The Quick Recap and Section-by-Section Summary for Recursion by Blake Crouch are below. Spoiler warning: these summaries contains spoilers.
For a non-spoiler version of the plot synopsis, see The Bibliofile's review of Recursion by Blake Crouch.
In 2018, Barry Sutton is a detective in the NYPD. It's the day before the 10th anniversary of his daughter Meghan's death. He meets a woman suffering from False Memory Syndrome (FMS), an affliction that causes people to have memories of an alternate reality or former life (what they believe is fake memories). As Barry investigates, he goes to an address to learn the truth about FMS. There, Barry gets strapped into a chair and transported back in time to 2007. He starts reliving everything, except this time he's able to prevent the hit-and-run that killed Meghan, and the remembers the other version of his life as a faded memory.
Meanwhile, back in 2007, Helena is an academic doing Alzheimer's research. She's invited to join Marcus Slade, a wealthy tech founder, who is developing a cure for Alzheimer's. Together, they work on research to re-activate, replicate and enhance memories. By 2009, they've discovered that stopping the heart can make memories more vibrant. Helena watches Slade kill their test subject, Reed. But then it all happens again without Reed's death, while Helena still retains memories of the previous version of events.
Slade explains that they've made a time machine. With it, you can jump to memories where you felt strong emotions. In another reality, he was originally Helena's lab assistant, and they'd accidentally sent someone back in time. When Slade realized this, Slade sent himself back in time to become a tech titan.
Helena and Slade continue to perform experiments on Reed. When Reed tries to kill himself, Slade goes back in time and undoes it. Helena is horrified by Slade's lack of ethics. On July 6, 2009, she sends herself back in time to 2007. This time around, she refuses to join Slade's team and goes into hiding. She knows that (because of how the machine works) on July 6, 2009, Slade will regain his memories of what happened before.
Barry continues living the new version of life, but when people around the world start experiencing large-scale FMS (false memories shared by lots of people), Barry goes to the address he'd been at before to investigate. He is stopped by Helena, who explains that they've met before in a different version of events. Slade ended up rebuilding the device without her after regaining his memories. Barry tried to kill Slade, but the device ended up in the hands of the government.
This time around, Helena wants to help Barry to destroy it completely. They go into the building and meet a version of Slade there who has lived many lifetimes and now his memories are all a mess. The plan goes awry, and Barry and Helena are captured by the government. The government promises to use technology responsibly to prevent small disasters, and Helena reluctantly works with them. Still, the missions get bigger. Then, they start getting false memories of stuff unrelated to their missions, and they know that the technology has somehow gotten out and that other governments and a terrorist organization has it.
Finally, on April 16, 2019, Helena sends herself back to 1986 (to when she was 16) so she can give herself time to figure out a solution to prevent all of it. In the new timeline, Helena and Barry meet, get married and try to figure out how to prevent the old memories from coming back. 33 years pass and when April 16, 2019 rolls around again, everyone in the world regains their memories, so Helena jumps back in time again to try again. She continues doing this until Barry recalls that Slade had mentioned one situation where he didn't get his memories back. The next time around, Helena and Barry abduct Slade.
When April 16 comes around, Slade's memories return to him and he explains that they have to find a way to go back to a dead memory (a memory from a defunct timeline) in the original timeline to prevent all of it, which they'd originally thought was impossible. Helena goes back in time again, but this time around Helena dies from her mind being fractured from all the memories. However, when Barry finally gets his memories back, he manages to reach into a "dead" memory that's strong enough from the original timeline that he can reach it.
In the Epilogue, Barry has returned to November 4, 2018 in the original timeline. Barry goes to Slade's house and shoots him. Barry then goes to find Helena.
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BARRY / NEW YORK / 2018
Barry Sutton is a detective in the NYPD. He’s at the top of a building trying to talk down a woman, Ann Voss Peters, who is contemplating suicide. She has False Memory Syndrome (FMS). FMS gives its victims false memories of a former life (they end up with two sets of memories).
