(2022) Blake Crouch, Macmillan, £16.99, hrdbk, 341pp, ISBN 978-1-529-04535-2
Think of the author Blake Crouch and you are quite likely to associate him with thriller adventures and even technothrillers. Many may not think of him as an SF writer, indeed in Britain he is published under Macmillan's own imprint and not its SF imprint Tor and their catalogue portrays Upgrade as a thriller with no mention of science fiction. So this superior novel is likely to be overlooked by many SF readers. This would be a great shame as Upgrade is firmly rooted within the SF landscape and is not some humdrum thriller no matter how good some thrillers are: Hitchcock anyone?. True, technothrillers do overlap with SF: some technothrillers are genre-adjacent in which the technology is, say, merely gadget for the protagonist to use; while others see the technology explored in some depth and central to the story's plot. Upgrade is firmly in the latter's camp.
The other thing is for SF readers coming to this novel not to have preconceptions: super-powered humans are a longstanding trope of SF, as is the idea of enhancing humans 'upgrading' them. This is something that has been long explored by genre writers. Famously, The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde (1896) saw Jekyll transformed into a more powerful, more sensuous, but decidedly evil counterpart via a potion (biochemical enhancement), Marvel comics Iron Man sees human improvement through exoskeleton engineering, and the novel Slan (1946) has humans mutated to become superior to their normal human counterparts. The Hugo-winning Where the Late Sweet Birds Sang (1976) sees clones of supposedly superior and foresighted folk who predicted the collapse of civilisation.
Recently, as we worked in the decades towards sequencing of the human genome (completed in 2001), the idea of scientifically enhancing humans was SFnally explored with notable exemplars including the Hugo-winning short story 'Flowers for Algernon' (1959 and novel of the same name 1966) and Robert Charles Wilson's Divide (1990), and clearly employing genomic modification in Beggars in Spain (1993) based on the Hugo-winning novella (1991). In real life, using such science we genuinely have the potential to develop genetically modified humans, as was discussed in the non-fiction book Redesigning Humans: Choosing Our Children's Genes (2002) and arguably have begun to undertake with three parent children. All of which more or less brings us up-to-date.
Having said all that, please do not confuse Blake Crouch's novel Upgrade (2022) with the similarly titled, near-future, and nifty, thriller film Upgrade (2018): the latter sees an electronic artificial intelligence implanted into a paralysed person's spine; conversely Crouch's novel uses molecular biological enhancement. Also, the former is a thriller focussing solely on the protagonist being 'upgraded' (the hows, whys and possibilities) while Crouch has all of that plus a backdrop of prospective, extinction-level human societal collapse due to environmental degradation from an over-populated planet. This elevates the novel, asking the reader pertinent questions such as to where we as a species with a global technological complex are going and what would we do, and what risks would we take, to stop further environmental erosion?
In an environmentally degraded near future (a few decades from now?), the molecular biologist Logan Ramsay is a reformed character working for the Gene Protection Agency. He had previously worked with his mother (who was also a molecular biologist and a genius which Ramsey was not) on a gene drive to protect rice crops but this went awry and caused a famine in which millions died. This not only resulted in deaths but a clampdown on developing genomic products and blue skies genomic research. Having served a spell in prison, he is a poacher turned game keeper and now tracks down those running illegal biological labs and selling genomic products.
While undertaking a raid on a suspected bio-lab, an explosion infects Logan with a genomic, biochemical cocktail.
Having initially been health-check cleared and after a short period of quarantine, Logan returns to work. Only after a little while does he notice some changes: his memory has become greatly enhanced, and he can beat his daughter at chess with ease (which he had not previously done for a few years). The thing is, as his new abilities continue to develop, would his masters at the Gene Protection Agency notice? (No surprises as what is about to happen here )
OK, as with virtually all novels, there are a few plot holes the chief of which is why Logan got infected the way he did when a few chapters later we learn that someone else was targeted with ease and greater precision than through a rather ham-fisted explosion. But hey, this is a thriller: you know you want plenty of bangs and solid action!
One of the places this novel really scores is its coverage of science which allowing for the SFnal elements is basically spot on. For example, it recognises: the gene editing CRISPR revolution; that this in turn can genetically alter whole populations; that there are other new gene editors; and even that these really could become weapons of mass destruction!
Crouch has done the research. Well, actually, better: knowing he had not the science expertise, he sought out a few bioscientists who held his hand while giving him a tour of the latest science. SF writers who are not scientists and who do this really do have their work stand out than those who blithely drive on writing in ignorance. (This last is not that prudent a tactic given we are living in a developed world whose younger generations are becoming increasingly scientifically literate.)
All this makes Crouch's Upgrade a solid work of mundane science fiction.
Problems, other than the minor niggle mentioned earlier, none really. This is a proverbial, action-packed page-turner, and a very capable exploration of human genomic modification set against the context of the beginnings of an unfolding environmental catastrophe.
However, perhaps I could have done with a little more? As said, the author's exposition of molecular biology is proficient without it getting in the way of a plot that just powers along. But an extra dozen of so pages so as to allow for the occasional half-page and page exposition of environmental science and human ecology would have added greatly to the story. Here, I do wonder what the novel would have been like as good as it already is had, in addition to molecular biologists, the author had reached out to an environmental scientist or even a fellow writer such as Kim Stanley Robinson (whose environmental science and sociological exposition, in for example, The Ministry for the Future, is excellent). Indeed, extra environmental science content would have added to the damned if one does and damned if one doesn't that Ramsey and his sister face. I think it would also have given greater import to the novel's final irony.
The bottom line is that the author really has a flair for seamlessly conveying the biomedical aspects, it just needs balance with some environmental science exposition to bring it up in science in SF terms to the level of something like The Martian.
If, like me, you had thought of Blake Crouch purely as a thriller writer, then think again. With Upgrade he has demonstrated that he is as sure-footed on SF ground. I will be keeping an eye on him and you might want to too.
See also Peter's take on Upgrade's trade paperback.
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