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By Blake Crouch

Book review, full book summary and synopsis for Recursion by Blake Crouch, a plot-driven thriller about time, identity, and memory.


In Recursion, Barry Sutton is a detective with the NYPD. New York City has in the past eight months seen a new type of affliction called False Memory Syndrome that leaves its victims with strange memories of other lives.

Meanwhile, Helena is a scientist whose mother has Alzheimer's, and she is working on research involving human memory and mapping the human brain.

As Barry begins to investigate and his path collides with Helena's, he realizes there's a force that's shaping and twisting reality, memories and people's perceptions in ways that are terrifying and horrific in their power.

(The Full Plot Summary is also available, below)

Full Plot Summary

Section-by-Section Summary
See the Section-by-Section Summary of Recursion
Quick Plot Summary

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.

For more detail, see the full Section-by-Section Summary.

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Book Review

I’m usually not much of a thriller reader, but the premise of Blake Crouch’s newest novel, Recursion, sounded good enough that it gave me pause.

It also has a sci-fi slant to it, and while I don’t read a ton of science fiction, I am a sucker for stories that dabble in manipulation of memory, time and our sense of reality.

I was impressed by Recursion. I had been warned going into it that it was a very plot-heavy book, which it is.

And even with its sci-fi twist, Recursion progresses much as you’d expect with most action-thriller novels. It dives into its plot almost immediately, the text is broken down into short sections, the book moves very quickly, and so on.

That said, this is a legitimate science fiction story, with lots of twists and turns situated around bending the rules of time and memory. It introduces a situation where people have memories in their head they can’t recognize and others are given a chance to redo certain aspects of their lives. I love these types of stories, both in books and in movies, but they tend to vary in quality.

The verdict for Recursion? Not bad. Stories that deal with manipulating reality can often be confusing and full of glaring plot holes, and I think this one side-steps both those major pitfalls effectively. I was left with two minor-ish question marks (discussed in the Spoiler-ish Thoughts section), but overall it holds up.

Recursion stipulates a clear set of rules under which it operates and sticks with it. I especially liked the beginning when people are just discovering what’s going on, which I thought was creative and well-paced.

In terms of all the other aspects of it, let’s be clear, this is definitely a thriller-type novel and reads like it. It’s all plot, all the time. But it’s a damn good plot. Recursion is a very fast read, assuming you can keep up with what’s going on. I know I had to re-read a few sections to make sense of all of it.

I’d also add that despite being all plot, it pokes around the edges of some moral questions that are interesting. It doesn’t offer in-depth discussions, but it naturally forces you to consider whether people can wield power responsibly and issues of that nature.

Read it or Skip it?

I enjoyed Recursion quite a bit. I liked this enough that it’s likely I’ll be reading more books of his, even though this isn’t my typical genre.

If your book club is open to sci-fi thrillers, you should definitely consider choosing this as your next book club pick. It’s an action-packed and exciting ride, but has a few good discussion opportunities as well.

If you’re looking for something literary, this isn’t going to be it. But it is an interesting and well-plotted thriller if you like a little science fiction from time to time. For anyone who’s on the fence, I’d say give it a shot! It’s a fast read. See it on Amazon.

Recursion Movie Adaptation

Recursion was just released this week (June 10th), but already has a movie and series adaptation in development. It was optioned over 9 months refore its release — back in October 9, 2018. The adaptation is being developed by Shonda Rhimes and Matt Reeves and intended for Netflix. It’s still early on, but I’ll update as things progress.

For all the details, see Everything We Know About Netflix’s Recursion Adaptation.

I’m guessing this is partially based off of the success of the television show Wayward Pines, which is adapted from Crouch’s book series of the same name. Though the plot of Recursion is solid enough (in my opinion, anyway) that it’s easy to see how others could see potential for an intriguing movie to be made.

Recursion, Explained!

Spoilers start here. Seriously, I’m going to spoil absolutely everything because this is also meant to help people who are confused by the book. So, very major spoilers from here on out. You’ve been warned. Do not read this part if you haven’t read the book yet.

Spoiler-ish Thoughts (Spoilers)

I found the plot surprisingly coherent, considering the fact that it deals with time travel. I also thought Crouch did a good job of making the many twists and turns and bending of reality (relatively) easy to follow.

