Fiction Reviews


(2022) Blake Crouch, Macmillan, £14.99, trdpbk, 344pp, ISBN 978-1-529-04536-9


I found this to be an enjoyable, page-turning thriller; it was not fast paced but it had an even, steady rhythm.

The story is set in the near future, unsurprisingly in the States. Cars and trucks are (of course) electric and can travel hundreds of miles between recharges but people still stop in roadside diners and stay overnight in motels whilst recharging. Train journeys between cities are by hyperloop tubes, and for fast, long distance travel, most planes are supersonic or hypersonic. Climate change has continued, Miami and New York are, at least in part, under water, there are food shortages around the world, and more species have died out. There have been great steps forward in genetic engineering and the story is based on these.

About twenty years earlier, the brilliant geneticist Miriam Ramsey had lead a project to create a virus to wipe out a bacterial leaf blight in China. It had worked well until, that is, the virus mutated and affected crops worldwide, resulting in what became known as the Shenzhen Famine and the deaths by starvation of twenty million people. Agriculture and so much else has yet to recover. Realising her failure and foreseeing the oncoming backlash, Miriam Ramsey drove her car off the cliffs of California’s Highway 1, plunging into the Pacific Ocean far below.

Following the famine, the GPA (the Gene Protection Agency) was set up and all genetic work became illegal. Anyone continuing to work in the field was arrested, though this did not stop it going underground and around the world many dark gene labs came into existence. Having spent some time in prison for his involvement in the project, Miriam’s young son Logan was recruited to the GPA and, since then, Agent Logan Ramsey had proved himself a valuable asset.

The story opens as Logan and his partner Nadine Nettmann arrest Henrik Soren, an international dealer in illegal DNA. He reveals to them under interrogation that he had dropped off a package nearby and so they raid the place. It proves to be a deserted house, in the throes of being remodelled; a drop-off point rather than a secret genetics lab. Descending to the basement, Logan realises too late that it is trap as moments later a couple of ice bombs explode. Fortunately the rest of the raiding party are out of range but Logan takes the force of it; the ice shards rip through his hazmat suit and lacerate his body. Recovering in hospital, he is soon the subject of several intense fevers, which is hardly surprising as the ice was loaded with viruses. After a sufficient time and a whole load of tests, the GPA decide that Logan is in the clear; whatever dastardly experiment he had been subjected to had failed. Nobody realises that the viruses had manipulated his genes but with a delayed effect.

For years Logan had played chess almost daily with his teenage daughter; she was a natural and it was over a year and half since he had last won a game. Then one day, now back at work, he has his first chess victory in ages - and goes on to beat her nine games in a row. Suddenly he can see further ahead in the game, clearly recall the minutiae of events years ago, and almost predict exactly what people would do and say - his mind is being upgraded by the viruses. So too is his body; he is getting faster, stronger, nimbler, and his bone density is increasing, as is his ability to heal. Not sure what was happening to him, he asks his doctor to perform a few tests, little realising that the GPA are monitoring him closely. As he sits at his desk, an anonymous text arrives: ‘They know you’re changing. You need to leave the building NOW’. He tries to but is caught, waking up in a shatterproof glass cage in a secret GPA black ops base.

It soon becomes clear that, even though he is a GPA agent, as far as the GPA are concerned he is now a suspect, without any rights, to be observed, questioned, and tested as they try to figure out what genetic changes he is undergoing. It is clear he is never going to leave the place; indeed, his wife and daughter have been told he had been killed during another raid. Then one night somebody breaks him out of the base, somebody who has been upgraded just as he is, but is also a highly trained military operative.

He had recently learned from his captors that his mother had faked her car crash and is now known to have been secretly continuing her genetic research. It was she that had set the trap to deliberately infect him, to force his upgrade. Now he finds that Kara, his sister and rescuer, had also been upgraded. Miriam Ramsey has a plan to upgrade the entire human race; the old Homo sapiens will be replaced by an upgraded version (with an unfortunate percentage dying in the process), one that will be much more intelligent and will see the errors of humanity’s ways, who will realise that they need to save the planet NOW and actually do so. But Logan is not at all sure that this wholesale, involuntary upgrading of the human race will achieve anything that his mother intended.

And so the chases begin: the GPA are after Logan, fearful of what he has become, whilst Logan is after his mother and his sister before they can bring about humanity’s doom. Or maybe they are right, perhaps humanity does need the upgrade? He finds he has a difficult decision to make - the future of mankind is in his hands. As he changes, he gets a better understanding of what that future might be; will it be better or will it be worse? And so we get into the nitty-gritty of the story.

The story is well written and ticks along nicely with episodes of action and periods that are more reflective, especially on the state and the future of mankind. With its twists and turns as Logan finds out more about his mother’s plans and the changes within him, it kept me guessing to the end as to what he would do - and why... I liked the eventual conclusion.

Peter Tyers

See also Jonathan's take on Upgrade's hardback.


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