In Ann’s case, it makes her miss people she never knew. In Ann’s false memories, she had a husband, Joe Berhman and a son, Sam. Ann ended up tracking down Joe (who is a real person), but he doesn’t have memories of Ann. Instead, Joe had a wife, Fanny. She committed suicide by jumping off this same building. Ann jumps.
The next day, Barry meets with Julia, his ex-wife, who he had a child with Meghan. Meghan passed away. Today, November 4, would have been her 26th birthday if she had lived. Afterwards, he meets up with a friend, Gwendoline Archer, who leads a counter-terrorism team.
Barry finds the incident report regarding Fanny’s “suicide.” It says that Fanny considered jumping, but didn’t. Joe talked her down. Barry is confused, because this contradicts what Ann told him. Barry decides to seek out Joe and Fanny.
HELENA / PALO ALTO / 2007-8
Ten years ago, in Palo Alto, California, Helena Smith attends a meeting where she is offered no-limit funding for her research. Helena works in academia and does research involving human memory. Her mother has Alzheimer’s.
At a super-secret research facility, she meets with Marcus Slade, a famous and famously wealthy tech founder, who is funding the project, presumably to develop a cure for Alzheimer’s. The facility is located off-shore on a deactivated drilling rig.
BARRY / NEW YORK / 2018
Barry goes to Joe and Fanny’s home in Montauk. They let him in, but when he asks about Ann, Joe says he doesn’t know who she is and asks him to leave. Barry goes to a diner nearby to eat, gets a bloody nose, and suddenly his mind is flooded with memories of a different life. He wonders if he caught FMS from Ann.
HELENA / RESEARCH FACILITY / 2008-9
Their first goal is brain mapping, and they’re successful. Their next goal is to “reactivate” a memory. (They want to be able to map someone’s memories while they still have them, so that if they have Alzheimer’s, then the memories can be reactivated.) It works.
Things are going well, so she is surprised when Slade says he’s dissatisfied. His goal is not just about Alzheimer’s — he wants to replicate immersive experiences — to feel like it’s actually happening. He wants to introduce extreme measures to enhance the memories. He knows that stopping someone’s heartbeat temporarily can make the memories more vibrant.
Helena is reluctant. Slade tells her Helena can bring her mother here to save her memories, but only after Helena succeeds at what he wants.
BARRY / NEW YORK / 2018
Barry is on his way back from Montauk when Joe calls. Joe says that FMS is not what people think it is. Joe says that he answered an ad that said “Would you like a do-over?” and went to a hotel in Manhattan. Joe gives Barry the address, but then the line cuts off.
Barry goes to the location that Joe mentioned. He sneaks in and finds an old hotel lobby, but is soon dragged into a room and hooked up to equipment. A man tells him, he’s lucky and that the’re doing him a favor. The man knows exactly who he is, and starts asking him about his daughter. Strapped into the machine, Barry talks about the last time he saw Meghan, she was almost sixteen. She wanted permission to go out.
HELENA / RESEARCH FACILITY / 2009
Slade goes to Helena’s room to talk to her. He asks her to go oversee a major experiment. She goes, and once it begins, Slade purposefully kills the test subject, Reed, without telling the others what’s going to happen. Everyone is horrified.
Later, the scene where Slade goes to Helena’s room to talk repeats. However, this time they don’t go to do the experiment. Instead, she gets a nosebleed and then she just remembers the experiment.
Slade explains that the machine doesn’t just reactivate memories, it returns you to the past. (So, Reed is still alive in this timeline. Helena still has the memories of what happened in the other timeline, but now they are false memories.) They’ve creative a time machine that returns you back to the point of specific memories you had.
BARRY / NEW YORK / 2018
The man starts a procedure. Barry is transported to 2007, the last time he saw his daughter. Now he’s reliving it but able to control his actions. He knows that Meghan gets killed in a hit-and-run after she leaves the house, and starts to chase after her. He’s able to prevent her death.
He still remembers her death, but now it exists as a faded memory. A man approaches and explains the rules: don’t tell anyone, and live your life normally. Don’t make huge changes.
HELENA / RESEARCH FACILITY / 2009
Slade explains his theory of why this process works. He says that consciousness is just a perception and time is an illusion. By stopping someone’s heart, they’re able to pierce the veil of perception.
