A novel about why Buddhists could eventually rule the world

There's already been a lot of buzz about futurist Ramez Naam's first science fiction novel, Nexus, because it offers such a persuasively realistic portrait of human enhancement. A few decades into the future, a drug/biotechnology called Nexus is making its way through the underground. When ingested, it creates a temporary computer network in your brain — which allows you to be "programmed" with anything from emotions to information about what songs are playing at the club where you're dancing. The government has outlawed Nexus, just as it outlaws any form of "emerging" technology for human enhancement that could be a threat.

When the novel opens, a group of graduate students in San Francisco have figured out how to tweak Nexus so that it can actually run software just like a computer operating system would. They've developed a suite of programs for it which can take control of your body, guiding you through everything from fighting like Bruce Lee to flirting like a pro. It can also allow you to "touch" other people's thoughts, allowing people to merge into a hive mind where the individual self falls away. It's a great drug for dance parties, but it's already being used for darker purposes: mind controlled assassins, for example. At the same time, anti-war activists have found another way to use it, merging minds with American soldiers to show them first-hand what it's like to be the victims of war atrocities. One soldier has completely transformed from a cold-blooded killer to a political subversive as a result.

But all that graduate student Kaden Lane really wants to do is finish his dissertation on Nexus, and maybe get a job working in a top lab in China on the technology. Unfortunately, the US government busts a Nexus party hosted by him and his biotech geek pals, forcing Kaden to work undercover for them. His mission is to unmask a prominent Chinese scientist whom the US government suspects of using Nexus to create brainwashed supersoldiers. If he doesn't do it, his friends and all the people at the party will be sent to prison. So, reluctantly, Kaden joins up with government agent Samantha Cataranes to go undercover to a biotech conference in Thailand where Kaden will try to lure the scientist target into revealing her supposedly nefarious plans.

It's a fun game of cat-and-mouse, involving mind control, mind-wiping, extreme bio-modification, and intriguing near-future geopolitics. What I found most interesting about the novel, however, wasn't the post-human technology or the neurocomputing interfaces. It was Naam's use of Buddhism as a form of biotechnology. When Kaden gets to Thailand, he discovers that Buddhist leaders and monks have been secretly hacking Nexus themselves — not with computers, but using the power of meditation. Because of their spiritual training, they've figured out how to use the technology to rewire their own minds and generate incredible collective meditation experiences. There is actually a scientific basis for this idea, as neuroscientists have discovered that meditation actually does affect the neuroanatomy of people's brains.

The addition of Buddhism as a kind of socio-scientific force makes Nexus more than your average futuristic techno-thriller. It's a smart thought experiment about how a single technology might be used by different cultures and political groups in radically different ways. Ultimately, the book is about why no single group — whether national or scientific — should be allowed to control a technology that could ultimately change humanity for the better. We can never predict exactly how a life-altering technology will be used, and erasing it before people have a chance to tinker with it is more destructive than any of the possible ill effects it might generate.

Also, I should add that there are several fight scenes that will remind you (in a good way) of ninja movies. Which is always a plus.

Certainly there are flaws in Naam's novel — occasionally scenes drag on far too long, or the prose has the kind of jumpy, rough flow of a first novel. But overall it's a fast, fun read which is both emotionally engaging and thought-provoking. You'll be mulling over the implications of Nexus — the book and the drug — long after you put the book down.