Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Ryan Reviews: Nexus - Ramez Naam

This is hard sci fi going where lots of soft sci fi has gone before. Telepathy and collective intelligence shows up, notably, in Bester's Demolished Man, Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, Robert Silverberg's Dying Inside, and many, many more; not to mention the collective intelligences featured in Star Trek and Doctor Who (and many, many, more.) The innovation of Nexus is its focus on neuroscientific and nanotechnological foundations of collective intelligence. 

The central mechanism in the story is Nexus 5. This drug, when first ingested, goes about mapping and 'rationalizing' the mind, making intelligible what would otherwise be unintelligible to others (or to the self). People can program their bodies to react in certain ways, overriding weakness of body and will. It then allows people to access and alter other people's minds at varying levels, allowing mental 'texting' and communication of emotions, but also the domination of the senses and body. Lane, the protagonist, uses this aspect of the drug to force Sam, an anti-drug government agent, into a state of sensory deprivation. Lane gets dominated, later, by posthuman Chinese scientist Su-Yong Shu. The most interesting implication comes from the merging of minds without coercion, when the merging of minds creates an emergent, greater, intelligence. It is fitting that the people most interested in this are hippies and Buddhist monks. 

Naam's biggest success is the idea of Nexus 5. His execution of the story based around the concept is less of a success, but still enjoyable. The descriptions of the effects of the drug were, frankly, not weird enough. Nexus often just seems like Google Glass that can make your body a video game character (indeed, the 'Don Juan' pick-up program reminded me a lot of the dialog choice interface in the Mass Effect or Knights of the Old Republic video games). The more radical implications of Nexus suffer from being told to us instead of shown. 

Kade Lane, the protagonist, is an optimist regarding the potential of Nexus to do social good. His opposition is Sam, who fears the abuse of power that Nexus allows. Sam's arguments against Nexus are shot down by Lane by statements of 'I won't allow that to happen,' which are never really that reassuring. The government gets Lane to work with them in exchange for leniency for his friends in a drug bust, and Lane and Sam attend a Neuroscience conference in Thailand. There, Sam and Lane argue about the merits of Nexus and 

Sam's character arc comes to a close when she discusses her reasons for being against the Nexus drugs. Turns out, her family was dominated by a precursor to Nexus; a commune decided to expose itself to a virus that made all of them more altruistic--but (in a parable out of Ayn Rand) in the land of the altruistic, the selfish man is king. Sam escaped, while her family did not. She confesses all of this to Lane while they are under the influence of Nexus and another mood-enhancing drug. She releases her pain, but then ceases to be a driving character. Like the crew of the Enterprise in Star Trek 5 when Sybok took their pain, Sam's emotional resolution leads to a loss of agency.

The resolution of the book ignores the characters, cementing Nexus as the central purpose of the book. Lane uploads the Nexus formula, and despite the efforts of governments around the world, it spreads to everyone. Lane's victory in the debate between him and Sam is not really the victory of his ideas, but in the loss of Sam's agency and the evil of his enemies. 

The shape of the story (a la, Vonnegut) is an incomplete version of 'Man in a Hole.' We have a well-off character who is dumped into a hole... and he's supposed to get out and be better off for the journey, but instead it ends with him being still in the hole while Nexus gets out. Visually:

Some unanswered questions: How does consciousness work? When we're given the perspective of the characters under domination, their internal monologues remain their own, their thoughts remain untouched; only the 'machinery' aspects of the mind are affected. Was this description of the mind intentional? It seems to cut against the possibility of collective intelligence, instead pointing to the drug as an extreme form of communication (which is even hinted at by the comparison of Nexus to reading and writing).

Overall, ***.5/***** (rounded up for Goodreads). An intriguing subject and easy read, somewhat limited by an unsatisfactory handling of the story and description.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Ryan Reviews (short): The Magicians

The Magicians by Lev Grossman (Audiobook)

** (out of *****)

A 'postmodern' take on the wizard school genre. The protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, is a boy who has little investment in the real world and is chronically unhappy. He's smart but doesn't care that much about school, has only a handful of friends, and is not that close to his family. His main escape is magic (as in sleights-of-hand) and a fantastical world of Fillory (which is, by the way, the dumbest name ever). He's whisked away to a school of magic, where he excels but fails to find contentment. After graduation, he moves to Manhattan where he does nothing but slide further into motionlessness--until an old acquaintance returns with a way into Fillory. Blessed with the opportunity to live his childhood dreams, Quentin, of course, finds nothing but despair and tragedy. The experience leaves him so disillusioned that he returns to New York and gives up magic, instead settling for a menial job provided as a sort of welfare for disillusioned magicians.

I expected a lot from this book and was disappointed. The 'deconstruction' of the 'boy-magic' genre is superficial, and turn instead into 'what would Hogwarts be like if it kind of sucked' along with 'Quiddich that kind of sucks.' The biting social commentary is, sadly, absent. The book touches on some important subjects: What do you do in a 'post-scarcity' situation, when the main struggle of life is not satisfying your wants, but in finding things to want? [Iain M. Banks's Culture series tackles this question much better.]
The lack of direction experienced by Quentin resonates, at first, but he quickly turns into a caricature, severing any degree of sympathy between him and the reader.

The failings of the book lie in the weakness of the main character, Quentin. Quentin exists simply to be disappointed by things. Not for any deep reason; that is just his m.o. Unfortunately, merely describing someone feeling disappointment is not enough to get the reader to go along with the character's disappointment. The fantasy genre is full of paper characters who have no purpose other than to let the author tell us how wondrous everything is; paper characters who only let the author tell us how disappointing everything is not much of an advance.