Please welcome author and scientist Ramez Naam to the blog! Ramez’s first novel, Nexus, just came out TODAY from Angry Robot Books, and he was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer a few of my questions!
Your new book, Nexus, is out this month! How did you celebrate when you found out it would be published?
It’s probably a sign of the times, but when I first found out that we had an offer on the book, my instinct was to tweet about it! Of course, my agent (the wonderful Lucienne Diver) very sensibly suggested that I wait until we’d actually negotiated the contract and signed it.
After that, it was off with my girlfriend to our favorite restaurant.
Will you tell us a bit about it, and what inspired you to write it?
Nexus is about a drug (also called Nexus) that can link minds. It’s really a nanotechnology packaged as what seems to be a recreational drug. In this near future world, there have been all sorts of abuses of advanced nano- and bio- technologies – bio-terror, mind control, attempts to create ‘master races’, and so on – so this technology is completely illegal.
My protagonist and his friends are graduate students in San Francisco. Even though Nexus is illegal, they’re fascinated by it, and they’re working to make better versions that can link minds over longer ranges, can send more information, can even run software on the nanobots inside the human brain. When Kade, my protagonist, is busted doing this, he’s blackmailed into spying for the US government. He’s sent to Thailand to work his way into the confidence of a Chinese scientist, who might or might not be militarizing Nexus, turning it into a technology for mind control and political assassination.
Then the bullets start flying, and Kade finds out he’s in way over his head.
It’s definitely a thriller, of the near future variety, but underneath that it’s also an examination of civil liberties, the war on drugs, and the war on terror. In the novel we’ve created this immense security apparatus to guard against the mis-use of advanced technologies, not unlike the Department of Homeland Security today. And, just like today, we see that security apparatus cutting into people’s freedoms and civil liberties. It’s driven by a good motivation – make us all safer. But has it gone too far? How do we reduce the risk of technologies while also allowing for the positive uses? That’s the question I ask underneath the surface of the action thriller.
Another sci-fi influence is Ian McDonald, who sets much of his fiction in other countries – India, Turkey, Brazil – showing a slice of culture that’s different from our own, but not that far in the future. I tried to do that in Nexus, with much of the book set in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand.
To be honest, though, Nexus borrows as much from thrillers and spy novels. There’s an amazing pacing to Tom Clancy’s early thrillers that I loved and tried to mimic. And Robert Ludlum’s spy thrillers – specifically his Jason Bourne books – are another impact.
I wanted Nexus to be important, to shed light on some issues in both science and civil liberties. But to succeed at that it had to be compelling readable above all.
If someone were dipping their toe in sci-fi, where would you suggest they start (besides with Nexus, of course!)?
It really depends on the person. I’ve had recent success with Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House. It’s science fiction, but extremely near future. The setting in Istanbul is lush and beautiful, and the fact that you’re immersed in a different culture is part of the beauty of the book. Science fiction is often making up future cultures, of course, but it turns out our world is full of real cultures that most of us have never experienced, and which are far more nuanced and alien than many of the ones made up in sci-fi.
If you could read one book again for the very first time, which one would it be?
Probably Hyperion by Dan Simmons. It’s hard core science fiction, but it’s also deeply poetic and literary. In structure it’s modeled after Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. A group of pilgrims traveling together tell each other their stories. In telling those six stories, Simmons builds compelling characters and narrative, and he also paints a picture of this vast sprawling future and a deep mystery that’s brought all of them together – for different reasons, of course. He weaves in poetry, art, the somewhat heretical Catholic futurism of Teilhard de Chardin, and superhuman AIs. It’s an amazing book.
You’re a computer scientist by day, which probably keeps you pretty busy! How do you balance writing with a full work schedule?
I’m writing full time now! But it’s definitely been a challenge in those periods where I’ve balanced a day job. The only thing you can do is rigorously set aside hours where you have to write, preferably first thing in the morning, before work takes over your brain.
You have a background in science, and I want to ask about your 2005 book, More Than Human (2005 HG Wells Award Winner!), but honestly don’t know where to start! Can you tell us in layman’s terms what it is about?
It’s sort of a non-fiction book about a particular theme in science fiction – upgrading ourselves. It’s a look at real scientific research being done in genetic engineering, in making people smarter, stronger, and longer lived, and in wiring our brains to computers. All of that work is being done for medical reasons – to cure genetic diseases, to stave off Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases, to help people who’ve been paralyzed or rendered blind by an injury. But the research also points the way to augmenting people.
So the book is about two thirds popular science, describing what’s happening in the lab and what it could lead to. And the other third, woven throughout it, is the questions the science brings up. Should we do this? Is it safe? Who’ll be able to afford it? Will it widen the gaps in society? Will it destroy our human nature?
In a lot of ways, those are the very same questions I tackle in Nexus.
When you manage to find some free time, how do you like to spend it?
I love to read, of course, and as a writer I think you’re always behind in your reading. I know so many other writers now! I want to read all their books, but there aren’t enough hours in the day.
I live in Seattle, where we’re surrounded by old growth forests, lakes, rivers, and mountains, so I get outside as much as I can. I love to hike and kayak in the summer, and snowboard in the winter.
What’s next for you? I hear you have some books coming up in 2013!
I do! The sequel to Nexus is almost done. It’s called Crux and it comes out in September. You can read Nexus entirely on its own – it has a story arc that starts and ends. But it also opens the door for more stories in that world, and that’s what Crux is.
In between those two novels, I have a non-fiction book coming out. It’s called The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet. It’s essentially about the race between innovation and overconsumption. We’re damaging our planet, but at the same time we’re making incredible strides in things like solar energy that could turn that around. How do we make sure innovation wins? That’s the topic of the book.
Keep up with Ramez: Website | Twitter
Mankind gets an upgrade
In the near future, the experimental nano-drug Nexus can link human together, mind to mind. There are some who want to improve it. There are some who want to eradicate it. And there are others who just want to exploit it.
When a young scientist is caught improving Nexus, he’s thrust over his head into a world of danger and international espionage – for there is far more at stake than anyone realizes.
From the halls of academe to the halls of power, from the headquarters of an elite US agency in Washington DC to a secret lab beneath a top university in Shanghai, from the underground parties of San Francisco to the illegal biotech markets of Bangkok, from an international neuroscience conference to a remote monastery in the mountains of Thailand – Nexus is a thrill ride through a future on the brink of explosion.