Blake Crouch’s newest novel, “Upgrade,” doesn’t start with a bang but rather a slow, uphill journey that draws us in gradually. But don’t relax, because before Chapter 2 begins, the action ratchets up, and by the end of the second chapter, you’ll find you want to keep reading to find out what happens next — quickly. That level of excitement and wonder continues to the very last page. Crouch is a master at creating stories about fantastic events and the people who are affected by them. There are few real bad guys in this story; instead, there are characters who, because of their arrogance, believe they can save the world.
Logan Ramsay, the main character, grew up with a mother who was a genius. He, on the other hand, was not. His genius mother worked in DNA editing, and by trying to stop a virus from ruining rice crops in China, she ended up causing a famine that killed billions of people. Needless to say, the name Ramsay became infamous. Also, the world banned all scientific DNA experimentation because of her work. That, in turn, caused a huge underground business devoted partly to conceiving and constructing other-worldly creatures by creating and altering the DNA of animals. Logan is a cop in the newly created government agency that tries to catch those breaking the new DNA-restrictive laws.
While Logan’s work is not fulfilling, his home life is. He adores his wife and daughter and cherishes the time he gets to spend with them. When a dangerous mission goes wrong, Logan is exposed to DNA change himself, and he finds that he can’t go home.
Crouch’s narrative isn’t just an action-driven plot. Through the narrative, we are forced to face what our inaction regarding climate change might wreak on our Earth. While some characters in the novel believe that the action needed can only be accomplished by those with superior intellect, Logan comes to realize that intellect alone will not solve the problems facing Earth and humankind. Crouch shares the findings of 20th century anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar. His theory is that because of how we evolved, we can only maintain relationships with 150 people, and that once we hear about tragedies involving larger, or even massive numbers of people—say millions or billions—our ability to feel compassion fades.
He writes, “It’s not because we’re evil. Our emotional hardwiring can’t cope with it. We’re living in a global community of ten billion, with brains that can only feel compassion for our immediate clan.” Distance makes the lack of empathy increase, and he points out that part of the lack of urgency we feel about climate change is because those who will be most adversely affected aren’t even alive yet. How do we feel compassion for those unborn beings when we lack compassion in the present for huge groups of strangers?
This reality was driven home in perhaps the cruelest manner this month when people I know were in the middle of the mass shooting in Highland Park, Illinois. It’s a place where I taught children for two decades, and those who were attending the parade, and some who were injured, were people I know. Good friends lost friends. The crowd of targets was well within the “limit” of 150 people to which Dunbar refers. Granted, names like Sandy Hook, Parkland, and Columbine evoke feelings of horror, but the feeling of this event was far more immediate and chilling to me because of that immediacy. And our climate change issues are equally doomed. As I write this review, one senator refuses to work with the others of his party to ensure that provisions trying to limit climate change are enacted. Crouch writes, “We don’t have an intelligence problem. We have a compassion problem. That, more than any other single factor, is what’s driving us toward extinction.”
His take on religion is equally thoughtful. He points out that we let sentiment instead of reason guide our behavior. “The genes that steered us toward sentiment and its downstream belief patterns are still present in our genome. They were advantageous at the dawn of mankind, when we had no understanding of the universe. They led us to invent myth and religion and tradition, and these systems unquestioningly put us on the path to stability and cooperation … But now they’re letting us ignore the facts all around us. Poverty, disease, starvation, and all the hatred those hardships breed, growing worse every decade—as we squeeze the last drops from our plant’s resources.” It would seem to be intentional that although this novel is written from a future perspective, when things are much bleaker, and climate change will have wrought much more damage to our planet than at the present time, we can see in those words what is happening at this very moment in the set of decisions, or lack of action, that is occurring.
So read “Upgrade” because it’s a fascinating, thrilling, action-filled novel with elegantly drawn characters and a brilliant plot. But also read it because it’s prescient and thoughtful and because it will make you think about the human condition and why and how we feel for each other. It’s a book that begs to be the center of thoughtful discussions.
This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.