Panic View: Ramez Naam

One of my favourite things about doing 42Webs is being able to get interview from people.  When I hooked up with Angry Robot Books I was able to (digitally) meet some of the newest and greatest authors and ask them questions.

Today I got to interview Ramez Naam author of fiction books Nexus and its sequel Crux and of Nonfiction The Infinite Resource.

1) Nexus is a drug that can link minds. In the book we see those who love it and those who fear it. If nexus were to exist today, or the very near future, which side would you lay on?

RN:  I’m certainly on the enthusiast side, except…  I have the same reservations that all those who oppose it in the book do.  If I stick this technology in my brain – how do I know it’s safe?  How do I know someone can’t use it to spy on my thoughts?  Or worse, to control what I’m thinking?  In this day and age where we have serious questions about everything from spammers to over-enthusiastic advertisers to malware to serious criminal hackers and then all the way to the NSA – I really would want some assurance of security and privacy.

So it’s all in context.  I want the abilities I describe in Nexus.  I’d love to be able to directly touch the thoughts of others.  But, like just about any sane person, I want some degree of safety in doing so.

"Good. Scary good." - Wired2) In Nexus you examine the technological responsibility and ethics of the nexus drug. We see Kade internal struggle with this question. Ultimately you choose to put the responsibility on the user. Normally in science fiction we don’t get that decision. We normally get ‘This is too dangerous for mankind. Bury/Destroy it.” What made you choose the different path?

RN: Nexus can be read 100% as a near-future sci-fi action thriller, but there’s also a serious political and philosophical question running through it, and that question is about choice and control.  Who gets to control what you put in your body or your mind?  Who gets to choose?  Should the government choose?  Should Kade, since he helped invent this technology – or at least improved upon it from the previous versions – make that choice?  And fundamentally I think either of those paths would be radically undemocratic.  What we’ve seen throughout history is that, with only a few exceptions for the very most dangerous and entirely militant technologies, societies work best and thrive the most when they put choices in the hands of the individuals.

That’s not a case for zero regulation.  Some regulation is absolutely vital.  But it’s a worldview that says – trust individuals, perhaps with some help, to more or less make good decisions for themselves.

If I had to add one more thing here, it’s that Nexus and Crux can also be read with an eye towards the current War on Drugs and War on Terror.  In 2040, in Nexus, there’s a war on transhuman technology – which has indeed been used in some destructive ways – that’s not that different from today’s War on Terror or War on Drugs.  And while I do my best to show all sides of the story, and show exactly why the people fighting that war in 2040 believe passionately and deeply in what they’re doing, it’s also pretty clear from the book that I’m on the other side, and think that society has clenched up too much, and that we need to embrace and protect the freedoms that make us great more fully than we have been.

3) At Chicago Ideas Week, and in your book The Infinite Resource, you talked about the power of ideas. How an idea replicates without taking away from the original creator and how an idea can go viral. In the closing pages of Nexus we see the release of nexus and the viral approach it takes with new idea strengthening it. Did this concept appear first in The Infinite Resource and then make the jump to Nexus or the other way around?

RN: Heh.  That’s a great question.  I think I have to give Thomas Jefferson credit here, actually.  He’s quoted as saying “He who receives and idea from me receives it without lessening me, as he who lights his candle at mine receives light without darkening mine.”

I’ve always loved that quote.  Ideas as a form of light, with an infinite ability to replicate.  That’s magic, in a way.  A magic built into the very real fabric of our world.  Nexus is all about that. The drug – in its most positive uses – is about allowing that light to spread more easily and fully, by allowing ideas and emotions and experiences to spread more easily from mind to mind.  And one of the core conflicts of the story is whether this new invention – the improvements that Kade and his friends have made to the drug – should also be allowed to spread.

So I guess that idea predated both of my books.

"The only serious successor to Michael Crichton" - Scott Harrison4) With the shocking ending of Nexus what can we expect in Crux?

RN: Crux picks up a few months after the end of Nexus.  The world is changing. Amazing things are happening.  Beautiful things.  And also horrible things.  It’s a faster paced book, even though it has more plotlines, and more going on.  And it’s the second book of three that I have planned, so it’s sort of the Empire Strikes Back of the three – the darkest of them, where the stakes go up, and things don’t necessarily look all that good for our heroes.

5) As someone who’s written mostly non-fiction books, what made you want to dive into fiction? What is it that speculative fiction can offer you that others could not?

RN: With fiction you get people telling you “I was up until 3am reading your book!” which is amazing.  It’s very very difficult to get that response with non-fiction.  Both my non-fiction and my fiction are about the future, so I see them as quite complementary, but that emotional response where the reader just can’t put it down, that seems to come almost entirely from fiction, and that allows you to engage with the reader about the future in a deeper way than you can in non-fiction.

6) There have been many positive reviews that compare your writing to the late Michael Crichton. How do you respond to such claims and boasts that you’re “”The only serious successor to Michael Crichton working in the future history genre today.” (Scott Harrison – author Archangel)

We Can Improve on Humanity. Should We?RN: Well it’s hugely flattering, of course! Michael Crichton wrote fast-paced thrillers that kept people hooked and that also had a healthy dollop of science in them.  So if I’m anywhere near in that league, that’s wonderful.  Of course, the idea that I’m the only such successor is a little silly – I happen to know two other authors, both friends of mine, who have similar blurbs or reviews on their books, from different sources.  So there can be many successors.

I also think that I’m rather more optimistic about science than Crichton may have been.  In a number of his stories, dark things happen because of science gone awry or the hubris of scientists working in secret.  That’s legitimate.  But if you look at Nexus, first, you’ll find that behind all the action and tension and the very bad things that do happen, there’s a message of great hope.  And second, the real villain isn’t science. Nor is it hubristic scientists or even the government agents or organized crime.  The villain, if anything, is fear.  It’s the fear of the future that has scarred the world in 2040 in Nexus, and that’s what leads to most of the bad things that happen in the story, and that is, in a large sense, what I’m trying to push back against.

Up next is one of 42 Webs’ ‘signature questions’. These are small questions that while growing up I always wondered about authors?

What is your favourite book/author? Why?

RN:  Oh my goodness.  So difficult.  If we’re talking fiction, I’ll pick Dan Simmons’ Hyperion.  It’s incredible world-building, incredible story-telling from six different points of view that build up a world together, and just gorgeous command of the English language.

What is your most memorable comic trade/graphic novel? Why?

RN: Sandman.  I bought Sandman #1 at a comic book store on a whim, the month it came out.  I liked it, and so I kept buying them every month, in single issues, until they were done.  Up until then, I’d read only superhero comics.  And I’d read some great ones.  But Sandman changed my view of what you could do in the medium.  There were great graphic novels that I read later on – Watchmen, Cerebus, etc…   But Sandman is the one that really opened my eyes to a world of comic books beyond traditional costumed superheroes.

You can find Ramez online at or @ramez

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