Thursday, December 08, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Upgrade by Blake Crouch

Upgrade by Blake Crouch is the latest book from the author of other technothrillers such as  Recursion and Dark Matter.  I think I have read enough Crouch novels by now to notice a common theme: the main character is usually a straight white guy with a family who finds himself in an extraordinary situation (typically involving a technological advance that seems like or actually is science fiction) that he has to resolve through ingenuity and taking decisive (sometimes violent) action. Below I will provide evidence for my view by summarizing the three Crouch novels I have read so far.
 In Recursion, the main character is Barry Sutton, a straight white NYPD detective who got divorced after his young daughter was killed in a hit-and-run accident ten years before. Barry learns that the recent increase in FMS (False Memory Syndrome) is a result of a technological advance that allows certain people to reset reality for everyone else; the false memories people are experiencing are really memories of the previous reality which has been erased that somehow are lingering on in their consciousness. Barry has to figure out what he can do to restore reality, and decide if he can and should select a reality where his daughter doesn’t die.
In Dark Matter, the main character is a straight white guy named Jason Dessen, a former quantum mechanics scientist and physics college professor who has a wife Daniela and a baby son Charlie. One day Jason regains consciousness while stumbling out of a metal cube. He realizes that he is in an alternate universe where 15 years ago the alternate version of Jason (which he calls Jason2) decided NOT to marry Daniela and instead pursued his quantum mechanics research and ended up creating a device (the metal cube) that allows people to jump between parallel universes. Jason2 has swapped places with Jason in order to explore what his life would have been like if he had pursued Daniela instead of research. Jason has to figure out how to get his life back from a more ruthless version of himself, Jason2.
In Upgrade, the main character is Logan Ramsay, a straight white guy married to a female history professor who teaches at American University in Washington, DC and has a tween daughter who regularly beats him in their daily chess game. Logan works for the GPA (Gene Protection Agency), a federal agency tasked with enforcing the Gene Protection Act, which outlawed all gene manipulation and research in the United States. The GPA also authorizes universal, invasive  surveillance of all U.S. citizens in order to enforce the ban on gene research and resulted in the incarceration of most biotech scientists. The legislation is a(n over)reaction to “The Great Starvation,” a cataclysmic event that was triggered by the release of genetically modified locusts in China by Logan's mother Miriam Ramsay in order to try to improve rice production a decade before the events in Upgrade. Miriam Ramsay was well known as a brilliant scientist and one of the richest people in the world before her experiment resulted in the starvation deaths of hundreds of millions of people around the world. Logan’s mother killed herself soon after the magnitude of her mistake became clear and Logan went to jail for multiple years for his minor role in the event (as an assistant). During a routine raid to find a rogue geneticist Logan is infected with some biochemical agent which after a few weeks he realizes has upgraded and altered his genome, giving him all sorts of enhanced abilities like increased concentration and mental acuity, thicker bones, and speed and agility. Of course the GPA outlaws all gene modification so when the extent of his abilities becomes clear Logan is kidnapped by his own co-workers and taken to a secret site where they can observe him and monitor his changing body. He gets busted out of the secret prison by someone who has very similar upgraded abilities to him; this turns out to be his sister Kara. 
This somewhat brief summary of the beginning of Upgrade may seem like it contains spoilers but really this is just the initial setup to the main plot of the book and leaves several questions for the reader. Such as, who designed this upgrade? What will it mean for the future of society if it is effective, especially a society where gene enhancement is so prohibited and everyone’s actions are monitored so closely? Could Logan's mom be involved somehow?
One of the main features of Crouch’s writing is that the action is literally fast and furious. He’s also pretty skillful at depicting his main character in a sympathetic manner so that the reader is caught up in the circumstances that affect him and wants to see how or if he can figure out a way to survive them. This is especially the case in Upgrade, which like all the other books by Crouch I’ve read really seems like a spec script for a Hollywood blockbuster or hit streaming TV show. There’s thought-provoking technology in a world similar but significantly altered from our own, with a sympathetic protagonist facing long odds to succeed. What’s not to like? One quibble I have is that these books are starting to seem a little too glib and formulaic. As I’ve pointed out above, Crouch’s last three books have noticeable similarities. However, they have also all been huge hits and big bestsellers. The guy is good at what he does! There's also something plastic/uncompelling about his main character's relationships with other people. In Upgrade, Logan has a complicated (and slightly bizarre) relationship with his sister Kara. It's like Crouch's characters have facsimiles of relationships, not the real thing. I think this is what causes me to not connect emotionally with his books. (But they are still a delight to read.)
Overall, I’d recommend Upgrade to anyone who has read and enjoyed Dark Matter and/or Recursion.

Title: Upgrade.
Blake Crouch.
Format: Hardcover.
Length: 352 pages.
Publisher: Ballantine Books.
Date Published: July 12, 2022.
Date Read: November 23, 2022.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★½☆  (3.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: B+ (3.3/4.0).


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