Novel Thoughts: A conversation with author Ramez Naam

Trevor Hogg chats with Ramez Naam about the evolution of technology and his debut novel Nexus which arrives on North American bookshelves today…

“I can’t remember ever not being fascinated by technology!” states Ramez Naam when recalling his childhood.  “I started learning to program when I was maybe 8 years old, on an antiquated Commodore Vic 20.  It has 20 kilobytes of memory.  But it was a tool you could do almost anything with.  I was hooked from that moment on.  For 13 years, the computer scientist and entrepreneur worked for Microsoft helping to develop Outlook, Internet Explorer and the Bing search engine, and also served as the CEO for Apex Nanotechnologies.   “Ultimately, it’s about the intersection of what’s possible and what customers – real people – actually want.  Technology develops that way, following a path formed by those two forces interacting.  People might want immortality and teleportation, but there’s no technical way we know of to accomplish that.  On the other hand, there may be something technology makes totally possible – cloning, let’s say – but that there just isn’t that much demand for.  You have to have both.”   War has often served as an instigator in advancing technology such as with development of radar.  “It’s a motivator.  We have tremendous innovative powers, but they’re fairly diffuse and unfocused most of the time.  When there’s a clear need or opportunity that tends to direct a lot more innovative energy in a certain direction, with often dramatic results.”  There is no way to avoid revolutionary inventions becoming militarized.   “The vast majority of new technological breakthroughs come from the civilian realm such as the iPhone and gene therapies.   The military sees the advantage in employing any technology that can help it solve its problems. Things have always been that way.  Trains were developed in the civilian realm, but of course they made a huge difference in moving groups around in WWI.”  Contemplating the idea of humans replicating themselves, Naam believes,   “I’m not sure most people would go that far.  That said, the portrayal of cloning in popular media is often pretty far off from reality.  A clone isn’t going to have your memories or personality – though they often do in fiction.  Cloning is creating a sibling, and nothing more.”

Balancing the need to be authentic and entertaining has evolved over time.  “Decades ago, some science fiction was a very thin veneer of story over some bigger speculation,” observes Ramez Naam.  “Back then, the idea of these future changes was exciting enough it brought tremendous excitement.  But the world has changed.  We live with technological marvels all the time, and we have a huge array of reading choices.  So modern science fiction has to, first and foremost, tell a story that sucks readers in.   For me, it’s also vital that I have a high degree of scientific accuracy.  It’s true that it can be a challenge balancing that with story; however, on the other hand, the constraints of scientific accuracy can also improve a story, by adding challenges or conflicts, or by adding the sort of downsides and side effects that add plausibility and believability to a story.”  Naam has been creatively influence by cinema and literature.  “I grew up watching Star Wars and Star Trek, and reading science fiction; it’s always been a part of my life.  A lot of great writers have left a lasting impression on me such as Dan Simmons with Hyperion, Ian Banks with his culture books, Kim Stanley Robinson with the Mars books, Greg Egan with a large chunk of his science fiction, John Barnes with Mother of Storms and his books in the Kaleidoscope Century and Million Open Doors series, and Alastair Reynolds with Revelation Space and the books that followed it.”

Branching out on his own as an author resulted in him being awarded the H.G. Wells Award for More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement; the book explores the possibilities of genetic engineering in providing cures and enhancing the abilities of healthy human beings.  “I had much of the science down from my research for More Than Human,” states Ramez Naam who has completed his first novel.   “Writing Nexus was a tremendous amount of fun.  On a good day, the pleasure of watching a story unfold in front of your eyes is tremendous.” Published by Angry Robot Books, the science fiction thriller revolves around a drug which amplifies human abilities and gives its users telepathic powers.  “It started out as a short story, actually, and then it did evolve quite a bit.  Throughout, my rules were that it had to be a compelling read that was hard to put down, that it had to say something interesting about technology, and the present day.  Hopefully I succeeded.”  The biggest challenge was in depicting individuals whose motives are not clearly defined as being right or wrong.  “I don’t really find most villains believable.  Most people don’t think of themselves as bad guys and aren’t out to take over the world.  People act from convictions that they think are moral; it was important to me to take that approach in Nexus.  I wanted every character to have good reasons for what they were doing; that meant adding some scenes to flesh out some of the characters who the reader is most likely to see as villains.  What I’m hearing from readers is that it worked – that the book does a good job painting a picture of many people, all trying to do what they think is right regarding this incredibly powerful new technology, and coming into conflict with each other over that.”

Documentation such as dictionary definitions and interview transcripts are inserted between the chapters.  “I love rich worlds,” remarks Ramez Naam.  “Frank Herbert used the technique of having excerpts from documents about the world in Dune. I loved that, and did a tiny bit of it myself.”  Integrating the exposition involved a unique approach.  “In the book there’s definitely a clash of philosophies, and I wanted to show that to the reader. It’s tough to do without a lot of clunky exposition, so I turned to really embedding that philosophy in the life histories of some of the characters – how they came to believe what they believe – and using that history to reveal the ideas to the reader.”  Making the protagonist likeable to the readership resulted in Kaden Lane being introduced while experiencing a sexual misadventure.  “It definitely sets him up as an underdog from the beginning!”  To make the interaction between the human brain and the computer drug which serves as the title of the publication believable, Naam turned to his computer science background.  “Absolutely, I tried to make it as true to reality as possible.”  A major technological advancement portrayed in Nexus is the ability for people to project their thoughts to each other as if their minds are part of a wireless communication network.  “We can certainly get there over time.   We’ve demonstrated in humans that we can send sound and vision direction into the human brain, and that we can get it out as well.  The question is really increasing the fidelity and reducing the risk and trauma of getting a technology into the brain.  Those problems aren’t going to be solved overnight. They’re going to take decades.  But we have strong motivations in being able to assist the paralyzed, the deaf, the blind, and those with other traumatic brain injuries.  Yes, one day, we’ll get there.”

A cinematic writing style was adopted for Nexus.  “I think in visual scenes; that’s how I imagine the book in my head before writing it down,” reveals Ramez Naam.  “There are many parts which would translate well to the screen, from the opening scenes in the underground parties of San Francisco to the weird illegal biotech markets of Bangkok to the final battle in the remote Buddhist monastery in the mountains of Thailand.  We’ve had some interest from film producers, so maybe one day we’ll see it translated to the screen.” As for movies that he can watch over and over again, Naam says, “Miller’s Crossing [1990] by the Coen Brothers – just a very smart and quirky, and an incredible character story.  The original Matrix [1999] film was groundbreaking.   Inception [2010] was really well done.”  A second novel is set to be published in 2013.  “The book is a sequel to Nexus and its titled Crux.  The big difference is that I was more confident while writing it, and so I was willing to take on a more complex plot, and do some things I wasn’t able to in Nexus.”

Many thanks to Ramez Naam for taking the time for this interview and be sure to read our book review of Nexus.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.