I met Ramez at last year’s Worldcon and at the time was just hearing about his book, Nexus, out with Angry Robot — I am regrettably a slow reader and I crawl through a TBR list (that seems to be multiply every time I blink my pretty little eyes), but finally getting around to Nexus showed a helluva book — an exciting thriller that just so happened to be whip-smart about its subject matter. So, here’s Ramez to talk about the sequel (which drops Tuesday):
TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF: WHO THE HELL ARE YOU?
I’m Ramez Naam. I’m a total dilettante. I spent most of my adult life working on software, some of which you’ve probably used. And I’ve written books about science – about topics like genetically tweaking humans and hacking the brain and whether we should do those things, and about climate change and how to grow more food and make better solar panels and save the planet and whatnot.
And I also happen to write sci-fi, starting with my debut novel Nexus and now its sequel Crux. Which, I’ve gotta say, is super fun.
GIVE US THE 140-CHARACTER STORY PITCH FOR CRUX:
Illegal nano-drug links minds. Spies, hackers, super-soldiers. Chinese clones, Buddhist monks, uploaded posthumans, and explosions, oh my.
WHERE DOES THIS STORY COME FROM?
The first book in this series, Nexus, was an outgrowth of research I did for my non-fiction book More Than Human. I’d done all this research on technology in the lab to make people stronger and faster and smarter, and – most interesting to me – this field called ‘neural prosthetics’ where doctors were putting implants in people’s brains to restore vision and hearing to the blind and death, to give paralyzed people control over robot arms and cursors on computer screens, and even, in animals, to restore damaged memory and intelligence.
And when you dig into this research, you see that the line between restoring function and improving function is super blurry. For example, if I can use a brain implant to send video from a camera worn on a pair of glasses into someone’s brain, it turns out we can probably also use that same implant to let someone project out of their brain whatever image they’re imagining. And in the animal studies where they have implants that restore damaged memory and intelligence, they can actually boost memory and intelligence, and create rats and monkeys that are smarter than normal.
So when I sat down to write a sci-fi story that eventually became Nexus, that tech was the most amazing thing I could think of basing a book around, and to make it just a little more fun, I thought, heck, why don’t we package it up as a street drug that happens to be illegal?
And then I threw in explosions and spies and augmented super-agents and a cold war between China and the US and Buddhist monks and emergent group consciousness and biotech black markets in Thailand because, hey, those are all cool too.
HOW IS THIS A STORY ONLY YOU COULD’VE WRITTEN?
I’ve got the science background from my earlier book, of course. I’ve got the software background – and the Nexus tech is also a software platform, which is key to the story, because there’s a lot of hacking that goes on. But there are other elements that make it uniquely me. A lot of the story is about the counterculture – the technology gets picked up by and driven forward by hackers, subversives, people out on the fringe. I’ve spent the last decade and a half or so in Burning Man culture, out on the West Coast. Those are my people. It’s an incredibly creative community, an incredibly exuberant community, and also incredibly anti-authoritarian in a way that I wanted to bring to the page –in descriptions of music and dance and parties, in the dialogue and the value systems of the characters.
And then there’s the War on Drugs and War on Terror angle. A lot of the conflict in Nexus and even more in Crux is driven by the fact that the Nexus technology – and lots of other advanced biotech and nanotech – is highly illegal. It’s illegal for a reason – this sort of tech has been abused in various terrible ways. But that also means that government is trampling on people’s civil rights, locking them up without due process, and preventing all sorts of positive uses that could be happening. I’m a big civil libertarian, and while I went out of my way to show both the pro and con perspective to this kind of tech – the ways it can be uplifting and the ways it can be abused – I think I had a unique steeping in the civil liberties issues that I could bring to bear, along with all the tech and underground culture and explosions.
WHAT WAS THE HARDEST THING ABOUT WRITING CRUX?
Living up to Nexus! The first book was so well received that I was honestly just plain nervous that a sequel would pale in comparison. But there’s not much you can do except write the best book you can. And the reviews seem to think Crux is at least as good, so I’m happy there.
WHAT DID YOU LEARN WRITING CRUX?
I bit off a more complex story with Crux. I have more storylines going at once, and they all intersect in some pivotal and climactic ways. I did that intentionally – more threads and more points of view means you get a much richer view of the world. It’s a lot more nuanced, and you can see, in a lot of cases, where various characters have very different views of the world. In some cases, characters that you’re rooting for are working towards really divergent goals, which means conflict between them is a real possibility, and as that looks more and more likely, the tension just ratchets higher and higher.
To pull that off, I had to improve my craft, to keep all the storylines compelling and hard to put down on their own, to keep the overall book always fast to read, and at the same time to make sure the reader never felt lost. What I’m hearing from readers is that it worked, and I’m glad, because that was definitely a stretch of my skills for me.
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT CRUX?
Heh. I loved running into a friend who I’d given an early draft to read and having her chide me (only half serious) for keeping her up until 3am the night before because she couldn’t put the book down. That’s music to an author’s ears!
I also love that this is the middle of a three-book series and it’s very much the Empire Strikes Back of the three. I’m an optimist, and there are some happy and beautiful things in this book, but it’s also a book with some dark and ominous tones, and the promise of an epic and world-changing climax in the final book.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY NEXT TIME?
Next time I’d take what I know about Crux and go back in time and insert little bits of it into Nexus. And I’d take what I know about the third book and go and insert it into Crux! Writing a series, you’re always thinking ahead and doing your best to lay groundwork for the next book, but you also always reach a point where you think, “Dang! It would have been awesome to lay a breadcrumb for this in the previous book!”
GIVE US YOUR FAVORITE PARAGRAPH FROM THE STORY:
So many choices! But here’s a passage I like, and that doesn’t give too much away. Two of my characters, Kade and Feng, have been ambushed by bounty hunters seeking the price on an extremely sought-after piece of information in Kade’s head. And because Kade and Feng are mentally linked via Nexus nodes in their brains, Kade sees the fight from Feng’s perspective, complete with the benefit of some of the unique ways in which Feng experiences the world. Oh, and Feng just happens to be a cloned Chinese super-soldier engineered, enhanced, and trained from birth for this sort of thing:
“Then Feng was among them, his mind cool and hard. Time slowed for Kade as his friend’s combat trance enveloped him, stretching out every instant into a long, deadly span. The flight paths of unfired bullets shone in Feng’s thoughts, brilliant lines of red light extending from the muzzles of their guns. The bounty hunters’ bodies cast echoes of future blows and kicks that he foresaw.
Feng moved like a dancer, calm and graceful. He leapt over the plane of fire of a swinging pistol, rolled under another as he converged on the first bounty hunter. His mind was utterly absorbed. This was samadhi. This was meditation. Guns exploded and the bullets were living things in Feng’s mental map, ripping out of the muzzles, shockwaves rippling visibly through the air, flinging themselves at the spots Feng had occupied fractions of a second ago.
Then Feng reached the first bounty hunter, and the man went down with his neck snapped.”
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU AS A STORYTELLER?
The third and final Nexus book! It’ll be out in 2014. And it’ll be the most riveting, explosive, and world-changing of the three.