Read: July 2020
Author: Blake Crouch
Genre: Science Fiction
Length: 336 pgs (hardcover) | 10h 47m (audio)
Selected By: Elle Tea
Reality is broken.
At first, it looks like a disease. An epidemic that spreads through no known means, driving its victims mad with memories of a life they never lived. But the force that’s sweeping the world is no pathogen – it’s just the first shock wave, unleashed by a stunning discovery, and what’s in jeopardy is not our minds but the very fabric of time itself.
In New York City, Detective Barry Sutton is closing in on the truth – and in a remote laboratory, neuroscientist Helena Smith is unaware that she alone holds the key to this mystery… and the tools for fighting back.
Together, Barry and Helena will have to confront their enemy – before they, and the world, are trapped in a loop of ever-growing chaos.
Life is nothing how he expected it would be when he was young and living under the delusion that things could be controlled. Nothing can be controlled. Only endured.
Quantum field theory and general relativity are so very, very fascinating to me; the concepts boggle with their complexity and practically limitless possibilities, and, if you focus on them too long, they’re almost brain-breaking. It’s like dumping a cupful of “there is no spoon” and three tablespoons of The Butterfly Effect into the box holding Schrödinger’s cat, shaking until well-combined, and drizzling over top of it a generous helping of Descartes’ “dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum” (I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am).
He can’t bring himself to say what’s in his heart, which always feels clenched and locked up, encased in scar tissue.
Full disclosure, I almost didn’t even choose this book. I was terribly disappointed with the previous novel we read from this author (Wayward Pines), which came out strong with the suspense and thrills before taking a hard right into the neighborhood of woo-woo science-fiction I typically avoid.
But Crouch didn’t disappoint for an instant with Recursion.
It is the lonely hour of the night, one with which he is all too familiar – when the city sleeps but you don’t, and all the regrets of your life rage in your mind with an unbearable intensity.
At its most basic, Recursion is about time travel, consequences, and how we define ourselves and our identities. But the theme from last month’s selection carried over to this wildly different novel: everything we create, every ingenious stride we make in technology and medicine, can and sadly will be used to destroy, and those who hold the purse strings hold the power of deciding when, for or against whom, and most importantly how those products are ultimately used. And knowing that, we have to ask ourselves: just because we can, does that mean we should?
“I think balance is for people who don’t know why they’re here.”
How many times have you found yourself thinking, “If I could just go back and change this one thing…”? In the real world, at a cursory glance, we all follow a fairly linear trajectory: if that first sea creature hadn’t chosen to drag itself onto land, if a meteor hadn’t crashed into the Earth to pave the way for the rise of mammals, if an ape-like creature hadn’t pulled itself a little more upright, if the first humans had never looked up at the night sky and wondered what all those twinkling lights might be, if the people of Anatolia and the Levant hadn’t migrated to Egypt, if Rome hadn’t expanded across Europe, if Scandinavians and Asians hadn’t set out to explore the lands beyond their shores… all of these choices, these decisions, every war and migration, every annihilation and creation, every empire that rose and fell, all of that eventually led to you, in this moment.
What teachers and professors never told her was about the dark side of finding your purpose. The part where it consumes you. Where it becomes a destroyer of relationships and happiness.
Except this moment is actually already in the past, and the decision you made moments ago to keep reading this review has led you to now keep reading this sentence, which is, technically, also already a part of the past.
But what if you could change that? Nothing so dramatic as smashing a hole in Leif Erikson’s ship or smothering Hitler in his crib, but what if you could just go back to this morning and stop yourself from having blueberry pancakes and instead went with oatmeal? Like the premise of Recursion, it starts off simply enough. And pancakes vs. oatmeal is nothing, right? Except…
“Because memory… is everything. Physically speaking, a memory is nothing but a specific combination of neurons firing together – a symphony of neural activity. But in actuality, it’s 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.”
Except on the timeline in which you had pancakes, it took you an extra 30 seconds to floss out the berries in your teeth. And that 30 seconds prevented you from walking behind a woman in Aisle 11 at the store. On your new oatmeal-for-breakfast timeline, you are operating 30 seconds earlier than the pancakes-for-breakfast version of yourself, so you walk behind the woman in Aisle 11 just as she turns and coughs without covering her mouth, and you walk right through that fresh cloud of dewy particulates, and you go home and wash your hands and face… but it’s already too late to avoid the COVID-19 that is going to wreak havoc on your entire social circle.
And because we’re human and think we are in control, you’d probably use your newfound power to go back and avoid the woman to avoid the illness that caused you and yours so much misery, right? So you go back to the You in the oatmeal-for-breakfast timeline, and instead of Aisle 11 you turn down Aisle 9. You hear the woman cough in the distance and give yourself a pat on the back for having avoided a nasty situation, but your detour has now put you a minute behind your previous oatmeal-for-breakfast timeline because you still have to go down Aisle 11. And that minute has you pulling out of the parking lot with your car full of groceries and COVID-free body just as the driver of a large pickup truck glances down at a text on his phone and slams into the driver’s side of your car at 60 mph, and while you survive, you spend the rest of your life on this second oatmeal-for-breakfast timeline without the use of your legs.
So, you do the obvious, right? You go back to your second oatmeal-for-breakfast timeline, where you’re standing in Aisle 9, and you begin to create a third oatmeal-for-breakfast timeline, where you –
There are so few things in our existence we can count on to give us the sense of permanence, of the ground beneath our feet. People fail us. Our bodies fail us. We fail ourselves. He’s experienced all of that. But what do you cling to, moment to moment, if memories can simply change. What, then, is real? And if the answer is nothing, where does that leave us?
This simple example hasn’t yet taken into account the downstream impact to anyone other than yourself, the ripples your little tweaks here and there caused in the lives of all the people around you, from the family and friends who caught COVID in one timeline to the driver of the vehicle who otherwise would have made it home without incident, to their family and friends, and so on. And what if these unnatural little nudges intended to just be small things in your favor weren’t just your own secret – what if eventually every timeline you touched became part of the memories of everyone else who was impacted, no matter how indirectly? What if the vivid memories of being ill, of being hospitalized, of dying, of attending funerals – even of marriages and children and friends they met in those other scenarios – were suddenly mingled with their own current memories, muddying the moments that they’d truly lived in the most recent timeline with those of previous incarnations of themselves of which they had no knowledge?
… perhaps there’s a reason our memories are kept hazy and out of focus. Maybe their abstraction serves as an anesthetic, a buffer protecting us from the agony of time and all that it steals and erases.
Now, if what you had for breakfast can change the course of so many so greatly, can you imagine if you changed something much more significant, such as whether a person lived or died? And what if this power wasn’t actually yours to do with as you liked; what if instead it was available to and known only by a select few who “knew” the “best” way to manage it?
Recursion takes you on that very journey. And while the results pretty much escalate into the cautionary tale you’d expect, the ride is well worth the price of admission. And it’s infinitely more complex than a choice of breakfast foods.
He has wondered lately if that’s all living really is – one long goodbye to those we love.
Good intentions and an ingenious invention are perverted for selfish reasons. A brilliant woman starts out wanting to save her mother and ends up saving the world – after she destroys it. A simple man, beaten down by life’s hardships, gets everything he wanted at the cost of everything he wanted. And around them, because of them, the recollections of every human on earth are shifted, like tectonic plates at the ocean’s floor, sending the full force of memories of all the worlds that were rising up like a tsunami.
We have made it far too easy to destroy ourselves.
The writing was strong and cohesive, the plot consistently and rapidly moved forward, the science was realistic enough to maintain my buy-in, and the characters were well-developed and, while not always necessarily likeable (and some were consistently abhorrent), certainly believable. I also really enjoyed the spin Crouch put on memories and how they are the true definition of our identities. When you consider Alzheimer’s, for example, and how often the loved ones of victims of that disease consistently say, “They’re just not themselves anymore,” perhaps it is just that: the journeys we take and the relationships we make along those journeys define us, over time they make us who we are and who we will become, and if those are slowly siphoned away from us… who is left behind?
… he’s accelerating upstream against the river of his life, crashing through forgotten moments, understanding finally that memory is all he’s made of. All anything is made of.
My only real issue with Recursion – and the only reason I gave this four cups rather than five – was the author’s repetition of previous timeline arcs, especially near the end of the novel. If you read this selection consistently from start-to-finish – as most readers would, I believe – then you don’t necessarily need to be reminded after every new timeline arc of all the arcs which preceded it; by the time you get to the end of the novel, having a few entire pages devoted to retracing the paths that led us to the current timeline in which we find our characters is pretty unnecessary and needlessly slows things down. Don’t get me wrong, Crouch is tackling a confusing topic here and does an ace job of keeping you focused, but it went just a little too far into hand-holding and spoon-feeding for my tastes. This sort of repetitive flashback burst of information may work in film – I can picture in my mind quick bursts of all of the timelines as they collide into the current one – but in literature it just served to drag the otherwise awesome ending down.
Life with a cheat code isn’t life. Our existence isn’t something to be engineered or optimized for the avoidance of pain. That’s what it is to be human – the beauty and the pain, each meaningless without the other.
All in all, a great novel with an excellent message, and one which I would heartily recommend to anyone who loves science-fiction, quantum mechanics, physics, time-travel themes, suspense, or just a damn-good, well-written, insanely-researched, and supremely intelligent novel.
Elle Tea’s Favorite Character(s): Barry Sutton.
Elle Tea read the Amazon Kindle edition of this selection.
I read it, I liked it, I had some issues with it, I didn’t love it, and it’s not my favorite. I feel like this book was very deserving of a middle teacup. I liked it without hating it. I didn’t harbor too much resentment throughout. I had an issue with something that was happening three quarters of the way through but it was kind of resolved. I also liked the way the author ended the book. Kind of left some things up to the imagination. Some authors that have ended a series with an epilogue with something that happens way in the future could learn a lesson from this book. I like being able to draw some of my own conclusions on what could happen and have it my way.
“Time is but memory in the making.”
I like the idea but I am still trying to wrap my head around the way the author did time travel. Could someone really send their consciousness back into their younger self. The idea is fun but the repercussions sound way too bad. I like the way they did the False Memory Syndrome and that you could have multiple memories of what happened in your original timeline and of another where someone changed the past. I would not, however, like this to happen to me. How awful would it be to find out someone close to you was so unhappy with their life that they unmade your past with them? I would be devastated. Not only that I think the person doing the traveling would be very selfish with the exception of those who went back to save a life. But should you? Should you mess with time like that? Probably not.
“I know everything feels hopeless to you in this moment, but this is just a moment, and moments pass.”
I was disappointed in Barry because there is a point in the story when he is okay with his past being undone and never happening. Meaning he would never meet his daughter and his once ex-wife would not know him or their daughter until later when they remember and while he knew what was coming she would be hit with multiple pasts like a train wreck. Then at the same time Barry’s daughter died at a young age. Was it okay to erase this? Because then no one experiences the hurt until later when everything is remembered. Personally it seems worse to me because it’s like someone you knew in a past life betrayed you.
“This low point isn’t the book of your life. It’s just a chapter.”
I wasn’t a big fan when they kept going back in time to fix the damage that they helped cause. I was getting tired of the 50 First Dates feel of the book. I think we could have done with a couple of less times that we experienced going back in time. I understood the point of it but a couple of times could have been erased or just summarized. I was glad that in a part of the book that they referenced Minority Report because for a while when I was reading I had the thought that this was what it felt like to me.
Everything will look better in the morning. There will be hope again when the light returns.
I would read more from this author. It was pretty good but a little heavy. I got hit hard in the feels at a couple of points and may have had a tear or two. Or more…don’t judge me.
“… Department of Undoing Particularly Awful Shit…”
BillMo’s Favorite Character(s): Barry Sutton.
BillMo read the Amazon Kindle edition of this selection.
Well, this month’s reading made me think of June’s reading a bit. The theme of the price of freedom, who gets to decide what is freedom and how to achieve it sustains through this month. We start with good intentions that a scientist has to help those suffering from dementia regain their memories. While I’m sure this is horrible for the person to go through, I feel like that the pain and hurt is more so for the family members who suffer being forgotten and unable to help the person.
