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Review: Recursion

CW: suicide, death (including death of a child), gun violence, nuclear attack, Alzheimer’s diesease

Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter may very well have been one of the books that “broke” the thriller genre for me. I read it in early 2017, only a few months before every thriller I picked up started to seriously disappoint me (with the major exception being Riley Sager’s Final Girls). It was my first sci-fi thriller, and such an all-around fun experience that there was no way I could miss Crouch’s 2019 release, another sci-fi thriller, titled Recursion.

recursionIn the novel, Barry is investigating a suicide in which the victim (prior to jumping) claims to have been affected by False Memory Syndrome- a new “disease” slowly sweeping the world that leaves those affected with two sets of memories, one “real” and one “false.” His investigation soon becomes much more hands-on than he intended. Meanwhile, Helena has been forced to switch her life’s focus from saving memories for those with Alzheimer’s to erasing all traces of her invented technology from the world; she learns the hard way that manipulating memories- even with the best of intentions- can only go horribly awry.

” ‘What’s more precious than our memories?’ he asks. ‘They define us and form our identities.’ “

Much in the spirit of Dark Matter (comparisons are inevitable), Recursion is also a story of what-ifs, in which some of the main characters are able to re-live parts of their lives as though they’d made different choices. Both titles examine some of the moral and emotional consequences of altering reality, as well as dissecting the science (in a novice-friendly way) that might lead to these possibilities. And of course, both are fast-paced adventures full of unique threats and psychological twists and turns.

Recursion opens on Barry’s first brush with False Memory Syndrome, which provides a perfect introduction to a concept that is, at first, as mysterious to the protagonist as the reader. When the time is right, the story doubles back to Helena’s research efforts, switching to a new protagonist with more knowledge on memory and the pertinent technology to guide the reader through a phase of discovery. Of course the two plotlines eventually merge, as Helena and Barry meet and unite against a common enemy- someone who wants to use Helena’s invention to change the world in the name of progress, no matter the consequences.

“Memory is … the filter between us and reality. You think you’re tasting this wine, hearing the words I’m saying, in the present, but there’s no such thing. The neural impulses from your taste buds and your ears get transmitted to your brain, which processes them and dumps them into working memory- so by the time you know you’re experiencing something, it’s already in the past. Already a memory…We think we’re perceiving the world directly and immediately, but everything we experience is this carefully edited, tape-delayed reconstruction.”

If the science sounds intimidating or you think sci-fi just isn’t the genre for you, rest assured that it’s largely a conceptual backdrop to a fairly accessible thriller plot. Crouch throws in a few sentences that must be based in fact- statements about neurons firing in the brain, memory storage, and déjà vu- but the rest is one big thought experiment mainly featuring the fictional logistics of time travel via memory. As long as you understand the gist (the heroes and villains are obvious enough), it’s really not strictly necessary to pay close attention to all of the specifics. In fact, even the scientists in Recursion require plenty of trial and error with the equipment in order to understand what it’s capable of. There’s no need to worry about getting bogged down in details.

It’s a smart, exciting ride that balances right on the edge between realistic and fantastic, with just enough realistic detail to ground the reader while allowing the imagination plenty of room to run free.

“Time is an illusion, a construct made out of human memory. There’s no such thing as the past, the present, or the future. It’s all happening now.”

But there are a few ways in which the layering of timelines frustrated me. Note: these are fairly small issues that come down to stylistic preference.

First is the repetition. There are moments, days, and even years that some characters experience repeatedly; in a few instances, a particular event is written out numerous times, back to back, highlighting variations. This tactic does lend credence to the matter of false/dead memories causing insanity, depression, and/or suicidal thoughts, but I nevertheless found it annoying to know I was reading scenes that were ultimately not leading anywhere productive.

Second, once it becomes clear that characters who possess the proper knowledge and equipment can revisit key moments limitlessly, the stakes are lowered. It is infinitely harder to worry about heroes dying or villains causing irreparable damage when one only has to make provisions for re-entering the moment if things turn sour, and try another path.

Third is the way that these relationships are skewed by the lack of chronology. There are several occasions in which a character must introduce him- or herself to someone they already know well, which allows for alliances to be formed with proof of knowing someone else’s secrets rather than a gradual rapport built from circumstance and personality. As a consequence, I can recall many of the events of this book, but I would struggle to tell you what kind of person any of the main characters are beyond basic motives- doing what is right, saving the world, making a name for oneself with a life-changing invention. Unfortunately, I did find it harder to invest in characters that I wasn’t able to fully understand, and books in which the characters feel like afterthoughts to the plot (even a stellar plot) never have quite the same strength that character-driven narratives do for me.

This is starting to look like a list of complaints rather than a recommendation to read a book that I had an excellent time with, but that is only because I can’t help comparing my Recursion reading experience to that of Dark Matter, which I enjoyed slightly more- possibly only because I happened to read it first. In the end, both are great books that I can’t see disappointing many readers, including those who are wary of the sci-fi aspect. My only gripe here is that when I have read a book that I loved (Dark Matter), I don’t hope for the author to write a very similar book that will give me a repeat experience (Recursion); I hope for something that raises the bar. Though I think Recursion is an excellent book on par with Dark Matter, it  wasn’t quite the step up into new territory that I was most hoping for.

