RECURSION – Blake Crouch (2019)

Recursion

2016’s Dark Matter was excellent: yes, it was light & fun, a thriller, but it was also a truly clever story in a multiverse setting that didn’t short circuit logically. Blake Crouch tried to emulate that succesful formula again in his latest book, this time using time travel as a way to conjure up multiple versions of reality.

Just to get things out of the way: Recursion starts promising, and overall it’s a fast paced page turner, but halfway the book it becomes clear this really is pulp of the worst sort. Blake pulls the quantum card casually – using just a few sentences – trying to justify nonsense: generally a good tell to spot bluffing.

Sadly, it only gets worse after that, utterly failing at inner consistency – even though Blake flashes “Clifford Johnson, Ph.D., professor in the Physics and Astronomy Department at the University of Southern California” in the acknowledgments. Clifford “provided valuable insight in the final stages of the manuscript.” Blake talked to some professor: the hallmark of serious science fiction! But obviously, “all mistakes, assumptions, and crazy theories are mine alone”. You see: even the acknowledgments are riddled with cliché. When Blake near the end of the novel suddenly jerks “micro black holes”, wormholes and muons out of his hat, it becomes clear Clifford didn’t save the novel from being preposterous.

Crouch also tries to piggyback the intellectual credibility of Nabokov, Orwell, Vonnegut and Kierkegaard – yes, Kierkegaard! – by including quotes on the nature of time before each chapter, but again, doing that in itself is so generic it made me laugh. By now everybody knows typing “quotes about time” in a search bar doesn’t take any effort whatsoever. It’s just scrolling until you hit a few that fit.

Anyhow, near the end, the book was not even entertaining anymore, because all the glaring plot holes and inconsistencies sucked to joy out of it. I don’t like to be treated as a fool.

In Dark Matter Crouch did manage to evoke emotions on family and fatherhood. In Recursion, he tries to do so again, even taking out the big gun: a story line about a dead child. But as the story progresses, it becomes clear Crouch only writes emotional clichés in the form of empty prose and lifeless, trite dialogue. (For a truly stunning book about time travel and the loss of a child, try Dexter Palmer’s Version Control – but I should stop plugging that book on my blog already.)

As for the moral content: we get the same old stuff about human hubris and the risks of interfering with reality. Le Guin‘s attempt at that failed miserably too, but at least it had depth. Bester’s The Stars My Destination has a bit of time travel and tackles a similar theme. That was published in 1956, and has more imagination on whatever two random pages than Crouch has in his entire 329 page book. And even though Asimov’s prose is wooden, just as his characters are, The End Of Eternity outranks Crouch’s effort easily, because Asimov’s ideas are interesting, and ideas are what makes speculative fiction stand out. Bad ideas is bad speculative fiction.

Don’t get me wrong, Crouch again wrote a bestseller, and if you are the kind of reader that doesn’t mind a plot that doesn’t hold up to basic scrutiny, there’s a good chance you will like this – I can surely see the entertainment value of this book: some mystery, some guns, a cool, cinematic abandoned oil rig, nukes, a bunch of twists, some Groundhog Day. Similarly, the prose is not bad, it’s just totally uninteresting, weak.

Maybe he could have done better, but – like Hollywood blockbusters – Crouch clearly values tension & spectacle over logic. My guess is he doesn’t care about plot holes or characters behaving erratically – and neither does his editor: shit like this sells, man! I wouldn’t have held that against Crouch – it’s everybody’s prerogative to aim for entertainment first – were it not for the fact that at the onset of the book he explicitly sneaks in some meta bits about solving puzzles, two times even. If you portray your story as a puzzle to solve, make sure the pieces fit.

In short: Crouch tried to be his own fanboy, dazzled by Dark Matter‘s success, and got lost in his own convolutions. Bubblegum sci-fi.


Rather than write a lenghty analysis about the mess that is the plot, I will end this review with a few questions. Maybe I didn’t think things through. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there is an explanation for what I perceive to be inconsistencies. So this next section is mainly for those of you who have read the book. Any answers in the comments would be appreciated.

