By Blake Crouch
I received an ARC of Upgrade from Ballantine Books in exchange for an honest review.
Having previously read only his Wayward Pines trilogy, I’m something of a latecomer to Blake Crouch’s new wave of post-Dark Matter popularity, but hey, better late than never. I’m here! Hi! Crouch’s latest speculative thriller, Upgrade, takes place in a near-future world in which genetic hacking is common but illegal after a scientist named Miriam Ramsay attempted to modify crops in China and accidentally created an international incident which resulted in mass starvation.
Upgrade crystallized for me how I feel about the work of Blake Crouch: he does what he does very well (breezy commercial fiction with a scientific angle, like a less-dense Michael Crichton), but what he does is not for me. I found myself craving a meatier story that was more willing to sacrifice action and thrills in exchange for ethics and philosophy. I will fully admit, though, that this is in no way a failing on Crouch’s part. He’s just aiming for an audience that isn’t me.
Upgrade concerns Miriam Ramsay’s son, Logan. His mother is dead by suicide following The Great Starvation, and he now works for the government, hunting down those who tamper with genetic code. An explosion during a raid infects him with something that changes his genome, and he soon becomes a sort of superhuman—faster, smarter, speed reader, perfect memory, etc. These upgrades implicate him in a devious plan in which the future of humanity is at stake.
Upgrade is light and readable. Honestly, it’s a bit too readable for my preferences. It moves at a quick clip, there’s plenty of action, and if you choose to experience this story in print or ebook format, frequent line-breaks (often after individual words) will draw your eye down the page. I personally want more friction in my prose, but if the writing style I’m describing works for you, Crouch handles it well and you will likely have a good time with Upgrade. Frankly, it’s fun!
The characters are sympathetic and feel appropriately complex for this story. Logan could step comfortably into the shoes of any generic action hero; he’s not particularly memorable, but I didn’t mind spending several hundred pages with him, which is ultimately how I would frame the book as a whole. His foil, the antagonist, was suitably compelling, with a motivation that made sense. (Anyone else find themselves relating more to villains as they get older? Just me?)
I thought the twist—as in, the devious plan that Logan eventually tries to stop—was actually quite clever, and unlike anything I’ve encountered before. It raises all sorts of questions about the nature of humanity and how best to confront the most pressing problems of our time. I don’t know if it makes sense from a scientific perspective, nor do I care; it works from a narrative and thematic perspective, and that’s what matters to me. Upgrade has ideas that pop off the page.
Your appreciation of Upgrade will depend more upon how you like your stories told than what you like your stories to contain. I was interested in much of the content here, but this feels only a few degrees removed from a script for an action movie, and that doesn’t appeal to me as a reader. Your mileage may vary! I will certainly check out Crouch again, but my expectations will be in alignment with popcorn entertainment, and I will happily recommend him to the right reader.
Review by Erin Larson