By Blake Crouch, A plot-driven thriller about time, identity, and memory
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.
Note: This book is sort of hard to discuss without spoilers, so the second half of this review does contains spoilers. I’ll say it again for the people in the back: the second half of this review contains spoilers. I’ll warn you before they start.
Plot Summary (No Spoilers)
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.
See Recursion 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.
Book Review (No Spoilers)
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.
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.
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.
Recursion’s Time Travel Rules, Explained (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, Explained (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 explaination.
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.)
Detailed Book Summary (Spoilers)
Book OneBARRY / 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.
Book TwoHELENA / 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.
Book ThreeBARRY / 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.
Book FourHELENA / 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.
Book FiveHELENA 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.
EpilogueBarry 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.
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