  1. How does the Big Bend (that building) appear? It’s one thing for new memories to appear in people’s minds, but for new objects to suddenly materialize seems impossible given the book’s mechanics. In a new time line, people should have seen the building being built – what we have now is not the movement of memories, but of one particular material thing between different realities.
  2. Similarly, how do other reality shifts happen? Given the mechanics of the book, people would simply be used to the new timeline as they are part of it – and maybe get new dead memories – but not experience a reality shift.
  3. How does Barry suddenly become a theoretical physicist? That takes more than just years of studying, it takes a major intelligence upgrade.
  4. Years and decades of studying the phenomenon, trying to find a solution for the reappearance of the chair – in their billion dollar private lab – and Barry and Helena do not come up with trying to map a dead memory?
  5. How do dead memories solve the cause & effect paradox of time travel, exactly? It’s one thing to state it, it’s another to think it through.
  6. How can a consciousness be shoved into another consciousness – especially as the book does pretend to care about biology, neurons and brain connections? Does Helena also magically solve the mind-body problem without knowing it – despite being the world’s leading expert on brain scanning?
  7. How/why does going back further in time than a few days alter the mechanics of the appearance of the dead memories? I.c. when they send Timoney back 67 days, and all of a sudden everybody gets “the full hit of dead memories in a single gulp”?
  8. Why aren’t they in the lab when they expect the new dead memories to hit the world when they are in the Denver timeline? Wouldn’t that be the most cautious way to go, given the unpredictable reaction of the world, and the fact that they only had a few moments to use the lab to escape in previous time lines.
  9. Why are Helena and Barry so close to San Francisco in one of the next timelines? They didn’t expect a nuclear threat this time?
  10. Why does Helena start running towards the deprivation thank before they have the answers they wanted to get?
  11. How does recording a few memories help Alzheimer patients, exactly? Alzheimer is a complex disease with heaps of other symptoms than memory loss. How can a top neuroscientist disregard that?
  12. How do people go from perfectly okay to suicidal in just a few minutes, even if they suddenly receive strange new memories? Suicide isn’t done on a whim or in a panic.
  13. How would DARPA not be able to forsee negative long term consequence given the proof of those already. Does their personnel consist of idiots entirely?

It’s of note that the Goodreads questions section on Recursion has quite a lot of other questions of this nature, some of which aren’t answered fully or satisfactory too.

Update April 5, 2020 – Might I point everybody to the comments below, there’s some really interesting discussion with Arvind about the above questions. He has a handy explainer of the book on his blog, and a review too.


Consult the author index for all my other reviews.

38 responses to “RECURSION – Blake Crouch (2019)

  1. I remember enjoying Dark Matter quite a bit, and also that I did have questions about some very puzzling angles, even though those questions surfaced once I closed the book, which at the time I ascribed to the intense pacing of the story which did not allow me to stop and think about the details. It would seem that with Recursion the author moved along the same lines, but this time overdid it, to the point that even the required suspension of disbelief was not enough to keep you involved in the story. And that’s not an encouraging thought…
    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • It has a 4.26 on Goodreads, with over 17.000 ratings atm, so it seems I’m in a minority position. If you liked Dark Matter, chances are you’ll like at least the first half of this book, I know I did. I guess one’s reaction to the remainder is a matter of taste.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s a solid amount of bashing, Bart! Love your list of questions, too 🙂 Unfortunately, I won’t be able to help you with them – I’ll read Black Matter, but will steer clear of Recursion – I really hate plot holes, especially in books and movies which tend to position themselves as intellectual puzzles. This one sadly sounds more like a quick money grab.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, somehow, these negative reviews are most fun to write, probably something cathartic.. I’m not sure about that money grab: Crouch goes on at lenght in the acknowledgements that this was the hardest book he ever wrote etc, so he seems sincere, but I do think he got cought up in Dark Matter’s success: it has 181.000 ratings on Goodreads (compare that to 79.000 for Seveneves, 56.000 for The Obilisk Gate, 10.000 for Ninefox Gambit and 8.500 for Zero K (DeLillo), all speculative books with some buzz published around the same time by respected authors)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Possibly, then, he didn’t have enough time to fully think it through? These days it seems that if you’re a fairly new and popular author you have to write all the time; there seems to be a prevalent fear that if you don’t publish a book a year, your readers may just go somewhere else… On the other hand, I really don’t remember a time travel story without some logical or plot holes in it…

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ll come back tomorrow and comment. I read “I liked Dark Matter” and that was more than I could handle this late at night 😀
    it is 2200 at the moment…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I just revisited your review and you gave it 3/5 stars. That’s a fairly solid score. He must have deteriorated in your mind then over the years.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, I gave it 3/5, but the more I thought about it, the more the unoriginality bothered me. And hearing how other people raved about it as if it was the best SF they’d ever read. Which might have been true but says more about their reading experience than anything. Wayward Pines trilogy nailed the coffin down airtight for me in regards to Crouch.

