Blake Crouch on New Book ‘Upgrade’ and Future of Sci-Fi
YouBlake Crouch, published n 2019 RecursionA sci-fi thriller, “The Enemy of Memory”, about a disease which imposes memories onto people who live lives not their own. He introduced the reader to a 2016 sci-fi novel about a professor of physics who is abducted and sent into other universes. Dark Matter. The books present the kind of technology that would be able to transform humankind in an imagined future. Crouch was aware that the real CRISPR genetic modification technology would present a new challenge when he set out to create a book about it. “Unlike quantum mechanics—as I don’t think anyone believes we’re on the precipice of opening the multiverse and going into other worlds—with gene editing, we’re right there,” the author says. “We’re a few breakthroughs away from being able to truly rewrite what it means to be human.”
Crouch puts that idea in the center of his latest book UpgradingThe publication will be available July 12., It is an illustration of the terrible consequences that a gene editing plan gone wrong can have on a person’s life. This is the In UpgradingLogan Ramsey is an adult son to a scientist with CRISPR-like technology that caused the deaths of millions. When Logan’s own genome is hacked, he becomes an “upgraded” version of himself: he can focus better, read faster, and operate on a lot less sleep. But his upgrade comes at a cost—and he’s determined to find out who is behind what’s happening to him.
As Crouch explores Logan’s changing psyche, he asks big questions about the future of gene editing and what it could mean for society. The author spoke to TIME about why he’s “terrified” of the book he’s about to release, why he no longer thinks of himself as an author of science fiction, and how he finds hope when the future looks increasingly bleak.
TIME: It was a lot of work to research gene editing. Upgrading. What was the most memorable thing you have learned?
Blake CrouchOne thing that I took away was how scared scientists are about this research. I didn’t realize how unnerved everyone was about both the optimistic potential of this technology—but also the pitfalls that await us.
Which amount of freedom have you allowed science to dictate your decisions?
The truth is, I didn’t take as many as I was expecting. It will be sold as science fiction or a futuristic thriller. But I really don’t think it is. We’re already living in the future—I don’t think science fiction exists anymore. We have all the information we need to fulfill any of these threats or promises. Jennifer Doudna (one of the co-creators) of CRISPR talks about her nightmare at Hitler finding it. It was a thought that stuck with me. The one who discovered gene-modification therapy keeps him awake at night in fear.
Learn More: How Jennifer Doudna’s Life Has Changed Since Discovering CRISPR 10 Years Ago
Wait. When did you start to believe that science fiction doesn’t exist anymore?
This book. This book is available from [my 2012-2014 trilogy] Wayward pines, I’ve considered myself someone who writes science fiction. It was about the possibilities for the future. Today, phones are our best friend. They can call for groceries, car rentals and even future spouses. We’re living in the future. I’m not a writer who wants to say that science and technology are bad. No, it’s amazing! It’s why civilization is still possible thanks to technology. But man, this is the most powerful tool we’ve ever invented. We’ve got to be careful with it.
What is sci-fi? Upgrading?
The book is set slightly in the future, because I wanted to accelerate where some of the climate change and more in-the-weeds technology was heading, but it’s a mirror of where we might be five minutes from now. My three children make up my family. I am uncertain. That is what everyone seems to think. Is it possible that we will still be living as a species 100, 75 or even 75 years from now? It’s a weird thing for a species with full sentience to contemplate its demise. The last dodo bird didn’t know it was the last dodo bird.
Learn More: 27 Must-Read Books for Summer
After he’s upgraded, Logan realizes that he can essentially turn his emotions off. He says: “I could put my feelings inside this cage, I could close the door.” Have you ever wished for that kind of ability?
My heart is always on display. It’s how I tap into character. One of the things that made me want to be a sci-fi writer, before we eschewed the idea that I’m a sci-fi writer, is that I love the imagination of it all. It was the characters that I loved. I felt that a writer had a great idea, but then forgot that characters are what everyone cares about. All we want is to see how other people live their daily lives. This is science fiction, with high concepts.
Are you a fan of the TV show? Severance?
That show is amazing. It’s the first thing I’ve seen in a decade that I am madly jealous that I didn’t come up with that idea. It’s amazing.
It also raises this question of whether it’s possible to literally turn off a part of yourself to get something done. That idea really resonated with a lot of fans of the show—why do you think that is?
We only see the negative news all the time. The good news is: Severance ultimately tapped into and, maybe what I was going for but didn’t realize, is that this is a very hard time to be alive. Every day we’re confronted with headlines, and I don’t know how a sane, compassionate, empathetic person couldn’t wish, to some degree, to be able to forget all that and just do your work. This is what I wrote Upgrading during the time of COVID and it was hardest book I’ve ever written, not just because of the subject matter, but because no one knew how bad this pandemic was going to be. What were we actually looking at? Contagion? Did everything go back to normal?
Learn MoreThe Severance Is the Rare ‘Galaxy-Brain’ Show Smart Enough to Blow Your Mind
The book contains a type of pandemic. Is it intentional to nod in agreement with COVID?
In September 2019 I began. It was an entirely different approach than my first. I had almost imagined that it would be a. Jurassic ParkMore information about gene editing and how it could impact new forms of life. Then COVID hit, and I had this realization: think about what we’re going through right now. Why would I not be writing about this technology vis à vis humanity? I wrote almost a novel. But I decided to throw it away, and start over.
What gives hope when the world is so scary?
There’s a moment in the book where Logan says something like, you can’t sacrifice humanity to save humanity, because if you do, you’re giving up the whole game. It was like trusting in the wrong person. It’s not necessarily my first instinct, but that’s all we have at this point: trust and compassion. Trust that we’ve gotten this far. We’re a co-operative species in the end. We have to trust that we’re going to get through this very dark time together.
The following interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Here are more must-read stories from TIME