“There are so few things in our existence we can count on to give us the sense of permanence, of the ground beneath our feet. People fail us. Our bodies fail us. We fail ourselves. He’s experienced all that. But what do you cling to, moment to moment, if memories can simply change?”Recursion, Blake Crouch
I have always wondered what memories are. They shape us, they are fundamental to our idea of who we are, and yet they don’t actually exist outside of our minds. They can shift with time, two people can remember the same moment completely differently, and particularly difficult or traumatic experiences can anchor us in the past. Memories can suck, and sometimes all you want to do is go back and change that one moment that threw your life on its head. Recursion is a book that takes this question of what a memory actually is and just runs with it.
We follow two characters in two different timelines; Barry Sutton, a detective in the NYPD in 2018, and Helena Smith, a scientist working on mapping memories in 2007. Barry Sutton’s life up until now has been one of tragedy and heartbreak, and he lives a rather lonely existence with his work fueling most of his social interaction. He discovers a case of False Memory Syndrome, a disease which gives people memories of a life they have never lived and which often drives them insane, and the conundrum of its existence drives him to investigate a woman’s suicide, and subsequently to discover the secret behind FMS.
Helena Smith is a fiercely intelligent scientist who simply cannot get the funding she needs to continue her research into saving deteriorating memories. She is given the opportunity to do research with infinite resources in an attempt to save her mother, but soon realises she is something much more ground-breaking. Helena is someone who lives and breathes her research, even if it takes her away from her dying mother and her distressed father, and brings her to a remote facility in the middle of the ocean to work for four years without leaving. Even when she starts to realise that her employer might not be the person she expected, she remains absorbed in her work.
“In high school, in college, she was encouraged again and again to find her passion – a reason to get out of bed and breathe. In her experience, few people ever found that raison d’être.Recursion, Blake Crouch
What teachers and professors never told her was about the dark side of finding your purpose. The past where it consumes you. Where it becomes the destroyer of relationships and happiness. And still, she wouldn’t trade it. This is the only person she knows how to be.”
What follows is a science fiction game of cat-and-mouse, as the past catches up to our characters, and the consequences of Helena’s discovery become apparent. Barry and Helena meet and chase the investor-turned-bad guy Marcus Slade to try and set things right. Now, I could go into detail about what that discovery actually is but I think that would do a disservice to the first big plot twist of the book, the one that made me whisper ‘fuck’ in the middle of the night. Instead, I will highlight some of the things about this book that stood out to me.
The pacing of this book is unlike anything I have ever read. There is so much that happens, it takes so many unexpected twists and turns that at times, I had to put the book down and just think about what had taken place. Whatever I had expected going into it was nothing like the story I ended up reading. It is three action movies wrapped into one. At times I felt like the pacing was almost too fast, that I didn’t have enough time to sit with the characters, to feel what they were feeling and to react with them. Both Barry and Helena go through some seriously traumatic experiences and there is so much going on that it almost feels cheap, but then Crouch reels you back in with an emotional gut punch.
By the end of the book I was left with a lot to think about. The themes in this book are incredibly thought-provoking. It is not only a story about memory and existence, it is an examination of the ethical implications of creating something incredibly destructive. Who should have the power to wield such an invention, and who should decide how it should be used? Are humans even capable of handling such an invention with care? These are explored not only by both Barry and Helena’s fight to set things right but also through Marcus Slade and his drive to what he wants regardless of the cost. This book is one that’ll keep you thinking long after you’ve put it down, and in the best way possible.
This is also a book of what-if’s. What if you could change that one pivotal moment in your past that changed the trajectory of your life forever? What if you had to spend the rest of your life trying to make up for a mistake you made? What if you had the power to change the relationships you have with those around you? The result, as seen in Recursion, would not be the picture perfect alternate reality one would picture, but a life devoid of a foundation in reality and one that would drive most to insanity. The memories of past pain are what make us who we are, and trying to change them only takes us away from the most fundamental part of being human. After reading this book, a simple “what if” scenario feels too dangerous to even consider.
There are plenty of things I could bring up, but I wouldn’t know where to stop; how the two timelines are expertly woven together and then the story just deep dives into a race against time, how the book explores grief and death, how the ending was one of those that makes you close the book and stare at the cover for a few seconds because it was so good. It is a masterwork of storytelling, and even if it utilises one of my least favourite tropes I enjoyed it.
I read this book in the depths of a depressive episode; my apathy has been quite high and so I didn’t fly through this book as I thought I would, but it has kept me thinking, kept me engaged despite my brain not wanting to engage with anything. I can only say that if you enjoy science fiction, you should read it, if only for the entertainment value of a book so intense it might give you whiplash.