© 2022 Blake Crouch
Growing up, Logan Ramsey idolized his brilliant mother, a cutting edge bioengineer. Then a tool of her device that worked perfectly in proving trials killed over two hundred thousand people by accidentally inducing a global famine. Logan grew up not to be another geneticist, but a cop who arrested those suspected of violating the new Gene Protection act. It was not a duty he enjoyed, but it felt like atonement of a sort, if not for his mother’s hubris then for his part in her work. Then, a raid on a suspected genetic-modification lab went sideways, and Logan found himself in quarantine – exposed to a viral-dispersal bomb. A bad flu proved to be the least of his concerns when he realized the virus was the dispersal agent for a genetic-modification package rewriting him by the hour. This is an unwilling fall from grace that sees him on the run from the very agency he worked for, isolated from his family and coworkers. Logan struggles to make sense of what has happened – why would terrorists want to improve someone with an explosive, instead of making them patient zero in a new pandemic? – and realizes he’s on the front line of a new war. Upgrade lives up to the increasingly high expectations I have of Blake Crouch’s work, with a far more plausible scenario than some of his prior SF titles, as thrilling and emotionally potent as they were.
I think I’ve been fascinated by the idea of genetically modified superhumans since encountering stories of augments in Star Trek, but I encounter few stories about them and fewer still that handle them well. In Star Trek, augments were always instavillains: superior ability, Kirk informed us in “Space Seed”, bred superior ambition. Crouch puts us in Logan’s skin, though, in a manner that reminded me a bit of Flowers for Algernon, but without the depressing evaporation of Charlie’s mental gifts, and reminds us that Kirk’s admonition is not necessarily the case. What’s happening to Logan is terrifying, threatening him with the loss of his very identity. Pleasure at his increasing skills – physical, mental, emotional – crowds out these reservations, but such pleasure carries the bitterness of isolation. He’s not alone, though: there’s at least one other person who shares his gift, and through her he begins to understand what has been done to him and why. Someone from their shared past is not quite past, and they have a mission to save humanity – by forcing a planet-wide genetic upgrade, virally transmissible. Struggling with his feelings of alienation even as he revels in his new abilities, and fully mindful of what his late mother’s ambitions created before – a graveyard for hundreds of millions – Logan has to wrestle against himself and a plan already set in motion.
Upgrade proved to be just as captivating as Dark Matter and Recursion, but drawing from an entirely different sector of science — one that makes for a more interesting, realistic, and thereby scarier thriller. Those previous books made the most of ‘out there’ technology, and succeeded much in part because of the emotional drama that the main characters were put through. Here, that drama is as strong as ever, given that Logan is isolated from loved ones and at odds with old intimates, but the SF aspect is much closer to home. The star is genetic modification, of course, but Crouch also comments slightly on life within the glass cage of big data and the omnipresent corporate-government surveillance state. Upgrade therefore combines two essential aspects of strong science fiction, commenting on not only what emerging trends in science and technology are capable of, but reflecting on what they might mean for human life — not merely the mass of H. sapiens, but to our individual beings.
We lived in a veritable surveillance state, engaged with screens more than with our loved ones, and the algorithms knew us better than we knew ourselves.
“If she’s not wrong about our impending extinction, what do we have to lose?” I stood and looked down at [her].“Everything it means to be human.”
I suspect that, if we all had perfect memory, we would all grieve the older versions of who we used to be the way we grieve departed friends.
What do you call a heart that is simultaneously full and breaking? Maybe there’s no word for it, but for some reason, it makes me think of rain falling through sunlight.
Change Agent, Daniel Suarez. Another thriller about another anti-genmod agent who is altered against his will.
To Reign in Hell: The Rise and Fall of KHAAAAAAAAN! Noonien Singh, Vol 3, Greg Cox.