        As for this review, I think you nailed it with the sentiment ‘this shit sells”. It’s SF for the common herd who have never watched or read SF. It is written for it’s audience. Sadly, that audience isn’t people who take their SF seriously. I suspect you and I would diverge greatly on what IS great SF but the fact that we can both claim that Crouch doesn’t write it, well, that says enough to me 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • So, what would be your 5 top scifi picks? I’ve been reading your blog for quite some time now and I have actually no idea!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Honestly, I’m not surprised. I’ve been reading a lot less SF since like ’08 and it’s been decreasing each year. I do tend to read a lot more F than SF 🙂

            Give me an hour or so and I’ll respond with a list of 5’ish.

            Liked by 1 person

          • 1) Dune (and the rest of the Chronicles, but I’m hardcore)
            2) most of Neal Asher’s Polity works (cheating with a whole series, but I don’t care!)
            3) 4 Lords of the Diamond tetralogy by Chalker
            4) Foundation Trilogy by Asimov (even though I only rated them in the 3-3.5 range, I enjoyed them and found them “Foundational”)
            5) Santiago duology or Widowmaker tetralogy by Resnick.

            Ok, that didn’t take me nearly as long. There’s probably other choices I would make if there were other bits of input, but those 5/6 are the ones that spring to mind in terms of forming my interest in Sf and enjoyment.

            Oh, oh, oh. The Bronson Beta duology by Wylie and Balmer. Those along with Foundation were some of the first SF I read as a young teen old enough to be self-aware, if you know what I mean.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Ah, we agree about 2 at the least: Dune and Foundation. As for the rest: most names I don’t know or haven’t read, so that’s nice, will research those, thanks!

              I’m a bit surprised by Asimov: that series has a pretty deterministic outlook on creation.

              Liked by 1 person

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  5. I’m enjoying your reviews but find this one to be perhaps a tad harsher than it deserves. You make good points about timeworn themes and cliches in the book. But it does have some merits. To your question on the Big Bend appearing: I’ve put together an explainer with a timeline chart and FAQ that addresses this question.
    https://www.starvind.com/bookreviews/recursion-explained/
    I’ve also reviewed the book here
    https://www.starvind.com/bookreviews/recursion/

    Would be great if you take a look.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey, thanks for that!! This is exactly what I was hoping for: finally a serious attempt a unraveling the book. I’ve just taken a glance for now, and I will get back to you, as a proper answer will need a bit more time. Not fully convinced on your big bend answer though, but I think you aren’t either 😉

      Like

  6. Great! Do LMK what you think of it. On the Big Bend Q: you’re right, it’s not a perfect explanation. But it’s easier to let it slide (vs. others) since it is not critical to the plot. I mean, Crouch doesn’t need to pull a fast one on the readers since the story and plot would be much the same without the entire Big Bend episode.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I answered on the Big Bend on your blog, it’s more or less the same answer I gave to somebody trying to answer it on Goodreads.

      I agree you could let all the questions slide, and just go for the Hollywood entertainment and enjoy the book like that. This book is no Memento however – that’s much more solid, and the open question that movie has are intended. I don’t think Crouch meant to leave so many plot holes.

      On the other hand, for the kind of reader I am, the Big Bend is really inexcusable. I can’t let it slide, as the Big Bend and the other reality shifts are crucial to the book’s atmosphere/vibe/excitement, but they are based on a giant inconsistency – true, for the plot it’s not necessary, but a book is more than plot, and Crouch clearly aims for spectacle with these reality shifts, and I feel he has to be true to his own concepts if he does so.

      I can manage a few inconsistencies in a book (I had no problem with the ones in Dark Matter for instance) but I really feel there are way too much questions (I mean, I listed 13, and you also have some additional unanswered questions on your blog), and for a rather short book, for me that really sucks the joy out of reading, especially if they are so loud and clear, and Crouch at the same time tries for serious veneer with Kierkegaard quotes etc. I have no problems with pulp an sich, so if he would just have admitted: this is pure entertaining pulp, maybe I could have let it all slide, but instead he goes for justifications from quantum scientists for crying out loud.

      I agree the book has some merit (the basic idea is cool, the writing’s fast paced & it’s generally an exiting story), but I don’t think my review is too harsh. In the end, the basic idea is so good it kinda deserves a more solid treatment, imo.

      Like

  7. Saw it. Thanks for the comment. I like your critical approach to the book and the way it deals with science. You are definitely a discerning reader.

    I’m not saying it’s ok to let all questions slide—just this one, since the entire story holds even if we assume the Big Bend episode didn’t occur. I too need a book to make sense. Not in it for pure entertainment—we’d watch a movie or pick other genres if that was the goal right? 🙂
    But it’s personal taste too—I understand someone feeling it’s a deal breaker.

