Blake Crouch
Genre: Science Fiction
Author: Blake Crouch
Publication Year: 2019
Length: 324 pages

Here we go again with the time travel. Travel time the with again go we here. Yes, I act as if I didn’t know it was coming. Just as I have every time there’s another TV show, movie or book with time travel at its heart. But I did. I knew Blake Crouch’s Recursion involved bending the universe. The infinity symbol is right there on the cover. Crouch’s other things I’ve been involved with, Dark Matter and Wayward Pines, certainly play with time, but are not explicitly time travel tales. But, let me tell you, Recursion is, without a doubt, a time travel novel. One that, at times, takes time travel in new and somewhat unique directions.

So, look, these things have rules. Time travel has rules. It has to. As I’ve discussed before, there are many different theories of how it would work. There’s bootstrap. And… bootstrap. I don’t know the different names. But essentially there’s the whole thing where you can’t really change the past and that everything that happens will happen again no matter how much you try to fuck with it. And then there’s like the butterfly effect thing where even little changes you make in the past could have catastrophic effects on future versions of the world. And then there’s branching timelines and multi-verses and god knows how many other things. But, in general, there is — or should be — a strict set of rules that adhere to some “science-y” theory that guides your narrative. Recursion tries something different here. Which I admire. But am also severely confused by.

Recursion takes the view that reality is built from memories. Time is merely a collection of those memories over time. At least that’s what I took from it. Simple concept, I guess. So, for instance, someone whose memories have disappeared (like someone with Alzheimers) has slipped out of our reality stream and has essentially been lost to time. Though I’m not certain, if memories are reality, what happens to schizophrenic people, for instance. If their reality is skewed and their memories corrupted, does that mean they’ve created their own time and reality? And that — as this novel kind of indicates — creates a different reality for everyone? I don’t know. Related to this, we have time travel in this novel thanks to a young researcher named Helena. Her mother is suffering from early-onset Alzheimers, and she is working on a machine to help her mother retain her memories. And, of course, if time is just a compilation of memories, and she has a machine that helps retain memory, then time travel? Yes, of course!

Like most rich, evil assholes, this dude, Marcus Slade, comes along when he hears about Helena’s memory machine, throws a ton of research money at her, whisks her off to the middle of the ocean to develop this machine and clearly plans to use it for nefarious means. Mostly to keep himself rich? That part is, and remains, completely murky. Anyhow, she unwittingly invents a time machine, which unleashes havoc on the world. Because — and try to stick with me here, because this shit is just barely logical — every time someone goes back in time, it resets everyone in the world’s memories who lived during that time between the point where the person left and where they arrive in time. Except, of course, the person who goes back in time. Who retains all memories of all their own timelines. So the world’s population is just living their lives innocently while assholes are screwing with time and memories. But… their “dead” memories are retained. Everyone’s dead memories are retained. So, let’s say someone on Jan 3, 2021 goes back in time to September 10, 2001 and somehow stops the terrorists from committing 9/11. Everyone on the planet would be clueless. Until… Jan 3, 2021, when everyone who lived through 9/11 (including those in the buildings and on the planes) suddenly have their memories of 9/11 comes back to them. Mass False Memory Syndrome (FMS)! Because, of course, in their reality 9/11 never happened, yet everyone who was alive and cognizant on 9/11/01 remembers it suddenly, all at the same moment. The people in the building jumping, the people on the planes going down, etc. Which causes mass hysteria. Same goes for small, traumatic things that happened to people in their past lives. Beatings, murders, etc. And when you can’t rust your own memory, it drives you insane.

Granted, 9/11 doesn’t really enter into this. But is an example we can all get. Now, why one person going back in time effects the world in this way is beyond me. And why the world’s memories of a universe in which these things never happened would come flooding back is also unexplained. Or is super-unclear. But I guess those are the weird rules Crouch has decided make sense. Even though he only kinda, sorta sticks to them. Ultimately, Helena realizes her machines is being used in a harmful way, teams up with a NYC detective, Barry Sutton, whom also has trauma in his past (trauma a time machine might be really useful to undo), to take down Marcus Slade and stop all these false memory incidents from tearing apart people’s psyches. What’s really unclear is why all of this is happening. Slade clearly used the time machine to go back in time to set himself on a path to become Elon Musk, but after that I’m unclear why they need to mess with things? Yes, the ethics there are bad, but Helena and Barry spend lifetimes trying to undo this. The dude didn’t go back to make himself Hitler. He’s not committing genocide, and hasn’t changed the world in any discernible way. It’s not like 2023 is now a dystopian nightmare. It’s just 2023 with another tech titan type. I dunno.

I did find the story entertaining. Crouch is good at action and keeping the ball rolling. But even he got tired of the rule set at some juncture. He spends quite a bit of time explaining how we get to the time travel thing, the rules about what points people can go back to, the difficulty of pinpointing the specific memory to which people can target this travel, etc. It involves mapping the brain, a bunch of tweaking and error and then stripping naked in a very specific deprivation tank, killing yourself and then some other tech mumbo jumbo. By the end of the book, people are just jumping in and out of the tank and traveling willy-nilly like they’re popping in to grab some pretzels from the pantry. And then the final solution at the end of the book to solve the absolute mess our protagonists have made of the world is one of those “Uh, why didn’t we just try this first?” kind of moments. Like you keep experiencing the same stove fire over and over again that destroys your house as you try water, baking powder, blowing on it and waving a towel while a fire extinguisher hangs on the wall. And finally some fireman asks, “Hey, why didn’t you just use the fire extinguisher on the wall?” And you look at him and say, “Well, I knew it was there, but I think I remember my mom saying it may be old and might not be effective because it’s been there for a while?” I mean, after failing to put out the fire 200 times, why the hell wouldn’t you just try the stupid fire extinguisher? This is how this book resolves everything. Helena and Barry are finally like, “Hey, why don’t we try to the extinguisher this time?” And, voila, their mom was wrong and the extinguisher worked just fine. Not literally, of course, but it was that. Which is dumb.

If you like sci-fi, this is a fun read. It’s a little muddled and loses focus at times, but the characters are recognizable and reasonable memorable. I know I sound pretty down on it, but the fact I even cared enough to write this many sentences about this novel tells you I cared and wanted it to be a better novel. Because, you know, I’ve written so many novels myself. But, yeah, I’ve experienced a lot of time travel stuff of late — and have always been a fan of the genre — and this one takes a different tack than most. And for that alone, I appreciate the attempt at original thought. Let’s keep it going, shall we?