Cover for Apex by Ramez Naam

Global unrest spreads through the US, China, and beyond. Secrets and lies set off shockwaves of anger, rippling from mind to mind. Riot police battle neurally-linked protestors. Armies are mobilized. Political orders fall. Nexus-driven revolution is in here.

Against this backdrop, a new breed of post-human children are growing into their powers. And a once-dead scientist, driven mad by her torture, is closing in on her plans to seize planet's electronic systems, and re-forge everything in her image.

A new Apex species is here. The world will never be the same.

Unlike my wife, writing reviews for books isn’t something I automatically think of doing. But I always regret not doing it because, years later, they help remind my poor, addled brain what I thought about a book or series. My memory, it’s not great!

So, here I am at the end of The Nexus Trilogy, and I’m gonna try to write a (brief? I dunno, we’ll see!) review of Apex particularly but the whole series in general. We’ll see how this goes.

This trilogy explores a pretty fascinating idea that, while not entirely original, is presented in an interesting way: the idea of a technology that can marry with the mind to create an enhanced human capable of engaging in a collective consciousness. Obviously the most memorable version of this idea is Star Trek’s Borg, but there’s plenty of other examples (The Matrix, for example, also edges into this domain). Naam does a pretty good job of painting a near future world where this kind of technology emerges, and some of the consequences that result. This isn’t the kind of deep world building you see in The Expanse or The Polity, but it’s pretty well done.

The concept of Nexus itself is drawn in an interesting way, though I’ll admit the idea of a digital technology in the human mind drawing a heads-up display in the user’s field of view, complete with buttons and menus, struck me as a little bit kitschy. Still, I like the idea and I could see off-shoot books being written in this world, either by the author or fans. There’s a lot, here, to dive into.

As far as characters go, I’d describe these books as… average? While each character has a fairly unique voice and style, with, in a few cases, a little bit of backstory, there’s not a lot of depth here. Sure, Sam, Rangan, and to a lesser extent Kade, go on a pretty traumatic character journey that affects their outlook on the world. But the rest largely seem to be along for the ride, each a two-dimensional archetype: the enhanced solider, the serene Buddhist, the angry terrorist. But where it matters, there’s enough depth in the key characters to create conflict and tension that keep things interesting.

The plot itself, across all three books, was interesting and fairly driving, though it’s here that I have to admit I felt like I was reading a Heinlein book, in that it often felt like a thinly veiled political treatise.

These books are clearly written from a techno-optimist, libertarian perspective. The heroes are plucky individual hackers, trying to advance the human condition1. The villains are governments2, or people victimized by them in some fashion. At a time when highly disruptive technologies like generative AI are taking off and we’re asking ourselves important questions about the costs and benefits of technological advancement (e.g. algorithmic social media), The Nexus Trilogy feels almost quaint in its thesis that technology is good and only the people trying to stop its advancement are bad. Now, in fairness, I felt the first book did a pretty good job of taking a fairly balanced look at the impacts of something like Nexus. It was only in Crux and Apex that I felt the books became a little more… transparent.

Meanwhile, notably absent is the role of corporations in the world Naam posits, which strikes me as an incredibly odd omission. The ability to augment the human brain is unleashed on the world, and corporations aren’t front and center in its development and exploitation? Colour me skeptical.

That said, the action was driving, with a climax that would make Brandon Sanderson proud. I definitely had trouble putting Crux down during the last dozen or so chapters.

So, would I recommend these books? If you’re looking for more concept-driven near-future speculative fiction that edges into military sci-fi at times, I’d say yes. The ideas are solid, the action and tension are excellent, and the plot is ultimately pretty satisfying.

If you’re looking for something a lot more character driven, or you’re not a fan of books built around techno-libertarian ideas of the future (and I’ll admit, I’m not a huge fan), you might want to pass.

  1. While practicing Vipassana meditation. Repeatedly. Naam really loves meditation. 

  2. Particularly the American and Chinese governments…