“We have made it far too easy to destroy ourselves.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This has been an extremely difficult book to review, because 1) everything is a plot twist so it’s hard to talk about without spoilers, and 2) I struggled to find the right balance between explaining why I both had a great time reading it and yet also didn’t. I believe this is a personal quirk, that for something to impress me enough for a 5-star rating it has to be great but also hold an element of surprise; sometimes greatness itself can be a surprise, but with a follow-up title I definitely need something new to supercede the greatness that I was already expecting based on the first book. (Does this make sense to anyone other than me?) In any case, I’m still on board to read more of Crouch’s work- I’m hoping to pick up Pines this October, and I’ll certainly keep an eye out for future publications as well.

Have you read any of Blake Crouch’s novels? What’s been your favorite so far?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

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Review: Dark Matter

Blake Crouch’s new science fiction thriller Dark Matter has been sitting sadly unread on my shelf for months, and I finally did the right thing and started reading. This was the last official book on my January TBR, so it was an exciting experience both because the story is out-of-this-world fantastic and because I finally feel like I’m back on top of my reading. If I had read this book a month ago, it would have been on my list of favorites for 2016. Instead, it gets to be my first favorite read of 2017, and I hope it’ll also be yours.

darkmatterAbout the book: Jason Dessen had the potential to be a great scientist, but he dedicated his time to his new wife and son instead of continuing his research. Now he’s an undergrad professor with a teenage son in the Chicago suburbs, and though he wonders what his life would have been like if he’d taken another path, he’s happy with where he ended up. Until he’s kidnapped by an eerily familiar man and wakes up in a strange place among strange people who seem to know him already. The city looks like Chicago, but not quite. Streets have different names. Buildings are moved or missing or replaced. His home isn’t his home, and his family is gone. The problem could be a dream, a brain tumor, or, though at first it seems impossible, an open door to alternate realities. Is it possible that some other version of Jason completed his research and bridged the gap between the known universe and the universes of paths not taken? Or is it all inside his head? Has he been a renowned scientist all along, and stumbled upon a discovery that altered his memory?

“At this point, I’m not even sure what to be afraid of–this reality that might actually be true, or the possibility that everything is going to pieces inside my head. I liked it much better when I thought everything was being caused by a brain tumor. That, at least, was an explanation.”

The scenes of this book are vivid, but no matter how grounded the reader is in place detail, the entire book is a mysterious enigma. After the opening scene of “family night,” (which ends with the narrator announcing that it would be the last night the family shares in their home, an excellent move on Crouch’s part) the reader finds him-/herself just as confused about what’s real and how it’s happening as the narrator, with just enough clues to avoid becoming totally lost in the plot. Dark Matter is nonstop action, with plot twists from far left field that keep the reader guessing through every chapter.

“My thoughts fire at the speed of light. Is there even a drug capable of this? Creating hallucinations and pain at this level of horrifying clarity? This is too intense, too real. What if this is actually happening?”

“And if I have lost my mind, what then? What if everything I know is wrong?”

There’s definitely some science to this story. Just enough to clarify the plot, but it’s a complex plot and the science aspects take some concentration. There are some truly mind-boggling statements in Dark Matter. It’s not so technical that readers can’t follow what’s going on without a scientific background, but there are times you may feel like you’re sitting in on a quantum physics class. That said, it’s the most enjoyable science class I’ve ever experienced.

“What if our worldline [perceived reality] is just one of an infinite number of worldlines, some only slightly altered from the life we know, others drastically different? The Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics posits that all possible realities exist. That everything which has a probability of happening is happening. Everything that might have occurred in our past did occur, only in another universe.”

At its core, Dark Matter is a thriller. If you like that genre, you’ll probably enjoy this book.

What really appealed to me, though, was the concept of a fourth dimension, and of the possibility of access to other lives. I love theories like that. Just when I thought I had a handle on the rules of this world, the narrator would take a step sideways into a whole other world and the rules flew out the window. This is a book that plays with time and space, and “what if”s, and the basics of what makes a person be that person. It’s about questions of reality and identity, set into a thrilling chase to regain one’s life before that life no longer exists.

“It occurs to me that if I do survive, I’ll carry a new revelation with me for the rest of my days: we leave this life the same way we enter it–totally alone, bereft.”

What if you could take another path?

“It’s terrifying when you consider that every thought we have, every choice we could possibly make, branches into a new world.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I wish I could give it more. I loved the characters that felt so real. I loved their choices. I loved the premise. I loved the narration. This is not a book for everyone, but don’t let that scare you–I guarantee it will take you by surprise, no matter what your preconceptions of the book might be. Dark Matter is best approached with an open mind, because it goes where no book has gone before.

Further recommendations:

  1. If the never-ending plot twists are what get you going, you must pick up Pierce Brown’s Red Rising, and if you’ve already tried the first book and found it not to your liking (how could such a thing be possible?) pick up the next book anyway because it only gets better from there. This series is a dystopian tale set on Mars and through space, but it’s the compelling characters and gut-wrenching surprises that sealed the deal for me. Pick it up yesterday.
  2. If thrillers are your literary niche, try Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10, which was released at about the same time as Dark Matter. This one follows a woman on a small ship aboard which one of the passengers goes missing–and none of the others will admit she ever existed at all. Fearing danger for the rest of the people on board, the narrator sets out to discover what happened to the missing woman, and risks becoming a killer’s next target.

What’s next: I’ve just finished reading Flight by Sherman Alexie, and will be reviewing that soon. This one’s a book about an orphaned teen of mixed parentage who looks for meaning in his life after a close brush with death that allows him to experience other killers’ perspectives firsthand. Then I’ll be caught up on my reviews, but never fear–I’m on such a great reading streak that I’ve already compiled a full plan for next week. Great things are in store.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant