Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Blake Crouch has shown a remarkable ability to put humanity into inconceivable scenarios, and in Recursion he does so once again, pitting it against a nigh-incomprehensible invader. The story follows Barry Sutton, a New York cop tasked with investigating False Memory Syndrome, an affliction driving people mad with the memories of others. Digging deeper, however, only brings him closer to a nearly-undetectable invader, dead-set on tearing apart the fabric of the past and unmaking the world.
Table of contents
Blake Crouch Displays the Power of Memory
The long-standing debate on what exactly constitutes our identity and shapes our personal reality probably won’t be over anytime soon, with there being proponents of many philosophies with equally-compelling arguments.
Personally-speaking, I have always been more drawn to the idea of our memory making up the person we are and how we see the world more than anything; after all, we are shaped by our experiences, and the ones we remember are always taken into account when applicable, even if only subconsciously. Something tells me Blake Crouch is also a fan of this school of thought, at least if his novel Recursion is anything to go by.
The story opens by presenting us with a New York City cop, Barry Sutton, and his mostly fruitless investigation into an affliction dubbed the False Memory Syndrome by the media. Its effects are at the same time quite simple and incomprehensibly complex: it forces the victims to go mad by putting in their heads memories of other peoples’ lives. With no real leads or suspects, Barry eventually enlists the help of Helena Smith, a neuroscientist hell-bent on creating technology which would allow memories to be preserved forever.
As they dig further and further they come within reach of the root cause: an entity with the goal of tearing apart the fabric of the past and unmaking the world as everyone knows it. An invader nobody can see, capable of attacking the minds, memories, and reality of all humanity. Time is running out, with Barry and Helena’s plane of existence crumbling around them, turning into something unrecognizable. Every second becomes stranger than the last, and only together can they hope to defeat this malignant force, hopefully before reality turns into a jumbled mess for evermore.
Actions and Reactions
So where exactly do we even start when talking about a novel which fulfills its own potential for a totally off-the-rails, crazy story?
Well, in my opinion, I would like to address the one specific aspect of Recursion which really made it stand out from other science-fiction works: the way in which Crouch plays with actions, reactions, and how the past dictates the future. While this is definitely a fast-paced story with its fair share of action, it also goes heavy on the science and physics domain, thankfully remaining simple and accessible enough for all types of readers.
I simply had a blast observing the various changes which were happening in the past, and how their consequences built on top of each other, merged and compounded into spectacular explosions of awe and insanity. While we are always journeying into the realms of madness, it never feels as if we deviate too far from the domain of logic, at least internally-speaking. The world remains consistent in how it is being affected by the events, consequently giving you a firm anchor to hold on to when processing all the events in your head.
I know everything feels hopeless to you in this moment, but this is just a moment, and moments pass.― Blake Crouch, Recursion
Though at first I did have some doubts about how the author would be able to deliver a high-concept story revolving around complex ideas, but they were quickly assuaged a few chapters. The needle never dips too extremely into either story progression or technical explanations, always maintaining a healthy mix of both, which I felt prevented the novel from ever feeling overwhelming.
Even when discussing the more complicated concepts in physics, the terms used by Crouch remain largely in the domain of the comprehensible. As a matter of fact, it reminded me of Andy Weir’s prowess in this aspect of writing, as he demonstrated in his bestseller The Martian.
The Collapsing Universe of Recursion
As far as the plot goes, things are always being propelled forward by the state of emergency resulting from, well, the collapse of reality. I can hardly remember any lulls in the progress or boring moments: we are either moving onward or learning useful information about the world and its inhabitants, the kinds of details which might come into play later on.
Unlike most novels, Recursion actually manages to induce a sense of danger and urgency, raising the stakes sky-high from the very start. We always have the impression time itself is working against us, and no matter how certain I was of being able to predict the ending, I never felt at ease for the characters or their potential fates. As a matter of fact, it reminded me quite a bit of Philip K. Dick‘s classic novel Ubik, which believe me, is a compliment of the highest order.
Speaking of the characters, Barry Sutton and Helena Smith make for compelling protagonists through which we can explore different domains of the world created by the author. While I can’t exactly say they are the most profound or engaging characters I have ever seen, they more than adequately serve their purpose of vehicles for us to use and explore the concepts of the story. Naturally, they are still well-enough developed for us to care about them and feel a sense of anxiety for what might await them.
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As the universe collapses around our characters, Crouch also takes the opportunity to reflect on a number of different concepts with ties to the real world. As you may have guessed, most of those meditations revolve around the power of memory in our lives, and the extent to which it might legitimately shape our existence. He gives us more than enough to think about amidst the chaotic madness consistently escalating in intensity from the opening pages.
The Final Verdict
Recursion by Blake Crouch has without a doubt in my mind earned its place as one of the most highly-touted science-fiction novels of the year, if not the decade. It takes us on an action-packed adventure through the madness of a collapsing reality, while still finding the time to reflect on existentialist topics. If you enjoy sci-fi technological thrillers, then this is without a doubt a novel you should add to your collection.
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.― Blake Crouch, Recursion
Blake Crouch is an American author who graduated in 2000 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with degrees in English and Creative Writing. He published his first two novels, Desert Places and Locked Doors, in 2004 and 2005, but he is best-known for his Wayward Pines Trilogy.