25 September, 2013

Punch-Drunk and in a Funk: 'Crux' by Ramez Naam

The year is 2040, and the latest drug to hit the streets is Nexus, a bionic enhancement that allows human brains to network like computers. Kade, Rangan, Ilya and Watson are the geniuses behind the newest upgrade, and they're living like kings-- until a secret branch of the government sends an agent to shut them down. You can read all about that in Nexus, the first book in Ramez Naam's cyberpunk trilogy; this review deals with the sequel, Crux, which finds two of our hacker friends dead, one imprisoned, the other on the run for his life, and the government agent who started it all working against her former employer just as hard as the hackers she once tried to subdue. Throw in a few guys with ties to shady government agencies, some terrorists, some freedom fighters, and some people who are some or all of those things at once, and you've got a recipe for a whirlwind of a book that, unfortunately, came out sort of half-baked.

I seem to be one of the few people (according to Goodreads, at least) who didn't give this book an overwhelming 5 stars. It wasn't that I didn't enjoy the book-- I did. But the niggling dissatisfaction I felt with Nexus was still present in Crux. There was just something off about it-- objectively I could see that it was a good story and pretty well written, but I never really felt it. There were only a few scenes where I found myself actually caring about what happened to the characters, and the ones I cared about were clearly not the ones the author was trying to get me to care about.

I've said it before, I'll say it again: characterization is my weak spot. If I can't get invested in the characters, a book is probably not going to keep my attention. I thought I might start to like Kade more as the series progressed, but I can't bring myself to have much sympathy for him, which makes it hard to get invested in the book. If you're the hero of your story and your clone sidekick is stealing the show, you know you've got problems.
Huang Xiaoming, my
headcast for Feng. Goof!

Speaking of, can I just talk about Feng for a second here? I really, really love Feng. A Chinese supersoldier cloned as part of an experiment on hive-minds, he's got the worst best sense of humor ever and a relentlessly cheerful outlook on life that I couldn't help but love. He feels like a real person, which is unfortunately more than I can say for most of the main cast. He's pretty much my favorite character in the series. Also, being in possession of a terrible sense of humor myself, I laughed at most of his bad jokes way harder than I should have. 

Naam also gets major points for the diversity of his casting, not only racial but otherwise. Besides a cast of every color and background, he includes not one but two openly queer characters. One is extremely minor and the other relatively so (he has his own POV chapters, but few of them, and let's just say I doubt he'll be returning for the third book in the series), but I was glad to see them. Is it unfortunate that none of the main characters were gay? Kind of. Did I still get a little squee realizing Sam's badass boss and mentor was (openly, textually) gay, or from reading the phrase "her wife" repeatedly in the text? Yeah. Which I guess speaks more to the lack of gay characters in sci-fi than anything else. Still-- props, Mr. Naam. I appreciate the representation.

Besides a lack of characterizational topography, there are some problems with Naam's plot progression. After awhile the entire thing started to feel like one Mass Effect boss fight after another, interrupted by scenes that had no sense of pacing-- some were so fast-moving I had to reread to process what had happened, some felt basically like filler. The Holtzmann plotline was both boring and unnecessary, and I would've really enjoyed more of Breece-- the part where Kade gets caught interfering in the hit man's plans was one of the only scenes that had my pulse racing while I was reading it. And the scene at Shiva's mansion was a hell of a climax, but it felt a bit like the end of Hot Fuzz-- intense and action packed, but with a lot of shooting into the air and going "Aaahh!" 

Whether Naam knows he's playing into a lot of action cliches is debatable-- but if I'm being honest, neither that nor any of the other problems kept me from finishing the book, and wouldn't have even if I weren't intending to review it here. The evil government trope scratches a perpetual itch for me (I'm a sucker for conspiracies) and anything with technology that's based on current science trends can always be counted on to catch my interest. In this interview, Naam said of writing the series, "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." Does he succeed? The latter, absolutely. The former... debatable.  
In the same interview Naam says "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." Which is undeniably true, and one of the things I really enjoy about this series is that there's no Good and Bad, just a bunch of people doing fucked-up things because they think they're right. But the way all those people intersect doesn't necessarily make a good story-- or, at least, Naam has some trouble getting past all the slick action tropes to tell it well.

I give Crux three stars, inching toward three and a half. It's not a book that will rock your world-- like I said in my review of Nexus, if you're looking for brain-bending cyberpunk, pick up Gibson's Neuromancer-- but it was quick and interesting and I'm not sorry I read it. If anything, it served to remind me how much I like cyberpunk as a genre, and how good it can be when it's really done well. Got any recommendations? Have you read Crux and want to talk about it? Hit me up in the comments.

Till next time, lovely readers.

(You can read my review of Nexus here. Ramez Naam's website is here, and you can buy Crux on Amazon.) 

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