells a tale that draws the reader forward page by page and Ramez Naam is more than a good writer, he's a great writer. That's what surprised me. It's not that the writing is flashy, it's that the story telling is superb.
The story is one of consequence. In the future, people are augmented. Contact lenses are computer displays. Soldiers have genetically enhanced muscles and reflexes. Some people have developed a drug called Nexus that enables a kind of brain to brain techno-telepathic linkage. Nexus is illegal and the next generation of Nexus, Nexus 5, is extremely illegal, very sought after and very powerful. Because Nexus 5 lets the people run software in their heads.
Kaden Lane is a young scientist working on Nexus and the woman who calls herself Samantha Cataranes is working for people very interested in his work. And things get very interesting, very fast.
In describing Nexus as a novel, it's tempting to compare Naam's work to that of other, more established novelists. The book has the pace and technical depth of a Michael Crichton novel but in my opinion Naam does a better job with his characters. Ironically, despite their augmentation, they come off as very human.
The world of Nexus is slick and dark and paranoid, like the worlds described by folks like William Gibson or Cory Doctorow but even paranoids have enemies. Nexus is a very philosophical novel that is also a non-stop thrill ride. Naam manages to write believable gun fights and surprising effective scenes of software debugging and computer hacking. It's a neat trick. He has written an action thriller with a strong mental element and some very heroic Buddhist monks.
Nexus is Naam's first novel, but it reads like something written by a wise, assured master at the top of his game. Perhaps Naam himself has had an upgrade? Or maybe he's just amazingly talented and smart enough to learn from other great writers. In any case, I've got one inexpensive, legal prescription for anyone looking to upgrade their brain with a smart thriller that will make you think: Nexus.