Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter was one of the most interesting and engrossing recent discoveries I made, so that once I started seeing Recursion mentioned on the blogosphere, I was eager to learn where the author would narratively lead me this time. Much as that earlier book proved to be an enjoyable read, Recursion stands several notches above it, and even though it requires a very intense focus and some suspension of disbelief, it kept me enthralled for the whole journey and indeed deserved the often-misused term of “unputdownable”.
I have long debated with myself about how to review this book, because it presents the tough challenge of talking about it without venturing into spoiler territory – and believe me, you don’t want to be spoiled about the twists and surprises of this story. So forgive me if I will end up sounding enigmatic or, worse, unclear about the plot, but this novel is best appreciated when you go into it sight unseen…
One of the two main points of view in Recursion is that of Barry Sutton, a troubled New York cop: recently divorced from his wife, he’s burdened with the pain for the death of his teenaged daughter Meghan, who eleven years prior was the victim of a hit-and-run accident. The anguish for the girl’s death proved to be the last blow to an already faltering marriage, and now all Barry has to cling to are his work and the alcohol he consumes in worrisome quantities. As the novel opens he’s been called to assist the patrolmen dealing with an attempted suicide: a woman sitting on the ledge of a tall building wants to end her life because she fell prey to False Memory Syndrome. FMS is an affliction that causes the victims to suddenly get a whole range of memories, described as “grey and flat” but still feeling very real, that point to a very different path to one’s life. The dichotomy between the two sets of memories is cause for such distress, in the afflicted individuals, that they often choose to end their life: Barry is unable to stop the woman from jumping, but the connection with FMS compels him to look deeper into the issue, finding much more than he bargained for.
The other player is Helena Smith, a scientist studying the neurological processes of the brain: her goal is to map human memories so that they can be implanted in the brain in case of memory loss. Helena is strongly motivated by her mother’s battle with Alzheimer, and has developed the basis for such a recording process, but funding and time are running out and she despairs of ever being able to fulfill her dream – that is, until billionaire Marcus Slade offers her the chance of turning it into reality. Unfortunately, where money and profit come into play, the “purity” of science suffers, and Helena finds out that her brilliant discovery is being used in a way she would never have predicted.
What I feel comfortable in sharing of the plot, at this point, is that Helena’s breakthrough and the spread of FMS are linked and that the unforeseen application of her technology ends up having profound effects on time and reality, with the world headed toward a massive catastrophe that Helena and Barry – once they team up – are deadly set on trying to avert.
Recursion is a successful blend of science fiction and thriller, and as such – not unlike Crouch’s Dark Matter – offers the readers a breathless journey with mounting stakes and devastating scenarios ranging from mass suicides to nuclear holocaust, with apparently little space dedicated to character development, which is hardly surprising since it’s more plot-oriented than character driven. And yet, on careful consideration, there is a clearly identifiable focus on human traits as personality and memory, which are viewed as interconnected sides of what makes us what we are: if memory is one of the facets that defines us – and we see this in the progressive loss of self suffered by Alzheimer victims – the altering of our memories, the erasure of the experiences that forge human beings as they live their life, is exposed as the ultimate violation, whose extreme consequences are portrayed with the same dramatic impact of an unstoppable avalanche.
Both Helena and Barry are flawed individuals whose actions stem from the need of righting the wrongness in their lives – Helena losing her mother to Alzheimer, Barry feeling the guilt for not protecting her daughter – and for this reason it’s easy to forgive their mistakes, and the way they are doomed to repeat them. The second half of the book sees them desperately trying to correct those mistakes, leading toward some emotionally charged pages that made me forget I was dealing with fictional characters, to care deeply for their success and to feel devastated in observing their failures. Their relationship, and its various iterations in the course of the story (apologies for the obscure reference…) looks like one of the few fixed points in the narrative, and one that even I, despite my wariness for romantic subplots, found unobjectionable.
If I have to find a flaw in this novel – and it’s the reason it’s not getting a full rating – is my puzzlement about one of the plot points, an action (again, apologies for the muddy wording) that’s first indicated as impossible, a choice of path that can only end in the death of the performer and does so with the first and only subject who attempts it. Toward the end of the book, however, it’s indicated as the only way to avoid entropy, and I’m still not clear how it works for the main character… Still, it’s a minor nitpick and it certainly did nothing to spoil my overall enjoyment of Recursion, or to lessen my enthusiasm and curiosity in learning that this novel is going to be turned into a TV series soon.