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.
- 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.
- 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.
- How does Barry suddenly become a theoretical physicist? That takes more than just years of studying, it takes a major intelligence upgrade.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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”?
- 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.
- 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?
- Why does Helena start running towards the deprivation thank before they have the answers they wanted to get?
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.