Slade also explains that originally Helena was a scientist working on reactivating enhanced memories for entertainment purposes, and Slade was a lab assistant. They accidentally sent someone back in time, and when Slade figured out what had happened, he decided to send himself back in time too to correct his old mistakes and become a tech titan.
Even with his explanation, Helena thinks Slade is nuts and dangerous.
BARRY / NEW YORK / 2007
Barry wakes up in the morning and it’s still 2007. The last decade feels like a bad nightmare. He’s still married to Julia, and Meghan is alive. He continues living this life, though anxious it will all disappear somehow.
This time around, he’s better at his job and takes better care of himself. He spends more time with his mom, who he knows will die in a few years.
HELENA / RESEARCH FACILITY / 2009
Helena and Slade have now run nine different experiments on Reed, each time killing him and sending him a a day or a few days into the past so he’s still alive. In this latest one, they tried to return Reed to a specific memory, but couldn’t. It’s because they tried to return him to a memory that never happened according to his current timeline. It’s a “false/dead memory” — you can’t return to false memories since those timelines are no longer valid.
Instead, Reed died and didn’t go back in time. So, Slade had to kill himself as well (because you need the heart to be stopped for it to work), went back in time and un-did the experiment.
Reed tells him that when he died without going back in time, he just ended up revisiting his happiest memory from when he was a small child and staying there. Reed says in that moment, he was so happy. The next morning, Reed hangs himself. Presumably, he wanted to be dead (and stay dead) and be stuck in his happy memory. Slade wants to run more experiments on Reed, so plans on going back in time and undoing Reed’s death.
HELENA / PALO ALTO / 2007
Helena, horrified by Slade, ends up putting herself through the machine and sending herself to 2007, back to when she was first approached to join the team. This time, instead of joining, she closes her bank accounts and leaves, choosing to stay hidden.
Helena knows that on July 6, 2009, Slade’s memories of their past work will return to him (because in the previous timeline, that’s when she went back in time) and he will likely have started searching for her.
BARRY / NEW YORK / 2010-2018
Meghan graduates from high school, and Barry and Julia end up growing apart. Barry previously attributed the divorce to Meghan’s death, but now he realizes they were always going to go in separate directions. They end up getting divorced, but promise to always be there for each other.
Time passes, and in 2018, at the moment when Barry was put into the machine and sent back in time, Julia gets the memories from the previous timeline back. Julia shows up at his place, talking about FMS and her false memories of a different version of her life where Meghan is dead. The find Meghan who can now remember her death.
Breaking the rules, Barry tells them about being sent back in time, but tells them they can’t tell anyone. He tells his friend Gwen the truth, too.
In New York, a huge building called Big Bend appears. This is the first instance of FMS on a large scale. Everyone can perceive reality shifting because all at once they have old memories of before when the building was never there. Soon, the news breaks that the architect of the building, Amor Towles, has been murdered. Barry assumes it’s because he broke the rules by making a huge change.
Meghan, haunted by her false memories, kills herself.
Barry goes to look for the old hotel, but before he can enter, Helena stops him.
BARRY / NEW YORK / 2018
Helena convinces Barry that they’ve met before in the future. She explains what happened with her and Slade, and that Slade ended up building the chair without her once he got his memories of her back. Helena brings Barry back to her place, a makeshift lab with a makeshift version of the chair.
Helena continues explaining. She stopped Barry, because originally when he went in, it led to a SWAT raid taking place the next day. In that version of events, Slade is killed. However, despite Barry trying to destroy the chair, enough of it ends up in the wrong hand of government agents who want to reverse engineer it. (As a result, Barry then finds her, and she goes back in time to stop Barry from entering the hotel in order to prevent the government from ending up with the chair.)
Instead, Helena wants Barry and herself to go in and destroy the chair completely and wipe all the software. They are able to get access to the old hotel through the boiler room. Barry brings a duffel bag full of weaponry. When they get in there, they start heading up to Slade’s apartment. The first few tries are failures, but manage to get to the lab and do a time jump to try again.
