Upgrade, Blake Crouch (Ballantine 978-0-59315-753-4, $28.00, 352pp, hc) July 2022. Cover by Chris Brand.
Blake Crouch’s Upgrade is a wildly entertaining narrative that reveals its shape-shifting nature as the story progresses. It begins as the sad story of a man trying to rebuild his life, quickly becomes a story of trying to save the world from something that could end up killing a large portion of humanity, and eventually morphs into a narrative that explores the importance of empathy and looks at how the end of our species as we know it is imminent, unless we do something to stop it.
Logan Ramsay carries around a heavy past. His mother, the most brilliant geneticist in history, accidentally killed 200 million people while trying to save crops with the use of genetically altered locusts. Logan was involved, and he did hard time for his involvement in his mother’s project soon after she died in a car accident. Now he’s busy working for the government, making sure things like that don’t happen again. On one of his raids, he walks into a setup in a basement and becomes contaminated with something, despite wearing a hazmat suit, and spends time in quarantine as doctors of all kinds try to figure out what might have been injected into his system. Despite his fears, Logan soon makes a full recovery and is released from the hospital. Logan feels fine, but something has changed. He has much better focus now, and he can read books in a single night that were a challenge before. He processes thoughts faster, beats his daughter at chess when that hadn’t happened in a long time, and can recall things he read years before with unbelievable clarity. Then things get even weirder, and Logan can memorize whole books, recall conversations from years ago, and make hard calculations in a second. Also, his body is changing. Logan is becoming a much better human. Soon he learns why: his genome has been hacked. Logan has been targeted for a genetic upgrade that is quickly turning him into a superhuman, but why? As soon as the government finds out, Logan is locked away in a research facility, where he learns about what’s happening to his brain and body. As his understanding grows, one thing becomes clear to Logan: he needs to get out. Once he accomplishes that, with some surprising help, the correlation between what’s happening to him and his past becomes clearer, and with it comes the understanding that his genetic upgrade is only the first step in a plan that could decimate humanity, and that he is the only one smart enough to thwart that plan.
That’s a long synopsis, but it only scratches the surface of this novel. For example, it doesn’t mention the science behind Logan’s changes, all of which were meticulously researched and are explained in the narrative in a way that’s both very smart and scientific but also easy to comprehend. Similarly, the way Crouch takes readers into Logan’s changing brain is superb. Readers get to go along for the ride as Logan becomes the smartest person ever, and it is a very engaging ride.
There are a lot of elements in Upgrade that merit discussion. However, there are two that occupy the top of the list. The first is the way the narrative becomes all about empathy. This is a techno-thriller full of fights, bullets, high-speed chases, genetic mutations, and explosions, but it is also a story about the things that make us human and about how we need to feel more empathy for others because the horrible state of the world has made us callous to death and suffering.
The second thing that deserves a moment in the spotlight is the way Crouch seamlessly weaves together a narrative using some of the best elements from various genres. This is a near-future science fiction novel that’s heavy on the science, but it also has bits that read like a literary novel about family drama, grief, and loss. And that’s just the start: there are also elements of thrillers, road novels, military science fiction, and a dash of philosophy. Despite the variety of elements Crouch brings to the table, there is a driving question at the core of Upgrade, and it is one worth asking, and one that will haunt readers long after they’ve turned the last page: What if the only way to safe humanity is to use what we know to hack into our genetic code and force ourselves to become a better, smarter, more empathetic species?
Upgrade is easy to devour and complex, very smart but also very readable. This is a novel about big ideas that’s been genetically engineered to have the body of an action-packed techno-thriller but the soul of a philosophical narrative about the fate of humanity in the face of what we’ve done to ourselves and to the planet. There is a reason Crouch is a household name, and this novel shows him at the top of his game.
Intimate in scale yet epic in scope, Upgrade is an intricately plotted, lightning-fast tale that charts one man’s thrilling transformation, even as it asks us to ponder the limits of our humanity – and our boundless potential.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, professor, and book reviewer living in Austin TX. He is the author of Zero Saints and Coyote Songs and the editor of Both Sides. His work has been nominated to the Bram Stoker and Locus Awards and won the Wonderland Book Award for Best Novel in 2019. His short stories have appeared in a plethora of anthologies and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and CrimeReads. His work has been published in five languages, optioned for film, and praised by authors as diverse as Roxane Gay, David Joy, Jerry Stahl, and Meg Gardiner. His reviews appear regularly in places like NPR, Publishers Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle, Criminal Element, Mystery Tribune, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other print and online venues. He’s been a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards twice and has judged the PANK Big Book Contest, the Splatterpunk Awards, and the Newfound Prose Prize. He teaches creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University’s online MFA program. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.
This review and more like it in the August 2022 issue of Locus.
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