Book review: Recursion by Blake Couch

(cover image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

One of the truly exhilarating things about plunging into a book by Blake Crouch is that you know you are going to be treated to a wildly imaginative, enormously clever, fast-paced but emotionally-resonant take on a pivotal issue of the day.

It takes a great deal of skill to hold all those elements in narratively-pleasing tension but Crouch manages it with aplomb, granting us page-turning stories that in lesser hands might be empty, soulless, action thrillers, but which emerge from his hand as immersively-invigorating tales that get us to think as much as they get the heart punding.

So it is with his latest book, Recursion, which dives deep into the capacity technology has to fundamentally alter who we are, in both good and bad ways, and in particular, how playing with our memories, even with the best of intentions may have consequences we have never envisaged.

You could well argue that any technology generates unforeseen consquences – that is, is it not, the very nature of any great breakthrough – and that while there might some disruption at first, it will eventually work out for the good.

Crouch acknowledges this perspective in Recursion, where a brilliant scientist Helena Smith, driven by very personal motives, has created a machine which allows people to not just recall a memory but live it again as if they physically there again, a gift she hopes will prove immensely beneficial to people suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementia-related conditions.

“Taking a breath, he tells himself— You are Barry Sutton. You are on a train from Montauk to New York City. Your past is your past. It cannot change. What is real is this moment. The train. The coldness of the window glass. The rain streaking acorss the other side of it. And you. There is a logical explanation for your false memories, for whatever happened to Joe and Ann Voss Peters. To all of it. It’s just a puzzle to be solved. And you are very good at solving puzzles.
All that’s bullshit.
He’s never been more afraid in his life. (P. 58)

That it might prove beneficial in such situations is hijacked however by billionaire Marcus Slade who argues, at least in his initial ticking of the idealistic boxes to Helena, that the kind of discovery for which Helena is responsible can be both good for society and good for corporate bank balances, specifically his own.

Naturally, in a Crouch novel, these motivations are nowhere near as virtuous as they are first presented, with Slade impelled by some fairly dark desires, the exact nature of which Helena doesn’t fully comprehend until it’s too late.

One of the spinoff effects of Helen’s memory-reliving technology, which is both groundedly human and fantastical all at once, is somethinge called False Memory Syndrome (FMS), which gives you memories of a life you never actually lived.

It doesn’t replace your existing recollections of events; rather, it sits, maddeningly, literally maddeningly for some people, alongside them, creating a deeeply-unsettling bizarre dislocation of memories and a resultant fracture in a person’s sense of self.

Caught in this the spreading FMS epidemic, Barry Sutton, a police detective with a great deal of personal pain and credit sullying his life, decides to get to the bottom of things, uncovering, alarmingly for him but wholly satisfyingly for us, a conspiracy the likes of which powers Recursion on an enormously adrenaline-packed ride.

Blake Crouch (image courtesy official Blake Crouch Twitter account)

What works so brilliantly well in Recursion is the way it places the focus on the inherent humanity of the story.

While the story is thrilling and edge of the seat stuff, that full speed ahead narrative momentum is never allowed to subsume the very human core of the story.

After all, memories cut to the very essence of who we were, are and will be, and without them, much of what makes us us, is lost and we end up existentially rudderless.

Life is hard enough as it is, but how much harder, as Helena and Barry discover, along with a great many other people, when your memories are sliced and diced, played with indiscriminately as if they are nothing.

They are everything, of course, something which becomes palpably clear as Recursion documents what happens when someone plays god with the consciousness of people for purely selfish ends.

“‘And yet here you are. Death no longer has any hold over us. This is your life’s work, Helena. Embrace it.’
She says, ‘You can’t possibly think humanity can be trusted with the memory chair.’
‘Think of the good it could do. I know you wanted to use this technology to help people. To help your mom. You could go back and with her died before she died, before her mind destroyed itself. You could save her memories … It’d be like none of this happened.’ His smile is filled with pain. ‘Can’t you see how beautiful a world that would be?'” (P. 187)

Recursion is ultimately as gripping a read as it is because it never once forgets that makes a story like this really hum is the fact that only do we relate to the characters but feel like it could happen to us, and if it did, how would we feel.

That’s quite an accomplishment given the often fantastical nature of the story which pivots on some possible but nonetheless out there concepts.

By placing innate humanity front and centre of the narrative, Crouch compels us to wonder how we would feel if someone played with our memories, gave us others that weren’t ours and effectively called into question our very sense of self.

In a thriller not as anchored in humanity as Recursion is every step of the way, it would be all too easy to shrug it all off as some blockbustery excursion into a future we hope never comes to pass, its consequences rushing off like water off the proverbial water fowl.

But so real, so true and very human does it feel, and you won’t just ooh and aah at plot turns, you will feel every last twist and turn down to the core of your being, that Recursion always feel intensely personal, as if we could, without knowing it, find ourselves in the kind of nightmarish scenario that so envelops Barry and Helena.

Balancing a hopefulness for the future with a sage acknowledgement of what often comes to pass, Crouch delivers a crackling good story in Recursion, never once forgetting that no matter how geewhiz and promising a brand new technological leap night seem, that it always exists in a very human world, one which may appear robust and tenacious, and often is, but which is more fragile and finely-balanced than many of us realise.

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