    Many of the 13 questions you ask pertain to the science and the actual working of the chair. As I mention in my review, Blake Crouch has no meaningful explanation. So what I ended up looking for are the rules and consistency of the book within that system of rules. And I give him a passing grade on that. It’s not fundamentally different from writers invoking wormholes to allow instantaneous travel to a distant galaxy.

    So yes, the book is no Memento and a far far cry from something like Foundation. My comparison to them was only in that at the end, I was forced to re-evaluate all the events to my understanding of the rules at the end. I wasn’t implying the book was as good as Memento or Foundation. But I don’t want to diss it as pure pulp either. I think it’s several notches better.

    And talking about personal preference, I read your glowing review of the Three Body Problem. I read that book a year ago and have a contrarian view. I’ll try to put together a review for discussion. But that’s for another day 🙂

    BTW: I added a subscription box. You should be able to subscribe now. And actually should have been possible through the comment itself. Not sure why you weren’t able to.

    Cheers!

    Liked by 2 people

    • The nice thing about talking books online is that once you get to know someone’s taste a bit better (but for that to happen you need to have read a significant amount of the same titles) and they generally align, it still happens a lot that opinions on particular books vary widely. There’s quite a lot of readers I respect a lot that seem to think the world of certain books I think are rubbish 🙂 I guess I just want to say taste is such an interesting phenomenon. I like blogging & the discussions in the comments because it forces you to be more clear on one’s own opinions, and I feel I have become a better reader because of that.

      I agree Recursion is several notches more than pulp – maybe “complex pulp” would be a good denominator for me. At the same time, as I already said, I think Crouch could have done a better job. Thinking a bit more about it, I guess it’s not even the pseudo science that doesn’t adhere to its own principles that bothers me most (Dark Matter’s premise is simple BS too), I think it’s pulpy because of characters behaving stupid or unbelievable – and that’s much harder to excuse, as the human factor in any story should check out for me. 7 of the 13 questions I ask (numbers 3, 4, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13) deal with stuff like that.

      Yes, curious about your take on Cixin Liu – I might evaluate that book totally different now – I read it quite early in my ventures into scifi, it’s been 5 years. I should reread it someday, but that won’t be for a few years I guess – I’m first rereading the Dune series. I guess my older reviews shouldn’t be taken too seriously 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I agree: reviewing and exchanging comments forces me to have a clearer understanding of the material I have read and my opinions about them.
    3. I assume Barry is smart and 10 yrs of Physics study is sufficient to develop expertise in theoretical physics.
    4. I’ve tried to answer 4 in my plot explainer.
    9. Staying north of SF in Marin County gave them some time. It wasn’t a mad scramble.
    10. yeah this is a head scratcher. a plot device to fit the ending he wanted.
    12. We don’t have any prior experience in knowing what it would feel like to have two distinct version of history in our heads. I can imagine the cognitive dissonance causing mental overload and complete failure.
    13. People in power are often blind to longer term repercussions outside their immediate selfish desires.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 3. Plausible, but a bit out of character.
      4. Does this orchestration actually happen in the book, or do you presume it? I don’t remember, too long ago. If it does happen, good answer, at least Crouch tried to address this. But a scientifc conclusion based on one try is shaky: Helena is the kind of character that keeps trying and trying, so not fully convinced. The question might still remain for Reed: he has become a physicist himself.
      9. Maybe not, but still, why not stay out of the way even further? Did they need to be there? (Serious question, don’t remember.)
      10. Really inexcusable imo, of the stuff you see in all those blockbuster Hollywood movies.
      12. Plausible answer. Still, it’s not really described that way (as complete failure) in the book.
      13. Plausible answer. Still, the longer term repercussions were already loud & clear, so at least some of the smart people in power at DARPA should have been able to overcome their bias, as the immediate selfish desires were actually threatened by the repercussions.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for those answers by the way, really interesting!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Suppose that all your answer to the questions are 100% valid, except for 1, 2 and 10, I think the matter of the Big Bend and of question 10 shows that Crouch cares more about theatrical effect than about being consistent to the world & the characters he created. For me, that attitutude from a writer is a bit part of what ‘pulp’ is – it’s a matter of loyalty to first principles, instead of being loyal to easy thrills.

      Like

  9. 4. It happens in the book. We learn of it partly from what occurs on the Oil Rig and more when Slade reveals the secret to Barry.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Yes, sorry. Still trying to figure all this commenting on WP. I used a non WP account once. Will remember to use WP.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it was partly that, and the fact that you used more than 2 links in that last post, it seems the WP default setting is to put those on hold, I didn’t know that. Good to know, and I changed my setting to 3 links.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Thanks for the plug. I really appreciate it.

    Liked by 1 person

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