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Literature / The Nexus Series

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Neuromancer for the 21st century.

It's the year 2040, and one of the newest drugs on the street is Nexus 3, a concoction of nanomachines that temporarily creates a brain machine interface (BMI) for the user that allows them to run software on their own brain. Kaden "Kade" Lane and his friends figure out how to make the effect permanent with Nexus 5 and are just starting to figure out how far they can go with the new BMI when Samantha Cataranes, an agent for the newly established Emerging Risks Directorate, bust him and his friends for drug distribution. However, the ERD is willing to cut a deal with Kade. If he goes over to Thailand and meets with celebrated neuroscientist Su-Yong Shu (whom the ERD suspects is developing mind controlling technology and clones for the Chinese), then Kade's friends won't spend the rest of their lives in jail.

Things of course become a bit more complicated than that...

Written by Ramez Naam, author of "More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement" and "The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet", the Nexus Series delves headfirst into transhumanism as seen in a possible future based on the emerging technology and political climate of the 21st century. Naam does his best to stick to technologies that can logically be progressed from current studies in bio-engineering and includes a follow-up in both "Nexus" and its sequel "Crux" that describes the experiments that he used as his basis.

All books in this Series provide examples of:

  • Anyone Can Die: Up to the second book, a very small number of key characters seem to get out of every hairy situation alive — though not always unscathed — through the powers of plot. Everybody else — and this includes complex characters the author's spent half the book developing — is definitely not safe. Some of them don't even get dramatic deaths; they're there one second, and the next they've succumbed to a burst from a mind-controlled ally, or committed suicide in complete loneliness.
  • Awesome, but Impractical: The "Bruce Lee" program that Rangan gives Kade uses a VR fighting game's algorithm to take over the body's motor controls and fight for you. While incredibly cool, it just doesn't match up to those opponents trained in combat with better exercise programs than the spindly Kade, who promptly gets his ass handed to him. At one point he even complains "When has this software ever worked?!". It does let him save Sam in the first book and foil Shiva's plot in the second — but even when it does work Kade always ends up beaten to a pulp.
  • Augmented Reality: Contacts with projected overlays are readily available to Government agents. People with Nexus don't even need the contacts.
  • Being Human Sucks: One of the themes of the series is that humanity's problems cannot be solved by the same thinking that caused them. Another is the fear of many humans who prefer not to use Nexus that they will be outpaced and replaced by those who do.
  • Bio Punk: Genetic augmentations are abundant, for both combat and cosmetic purposes. Just don't go around using them in the US...
  • Bittersweet Ending: None of the three books end well for everyone.
  • Both Sides Have a Point: Between those advocating transhuman technologies and those fighting them, we get to see the horrors committed by both sides. Kade in particular has to learn that there isn't a simple answer to the conflict.
  • Brain/Computer Interface: This is what the titular Nexus 5 does for a human. Nexus allows nanomachines to bind to the human brain and map itself into a usable architecture during a psychedelic "calibration phase". Afterwards, anyone running nexus can communicate entire emotions, ideas, and memories to anyone else with the architecture. This doesn't even touch on what happens if someone has a back-door.
  • Break the Cutie: Kade is the most optimistic about the use of Nexus as a force of good and he is pulled into a world where everyone is doing their best to correct him.
  • Cloak and Dagger: Imagine a cold war based around mind-hacking instead of nukes and you're halfway there.
  • Cyberpunk: In spades.
  • Dynamic Entry: The Narrative plays with multiple viewpoints, so we often see a character being interrupted by something bursting through the ceiling, and then switching to another character as he is bursting through the ceiling.
  • Fantastic Drug: The titular Nexus, specifically Nexus 3 as classified by the US government. It's really ingestible nanomachines that bind to the neurons in the brain and allow the body to temporarily run software. Nexus 5 permanently binds the nanomachines.
  • Gambit Pileup: Any any given time in the series, there are at least three different factions with three different plans heading right for a head-on collision.
  • Game Changer: Nexus 5 permanently allows people to make direct mind-to-mind communication. This technology has the potential to disrupt the World Order if it ever makes it to the internet. It does at the end of "Crux", after a 31-hour battle with the NSA to contain it.
  • Government Agency of Fiction: Much of the plot involves the actions of the ERD (Emerging Risks Directorate), an agency created to fight all forms of transhuman technology and those who would exploit it. The agency came into being after Neo-Nazi cloned children tried to kill an entire town with an engineered virus, only failing in killing millions because they released it too early. For reference, neither the DHS or the CIA trust the ERD.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Multiple factions come into conflict over how to use the titular Nexus 5, which allows a user to have a permanent and unobtrusive Brain/Computer Interface. The developers of said technology just want to see how many cool things they can do with it, believing the benefits outweigh the risks. As soon as the technology becomes available, however, terrorists and criminals begin using it to create slaves and suicide bombers. At the same time, parents of autistics use Nexus to communicate with their afflicted children and help them socialize. People using Nexus start to resent being subjugated by the anti-transhuman laws designed to protect the rest of the populace, and some are driven to become exactly the monsters that the laws were drafted to fight. With very few exceptions, it's pretty hard to write one side or the other off as being completely in the wrong.
  • A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Read: When two people are linked up with Nexus and one of them is killed, the survivor can feel the pain and fear of the dying partner. Sam finds this out the hard way when a building full of civilians gets shot up by ERD crossfire and she feels every death.
  • Nanomachines: The basis of Nexus is ingestible nanomachines that integrate with the brain and create a Brain/Computer Interface.
  • Neural Implanting: On a limited basis. We see some software programs being run on Nexus, including a dating app that makes you say the right lines, a porn VR that controls your motor cortex to help you perform, and most notably, a fight game "Bruce Lee" given to Kade by Rangan to help him in tough situtations. Notably, while the dating sim gets results, the porn VR glitches out at the worst time, and Bruce Lee usually gets Kade's ass kicked. The most successful app is Kade's serenity package, which modulates his neurotransmitter levels to keep his pulse under control and prevents him from freaking out during stressful situations and other people from knowing when he's lying.
  • No Transhumanism Allowed: In the USA and Europe, transhumanism is swiftly forbidden for fears that it'll destroy the social order and upset the layers of control, and only exists as an illegal underground, albeit one rapidly spreading beyond the government's ability to control it. Eastern cultures, on the other hand, jump on the technology with enthusiasm at every level of society, and China is indeed the first to merge it with artificial intelligence.
  • Prevent the War: Kade's main goal in both books is to prevent a war between humans and posthumans.
  • The Singularity: Hinted at being in the near future. The series basically investigates the political ramifications leading up to such an event.
  • Technobabble: Averted, as Ramez does his best to base all of the science in the books on existing conventions and advances. He even provides a section in each book explain current studies and experiments in the realm of brain-computer interface and genetic engineering.
  • Transhuman: The first chapter of the first book outright references transhumanism and posthumanism by name. The main characters are living during the advent of Bio-Augmentation, Brain/Computer Interface, Brain Uploading, and other revolutionary technologies. The ERD was created in the United States specifically to stamp out such technology.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: It's not necessary to be versed in neuroscience prior to jumping in, but it does help during the first descriptions of what Nexus is doing.
    • While the author does a good job of explaining a lot of the computer speak and doesn't get too specific, anyone who's ever, say, reflashed and rooted a mobile device, or used the Linux terminal, is bound to understand some scenes better than someone who hasn't.

