Recursion by Blake Crouch
Published by Crown Publishing Group (NY) on June 11, 2019
Genres: Sci-fi, Time Travel
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Memory makes reality.
That’s what New York City cop Barry Sutton is learning as he investigates the devastating phenomenon the media has dubbed False Memory Syndrome—a mysterious affliction that drives its victims mad with memories of a life they never lived.
That's what neuroscientist Helena Smith believes. It’s why she’s dedicated her life to creating a technology that will let us preserve our most precious memories. If she succeeds, anyone will be able to re-experience a first kiss, the birth of a child, the final moment with a dying parent.
As Barry searches for the truth, he comes face-to-face with an opponent more terrifying than any disease—a force that attacks not just our minds but the very fabric of the past. And as its effects begin to unmake the world as we know it, only he and Helena, working together, will stand a chance at defeating it.
But how can they make a stand when reality itself is shifting and crumbling all around them?
re·cur·sion /rəˈkərZHən/: the determination of a succession of elements (such as numbers or functions) by operation on one or more preceding elements according to a rule or formula involving a finite number of steps
The year is 2018 and we’re introduced to an NYPD officer named Barry who is responding to a call of a potential suicide. The woman’s name is Ann Voss Peters and she says she has False Memory Syndrome. About a month ago, Ann was suddenly filled with memories from a different life where she had a husband and a son where they lived in Vermont. She remembers everything from their life in excruciating detail and it’s a life with everything she could possibly want but nothing she’ll ever have and it leaves her broken. Her death leaves Barry to contemplate the mystery behind Ann and the prevalence of False Memory Syndrome and he manages to uncover enough truth to believe it’s possible that the strange memories that flooded her brain at random are actually real.
The year is 2007 and we meet a scientist named Helena who is studying how a brain processes memories. Her mother suffers from Alzheimer’s and she hopes to create something to help her from the disease that’s destroying her mind. When one of the richest men in the world, Marcus Slade, makes an offer to fund her continued research she realizes she’ll never get a better opportunity. She spends years perfecting her research, but her own intent for the research becomes slowly overruled by Slade and by the dark direction he wishes to take things. Helena realizes far too late that the good thing that she tried to create has become a terrifying weapon with potentially horrifying ramifications.
“Because memory…is everything. Physically speaking, a memory is nothing but a specific combination of neurons firing together—a symphony of neural activity. But in actuality, it’s the filter between us and reality. You think you’re tasting this wine, hearing the words I’m saying, in the present, but there’s no such thing. The neural impulses from your taste buds and your ears get transmitted to your brain, which processes them and dumps them into working memory—so by the time you know you’re experiencing something, it’s already in the past. Already a memory.”
There’s something about time travel that sings to my soul. The concept of being able to go back (or forward) to a time you had only ever read about in history books (or knew that you’d never live to see) is fascinating. Of course, each iteration of time travel has its own set of rules, some don’t make sense and some do. Crouch’s approach to time travel is truly mind-boggling and I can only imagine that him trying to brainstorm this plot to make everything work looked something very close to this:
Or maybe that’s just me, trying to figure out if his rules actually work. After a while, I stopped trying to contemplate the logistics and took a step back just to enjoy this truly imaginative and well-written story. Crouch very easily could have bitten off far more than he could chew but he somehow transformed this chaotic plot with multiple points of view and multiple timelines into something shockingly streamlined. But Recursion is more than just your standard time travel story. Rather than a story about time travel and how to scientifically make this happen, he takes it a step further and forces us to think responsibly, to think along the lines of the butterfly effect. Would you go back in time, knowing all that you know now, to change something that you’ve always wished you could change? Would you still do that if you knew your changes could have catastrophic consequences?
What makes this even better is his inspiration for this story, an article from The Smithsonian about scientists that figured out how to implant fake memories into a mouse. Incorporating the time travel aspect into that, essentially traveling back through memories instead of time, was pretty freaking brilliant. If you’re looking for more time travel goodness, make sure to watch Dark on Netflix. If Recursion’s time travel rules don’t blow your mind, Dark will help finish it off. I can’t wait to see what zany goodness Crouch comes up with next.