Blake Crouch’s previous novel Recursion is one of the scariest time travel novels ever written. Crouch created a near-future ripped apart by the invention of time travel and the utter chaos it unleashes. Upgrade does not reach the same heights of the invention as Recursion, but Crouch has more on his mind this time than just extrapolating the hell time travel could wreak on the world.
In a non-specific near future, the world is in serious trouble. Climate change is destroying urban areas and genetic experimentation has unleashed the worst catastrophe yet on humanity. In response, the world outlaws all genetic research and the US creates the Genetic Protection Agency (GPA). This new agency is tasked with hunting down rogue geneticists.
At the start of our story GPA agent, Logan Ramsay is caught in an explosion during a bust gone wrong. Soon he realizes the explosion infected him with a genetic package that has drastically upgraded him in many different ways. The GPA grows suspicious and soon Logan is on the run trying to come to terms with the upgrade and unravel who did this to him, and why. Soon Logan discovers he is not the only one targeted for upgrade and this one-time ally, now enemy, is dedicated to finishing what the creator of the upgrade began.
Crouch specializes in plots that Michael Crichton would have dreamed up but brings them to the human level. It’s not the technology that is the main focus, it’s on a small group of characters. Through them, Crouch shows the reader a macro view of an apocalypse. The events may have worldwide implications but the handful of characters are the eyes, ears, and heart of the matter. This brings an intimacy to the plot that normally would be given the blockbuster treatment.
As the novel unfolds we learn more about who Logan Ramsay is and his family connection to an event that wiped out 10% of the world’s population. This family history is why he has been targeted for the upgrade and given new-found superpowers. As to those powers, they make him smarter, faster, stronger, and coldly calculating with an ability to wall off emotion and pain. We have seen these stories before from Flowers for Algernon to The Lawnmower Man to Limitless to Leigh Whannel’s underseen (but excellent) 2018 film Upgrade (unrelated). All of these stories examine what profound intelligence will do to a person, how they will be treated by others, and what can happen when we play god with people’s bodies.
Upgrade is a science fiction thriller first and foremost. There are a handful of action scenes but until the ending most of the book is cerebral. Long sections examine the details of the upgrade and the physical changes Logan is experiencing as well as the sacrifices he has to make from severing contact with his wife and daughter to protect them. Several times Logan has to work through how to approach a situation and strategize against an enemy that has the same extraordinary intellect. At times, Upgrade read more like an Andy Weir book than Crouch’s previous tales. There is a lot of science here, and some philosophy for how we (the royal we) got to this state of our civilization, that elevates Upgrade above popcorn read.
“In the absence of compassion, selfishness is the most rational response of all. our species’ superpower is not caring. We merely exercised that ability. We don’t have an intelligence problem. We have a compassion problem. That, more than any other single factor, is what’s driving us toward extinction.” – from Upgrade