An Alarming “What If?”

I have read two of Blake Crouch’s previous novels–Dark Matter and Recursion. I thoroughly enjoyed those, so when Upgrade was released on July 12, I snapped up a copy. While I have to admit that I enjoyed his previous novels more, the subject matter here is closer to reality and thus more alarming.

Upgrade is about bio-engineering, or more accurately, bio-hacking. The main character has his DNA altered in a way that pushes his capabilities beyond those of any other human while making him so different that he questions his future ability to engage with the rest of humanity. In this way, the novel has a passing resemblance to Shelley’s Frankenstein. But rather than embrace this change, he fights against those who changed him against his will.

Before I started reading this novel, I also started reading Walter Isaacson’s The Code Breaker about the development of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology. In addition to the history, that book goes into the debate around the ethics of how far the human race should go in directing its own evolution. This novel is the “what if” version of someone taking it upon themselves to actually do this.

In the future of this book, gene editing is illegal and the main character works for the agency that polices such illegal activity. His mother caused a global famine through genetic engineering that resulted in it being outlawed. He deals with guilt from that as well as other family dynamics that surface later in the story. There is also the philosophical dilemma of whether it is right to sacrifice some innocent lives to save an entire species. But mostly, the novel is a thriller of the near future.

While the book succeeds quite well as a thriller that explores contemporary themes in a world that feels very close at hand, it somehow still left me wanting more. Maybe his other books spoiled me for this one by lifting my expectations. Regardless, it is still a top notch novel of speculative fiction by one of the world’s best.

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