Finally, they end up in the lab with Slade — everyone else has been shot. Slade explains that he’s gone through many lifetimes at this point and he’s no longer able to map his memories because all his memories are mixed in with so many other memories. His memories are no longer strong enough (insufficient “synaptic power”).
Suddenly, everything goes dark. Barry goes to investigate and it turns out people heard the gun shots and now SWAT is here. Shots start ringing out.
HELENA / NEW YORK / 2018-9
Helena ends up in detainment by a government organization, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). She’s told that Barry was killed. Rajesh Anand, a former coworker from the research facility, ended up telling DARPA about the chair. They want Helena’s help. They assure Helena they mean to use the chair responsibly, and use it to prevent a school shooting.
Helena is still not convinced. She says it’s impossible to know the effects of destroying people’s sense of reality. Reluctantly, Helena joins in the conversations, trying to limit the damage. They decide on a set of rules: no going back further than five days, only trained agents, all actions put to a group vote, etc. They start running small missions sparingly.
Three months later, John Shaw, the organization’s director, tells Helena that he’s concerned the military is going to intervene and take the technology. Soon, on March 22, they get ordered to perform a mission going back 76 days to prevent a classified fighter jet from crashing near Ukraine/Belarus.
Going back before a bunch of other mission has the effect of making it so that no one gets any of the false memories related to any of the missions until March 22. At that time, it all hits everyone at once. Helena realizes they still don’t fully understand the way this technology functions. Still, they keep performing military-ordered missions.
A few months later, Helena experiences a series of reality shifts as the dead memories of a series of prevented disasters hits everyone at once. Shaw says that they’re not responsible for any of it.
Clearly, the technology somehow gotten out. It appears it was pirated from Marcus Slade a year ago, and since then people have been working to replicate it. Now, someone has. China and Russia all acknowledge they have blueprints to be able to start building the tech. It’s also clear a terrorist organization with access to the technology was likely responsible for the many disasters that someone else went back and undid.
Even if they are able to go back and undo all this, at some point everyone will get their false memories back and those same people will be able to rebuild the chair based on those memories. Helena has an idea on how to prevent it. On April 16, 2019, she sends herself back to 1986. She is now sixteen again.
HELENA AND BARRY / NEW YORK / 2019
Helena has relived her life for the past 33 years. It’s now April 16, 2019 once again. Barry is alive in this timeline and they are married. Everyone in the world is about to remember everything from the previous version of events.
It all comes back in a flash, Barry knows that in this timeline. He and Helena are currently the only ones with the chair technology. He and Helena have tried for years to figure out a way to prevent the memories from coming back to everyone. They failed.
As soldiers descend on them, Helena goes back again. They fail again. This time, when the other countries get their memories back, they launch missiles at the U.S. to try to prevent them from using it. So, Helena needs to hurry and return to the past.
They fail again. And again. There’s a timeline where Barry and Helena don’t meet. At one point when Barry gets his memories back, they realize there’s something cryptic about what Marcus said to them. The next time, Barry calls Jee-woon who confirms that Slade was able to prevent the dead memories once. In the next timeline, the abduct Slade, waiting for him to get his memories back so they can ask him about it.
As Slade watches the nuclear missiles erupt, he finally tells them that he found a way to return to a dead memory. Going back to a dead memory and preventing stuff from happening is the only way to prevent the subsequent memories from resurfacing. Slade says on November 5, 2018 was when he killed Helena in the original timeline in order to get the technology. If they can get back to the original timeline and prevent that event, then maybe they can prevent all of this. Barry now has the answer, but Helena is already in the machine.
Another many years later, it is April 16, 2019 again, but now Helena is dead. Her mind fractured from the weight of the memories. In this timeline, Barry and Helena moved to Antarctica. Barry remembers his conversation with Slade. He records a memory from November 4, and sends himself back.
Barry is back in the original timeline. He is meeting up with Julia. It is November 4, 2018. He finds Slade at his home. Slade tries to shoot him, but Barry already broke in earlier and emptied the gun. It’s implied that Barry kills Slade at that point, thereby preventing all of this from happening.
The book ends with Barry finding Helena and going to speak to her.