I think the biggest plot hole (or at least aspect of the story they isn’t fully explained) is why they tried visiting a dead memory with Reed and it failed, and then took it as fact that it was impossible to visit dead memories until Slade said otherwise. Also, I don’t understand why exactly it failed when they tried it with Reed. Unless I’m missing something, it doesn’t really explain why it works when Barry tries it at the end.

I also didn’t understand why Slade chooses to send Barry back in time instead of just killing him when Barry first breaks into the hotel. He said something like “because of your past” but I’d don’t really get what that means.

Still, overall, I think those issues are pretty minor. By and large, for a book about time travel, the story is surprisingly consistent.

Recursion’s Time Travel Rules (Spoilers)

As far as I can gather, this is how time travel works in Recursion.

1. To do a time jump, you need to use a specific, vivid memory. A moment where you are especially emotional or happy or in pain, etc. You use the machine to think about that memory, which maps/records the memory. From them on (once it’s been mapped), you will be able to return to the point in time when that memory originally took place.

2. False Memories materialize for other people at the moment the time jump happens in the new timeline. So, if on Jan 1 2010 you go back in time to 2007, then when you reach Jan 1, 2010 in the new timeline, the old memories of the old timeline will materialize for everyone else at that point (this is essentially when the two timelines merge).

3. Reality shifts are the flip side of the false memory coin. When someone goes back in time, essentially there are two timelines that are created, the current one and the past one. For someone else in the past one, they experience a reality shift when the two timelines merge back together. The current “version” of you gets hit with false memories when the merge.

4. You can’t return to False/Dead Memories (or so they think). So, old versions of events (False/Dead Memories) exist in everyone’s memories, but can’t be returned to. Only events that are valid within the current timeline can be jumped to. (Spoiler: In the end, it turns out you can, in fact, return to dead memories.)

Recursion’s Ending (Spoilers)

I’ve written out a detailed summary (below), but if you just want to understand what happens at the end, here’s a brief explanation.

Basically, by the end, everything has gone to shit regarding the chair/time travel technology. The government has the technology, some terrorists have it, some people are just using it for fun. And other governments are in the process of developing it as well. Reality is getting made and unmade, and the world is on the brink of nuclear destruction because of it (each government wants to prevent others from using it next, so they can go back further in time to mold the world the way they see fit).

Helena ends up going back in time again and again to try meet Barry and figure out a solution. The big problem is that no matter what happens, when a timeline merges with the present (generally sometime on April 16, 2019 because that’s the day Helena jumps back in time) everyone remembers again how to build the chair. They need to prevent those memories from appearing.

So, they keep trying, Helena gets set back, and each time they relive a span of about 30 years. Finally, they remember that Slade hinted there was a way to prevent the dead memories. When this gets confirmed, they abduct Slade, who admits that he was able to revisit a dead memory once, which they previously thought was impossible.

Only by revisiting the original timeline (which is now a dead memory) can they undo everything and prevent the dead memories from appearing. By the time Barry has this knowledge, Helena is dead because her mind fragmented from all the time travel.

Barry visits a memory from the original timeline and finds Slade. The book implies that he kills Slade, which prevents all of this from happening. Barry then tracks down Helena (who is still alive), who he loves. (Presumably, together they make sure the technology is destroyed and never gets out.)

Other Questions, Answered! (Spoilers)

If you have a question about the plot, drop a question in the comments! If I’m able to answer it and it seems like a question other people will have, I’ll put it into this section.

At the end of the book, how is Barry able to return to the original timeline if people already have FMS when he’s having lunch with Julia?

Basically, when we meet Barry at the beginning of the book, we’re already in an altered timeline. However, at some point he would have gotten the dead memory of the original timeline back. And he presumably has lunch with Julia on Meghan’s birthday regardless of what else is going on. So, at the very end of the book, he jumps back to the original timeline (note that it says “He has never met Marcus Slade or Ann Voss Peters” — AVP is the woman who jumps off the building in the first few pages), which is not the timeline that we start the book off in.

Book Excerpt

Read the first pages of Recursion

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