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Recursion by Blake Crouch

Published by Crown on June 11, 2019

Recursion begins with a phenomenon called False Memory Syndrome (FMS). People who are afflicted with FMS develop full memories of having lived a different life. Some falsely remembered lives are better and others are worse than the life the FMS sufferer has actually lived. The afflicted retain their actual memories, overlaid by months, years, or decades of finely detailed false memories. Medical researchers have not identified a cause and do not know whether FMS is contagious, although outbreaks have been concentrated in the Northeast. In many instances, people are linked by shared memories of events that never happened.

Later — and maybe this is a spoiler, although the premise is established fairly early in the novel [continue reading at your peril] — the plot begins to build on theories of time derived from quantum mechanics, which nobody understands, allowing a central character to assert that time is a meaningless function of our limited perceptions. The book posits that time travel can be facilitated by memory travel. Characters therefore come to experience multiple timelines by perceiving one, traveling back to an earlier memory, and creating a new timeline that follows that memory. In fact, the story makes the interesting point that Alzheimer’s is a form of time travel, casting sufferers adrift in time, tricking them into believing they are living in the past except for moments we define as “clarity” because they perceive the present as we do.

The story proceeds on two fronts. Barry Sutton is an NYPD detective. He is haunted by memories of his dead daughter. When he fails to prevent the suicide of a woman who suffers from FMS, he senses that there’s more to the story than an unexplained disease, and begins an investigation that takes him to the Hotel Memory. Like the Hotel California, it is easier to check in than to leave. Much of Barry’s story takes place in two timelines, one that starts in 2018 and one that seems to start over in 2007.

The second plot thread involves Helena Smith, a researcher who studies memory formation and storage. Her goal is not to prevent memory deterioration caused by dementia, but to preserve core memories that can then be accessed by patients. One of the world’s wealthiest tech wizards gives her a lab and unlimited funding for her research, which allows her to make rapid progress. Her financial benefactor, however, seems to have an agenda of his own that make Helena wonder whether an isolated laboratory on a converted oil rig in the ocean is the safest place to be.

The novel has a “do-over” theme that is popular in science fiction novels and movies (the story is vaguely reminiscent of the movie Edge of Tomorrow with a little bit of Minority Report; maybe Blake Crouch is a fan of Tom Cruise movies?) — if you could live your life again, with knowledge of how you screwed it up the first time, would you make something better of it on the second go-around? But this novel adds several twists to the time travel theme. What if, to return to an earlier point in your life, you need to die? What if, when you change your own life, you change everyone’s?

There is a love story in Recursion that is touching, in part because it deals with the reality of love rather than the gushiness that romance fans seem to crave. There is also an action story that keeps the plot moving, but the story stands out for the intelligent way it resolves the paradoxes that are inherent in time travel stories. Helena and Barry are sympathetic characters, and they are in conflict with an unlikable nemesis who fails to understand that any technology capable of changing reality will inevitably change it for the worse. The story builds suspense with every page. In the realm of time travel stories, Recursion is fairly regarded as an instant classic.


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