This is where we find Helena. She is a scientist who specialized in creating a treatment plan to return lost memories to dementia sufferers. Of course, the good intentions of one person are heavily skewed by an unscrupulous party who takes the pure intentions of the desire to help and then determines to turn a profit. That is not to say that the investment in research shouldn’t yield a profit (recoup investment funds and a little extra), but to take the scientific advance that was meant to help people and bend it to your will and as a power structure is too much. This power struggles also leads to international implications that no one had the foresight to anticipate. Helena’s intentions are pure, honorable and a bit wayward, as she has a personal investment in making sure her project succeeds to what cost? Yet, when does that personal investment and desire become harmful to the world at large?
I commend Helena’s desire to set things right when the ship’s course veers so far afield that all that can happen is an extreme Butterfly Effect meets Groundhog Day. Crouch explores the adage, “Insanity: doing the same thing over again and expecting different results” – Albert Einstein. As an external observer, though the characters believe that they are making modifications at each “recursion”, it truly is repeating the same actions over again and receiving the same results. While part of me was rooting Helena on, there were times I was tired for her and what she went through.
I do not mean to ignore Barry, but his character is the one that drew me in initially. You feel for his plight as a divorced cop who is still mourning the loss of his child. From the start of his investigation and moving forward, his plight was more heartrending to me. Empathy emerges for him almost immediately and as the novel unfolds, all I wanted was for Barry to be whole and safe no matter everything else ended. Though Barry is carried along through much of the book, I feel like he is as active as he possibly can be in his story and his outcome is unfortunately dictated by those who think they are wiser and have answers that he doesn’t have, which was a source of my frustration. Barry, though a police detective, is dogmatic and keeps charging in a direction he thinks will fruit a result, is constantly discounted by Helena. Her intent is not to be condescending or aloof, but as with much of the novel, what Helena wants is the most important factor above all else, including correcting the situation she compounds.
While I focus on Helena’s “selfishness”, there are other characters introduced throughout the novel that makes you doubt the human race in general. There will always be someone who exploits the situation for their own gain. Helena’s benefactor epitomizes this but, I also feel that Helena is a varying degree of Slade with her own selfishness being about people and the good that her memory chair can do, while Slade is the typical entrepreneur, bent on dominance and profit. The extent of Slade’s treachery knows no bounds and when one event was revealed, I think most readers will shake their head and think “typical” and “why wouldn’t that happen”.
My last concern for this novel is the blatant disregard that Slade has for human life, on a couple of different levels. While he is not a scientist, and does not subscribe to the ethical concerns that many scientists has. I look toward the American Psychological Association’s Ethics Code and think, VIOLATION, VIOLATION. First, the tenet to do no harm is blatantly ignored throughout this book. Additionally, informed consent was absolutely non-existent. I can’t say more in that respect, as it would be too big of a spoiler, just know, you don’t have to be a scientist to understand the levels of corruption present here.
While I would love to see this as a film/tv adaptation, I fear that Shonda Rimes will make this utterly ridiculous. Netflix has picked up the option on this novel and it’s in the development stage with Rimes and Matt Reeves as the producers. Good luck with that. She has vision for drama, and will try to do justice to the scientific aspect of this, but her penchant for unnecessary or over the top drama will make me more leery of the end results of this adaptation.
While this book was enjoyable, if not disturbing, it was missing something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Like Billmo, there was a section where I was thinking “is this ever going to end” or “can we get off this crazy merry-go-round” as the situation was repetitive to the point of I wanted to slap Crouch for repeating the same error over and again. However, this repetitiveness does serve a purpose, and ultimately I could appreciate it, even if it drove me to distraction.
Narration Review†: Jon Lindstrom narrated the bits of the novel where Barry was our narrator or point of view, and Abby Craden narrated Helena’s perspective. Both narrators brought life to the characters in a way that echoed how I felt about them. Lindstrom made me feel for Barry and worry for his well-being. Whereas, Craden made me want to punch Helena in the throat a few times over. However, their performances were spot on for this novel.
Lady Esbe’s Favorite Character(s): Barry.
Lady Esbe listened to the Random House Audio edition of this selection, narrated by Jon Lindstrom and Abby Craden
† Narration “cup” scores do not count towards the overall average score of the selection itself.