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    Tropes Appearing in "Nexus" 
  • Amnesia Danger: When Sam and later Kade use the alternative memories as a cover, they tend to get into situations they really shouldn't, because the cover-personalities don't know there's any danger at all.
  • Boxed Crook: Kade is basically blackmailed into acting as a mole for the ERD to investigate Shu in Thailand. Unfortunately, things get a bit more complicated once the ERD alters the deal.
  • The Call Knows Where You Live: Kade is effectively blackmailed into joining a spy mission after the ERD busts a rave where dozens of people were using Nexus that he and his fellow hackers provided. If he doesn't cooperate, all those people go to jail.
  • Can't Stop The Signal: Concerned that humanity might choose the bad over the good if given Nexus and left to its own devices, and suddenly finding themselves on the run from a number of conservative government entities who want to shut down the "outbreak" before it starts, the protagonists spend most of the first book closely guarding the source code to their creation. During the finale, Kade finally realizes that humanity deserves to choose its own path and releases the source code on the Internet. The NSA almost looks like it's about to end it... but there's always someone who's continuing the chain, resulting in the code ultimately spreading far and wide and changing the balance of power forever.
  • Designer Babies: Seen for sale at the Sukchai Market.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Sam sees the deadly effects of a Why Am I Ticking? event unleashed by the government on innocent civilians, including a little girl, to save face. The result is an instant switching of sides.
  • Homosexual Reproduction: Another service offered at Sukchai market.
  • Invisible President: While Excerpts from the President's speeches appear as flavor between chapters, President Stockton does not appear as a character until "Crux".
  • Lensman Arms Race: Referenced when Ted's bodyguards have vaccines against the ERD's tranquilizer rounds, forcing them to go to live rounds with civilians present.
  • People Puppets: One of the coercive uses of the Nexus 5 software is to paralyze someone else. Narong is used by the ERD as a weapon against Ted.
  • Storming the Castle: Inverted — the ERD storms the temple that Kade and Sam are hiding at in the finale. It becomes a debacle that effectively gets Warrent Becker killed.
  • Unwanted Rescue: The climax includes the ERD sending in a team to the Monk's temple in order to extract Sam and Kade.
  • Why Am I Ticking?: Mooks are commonly implanted by their bosses with all sorts of exploding implants, usually without their knowledge or approval. Dispatching them can have explosive effects, as Sam finds out.

    Tropes Appearing in "Crux" 
  • Affably Evil: The Crime Lord Lo Prang is quite sociable for the owner of a den of augmented perversions.
  • A God Am I: Su-Yong Shu refers to herself as a goddess after escaping the isolated computer that was running her upload.
  • And I Must Scream: After the events in the first book the Chinese government smells trouble, and seals Su-Yong's consciousness inside the quantum computer. With very little access to external information, no connection at all to the Internet and no way of feeling physical sensations again, Su-Yong's system goes increasingly unstable, causing a few days to feel like millennia, and the personality within the computer to slowly turn insane.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Are you wiser than all of humanity, Kade?
  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: It is hinted at that this is the natural extension of millions of people running Nexus and learning to act as a single mind.
  • Bioluminescence Is Cool: Kade and Feng get bioluminescent tattoos when they're undercover.
  • Body Surf: Kade uses his backdoor to do this to people using coercion hacks. The hypocrisy is not lost on him, and the moral quandary becomes a recurring issue in the book.
  • Brain Uploading: Su-Yong Shu underwent an experimental uploading process after an accident and is now confined to an isolated computer system designed to hold posthuman intelligences. She escapes at the end of the book.
  • The Chase: Everyone is chasing Kade in order to get his backdoor to Nexus 5.
  • Corrupt Politician: Several characters on the ERD's side are terrified of Special Adviser Maximilian Barnes for the things it's been rumored he's done. This is justified when it's revealed that Barnes has orchestrated several fake transhuman terrorist attacks to drum up favor for candidates running on anti-transhuman technology platforms. He kills Dr. Holtzmann for figuring this out.
  • Dirty Business: Kade starts using his backdoor to Nexus 5 to effectively Mind Rape anyone who dares to use his technology for rape, murder, theft, or other criminal activity. The hypocrisy is not lost on him.
  • Driven to Suicide: Ilya eventually figures this is the only way to prevent the ERD from getting their hands on the backdoor codes. It would have worked, too, if not for Rangan being made of softer stuff. Not that it does the ERD much good. Later on in the book, Kade prepares to do the exact same thing in case Shiva tries the same trick.
  • Evil Counterpart: Kade realizes near the end that Shiva is what Kade is turning into — namely, a Well-Intentioned Extremist with overwhelming power over his fellow man.
  • Explosive Leash: One of Shiva's mooks kills himself when Sam is interrogating him. It's implied that it was not his choice.
  • False Flag Operation: Dr. Holtzmann discovers that the Posthuman Liberation Front's failed assassination attempt on the President was in fact designed to fail, with the assassin's targeting program adjusted to fire half a meter to the left of the president. After some digging, Holtzmann realizes that this and several false flag operations were planned and executed by then-ERD director Maximilian Barnes to drive up anti-transhumanist sentiment. Later, Holtzmann is killed by Barnes for figuring this out, but not before Holtzman has used his secret Nexus application to upload all of his evidence to the Internet and, for good measure, record and transmit Barnes explaining his role in the operations and forcing a heart attack pill down Holtzmann's throat.
  • Global Warming: Shiva wants to use the Nexus hive mind to start fixing the Earth immediately.
  • Grand Theft Me: Temporarily, all over the place, courtesy of Kade and anyone with coercion software. This is also done by Su-Yong Shu to her daughter at the end of the book, overwriting Ling's consciousness to escape in her body.
  • I Will Find You: For multiple characters. Kade is trying to find Rangan and Ilya. Nakamura is trying to find Sam. Ling is trying to find her mother.
  • Race Against the Clock: Kade is trying to stop the PLF from setting off a bomb at an anti-transhumanism rally. He fails.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Martin Holtzmann dies after helping Rangan and a number of Nexus children escape, and till his last breath is uploading incriminating data to expose the machinations of Maximilian Barnes and the ERD.
  • The Siege: The climax takes form of an assault on Shiva's Island.
  • Tyke-Bomb: Ling, Su-Yong Shu's daughter, was cloned from her mother, genetically engineered, and born equipped with Nexus. Among other advantages, this gives her immense intuitive power over computer networks, allowing her to black out half of Shanghai when she throws a tantrum. It also makes her the perfect vessel for her mother's uploaded consciousness, which allows Su-Yong Shu to escape at the end of the book.
  • Superhuman Trafficking: The kidnapping of the Nexus-integrated autistic children for testing and later torture.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: The US bill of rights does not cover those who have taken Nexus, as the constitution only applies to humans. Transhumans and posthumans effectively have no rights and can be arrested and tortured with impunity.
    Tropes Appearing in "Apex" 

The Hero Dies: Kate ultimately sacrifices himself to bring Su-Yong back to sanity.