What would it look like if humans could reach their full potential as a species? The action-packed 2011 film Limitless asked the question, and Bradley Cooper showed us a man using almost 100% of his brain to full effect. Now, sci-fi author Blake Crouch offers a tweaked version of that concept with Upgrade.
After Logan Ramsay is injured on a raid-gone-wrong, he’s sure the rogue geneticist that triggered the bomb altered him somehow. He’s processing things faster, beating his daughter in chess (previously a rare occurrence), and reading books at a breakneck pace. He begins to suspect his late mother, whose genetic experiments led to a famine that killed more than 200 million people, might have been involved in the creation of this genetic upgrade. But gene editing is outlawed following the famine, and shady organizations want to keep Logan in custody to study his transformation. They succeed for a month until a mysterious figure breaks him out and kickstarts a genetic treasure hunt with world-shaking consequences.
Upgrade feels coated in Blake Crouch’s signature style. I mention it first because his prose could be make-or-break for many readers. For me, it’s a win. Crouch’s writing has a velocity you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. His sentences move by in flashes, fragments bridging the gaps between ideas. Reading his work feels like you’re wearing rollerblades, have a rope tied around your chest, and the other end is attached to a truck peeling out. With Crouch at the wheel, you never know when you’ll be whipped around a turn or launched into completely foreign terrain. Still, you feel comfortable in his steady hands. His eyes are on the road; you may not see where it leads, but you’re happy to let the wind whisk by your face as the plot speeds by.
None of this is to say that it’s easy to forget or miss things. Instead, Crouch plows through his stories with a speed that makes Upgrade feel like an action movie. Every page offered new entertainment, and when it was over, I felt a surge of adrenaline followed by a come-down laced with relief.
My favorite element of Upgrade was Crouch’s descriptions of Logan’s upgraded abilities. As Logan comes to terms with how he’s changing, Crouch describes his train of thought and strings of actions in a way that feels utterly real. I mentioned Limitless in the intro because the stories are cut from the same cloth. While I enjoy both, Upgrade takes the cake with specific regard to its portrayal of heightened human cognition. Logan’s thoughts are laid bare, and the reader can easily grasp his understanding of the changes occurring in his mind and body.
The characters are one of only two minor complaints I have about Upgrade. Crouch is known for scientific thrillers, and he delivers that here. The characters are exactly as fleshed-out as they need to be. You might get one or two defining details about a supporting cast member while you get three or four about a more important player. And that’s completely fine! If you want a character-driven romp, Upgrade won’t be your cup of tea. But it has plot for days, and it’s riveting from page one straight to the end.
The second minor quibble is the scientific descriptions. Genetics is a complex field even among the vast kingdom of science. Crouch has done his research. He reins it in pretty well, but there were sections I had to gloss over due to their hefty scientific content. I appreciate when an author does the legwork and implants real scientific concepts into their work as Crouch has here. For the most part, it clicked in Upgrade, but about 205 of the scientific explanations were lost on me.
Before I conclude the review, I want to give a shout-out to the setting. Upgrade takes place in a near-future ravaged by the famine Logan’s mother wrought on the world. Climate change, disease, starvation, and any number of other issues have only contributed to the ongoing downfall of humanity. Towns scrape by on minimal resources while images of the old world crumble to dust. All the while, self-driving cars and drones deliver people and goods to their destinations. Meat is a commodity reserved for those with money. The normal folk have to make do with cheap synthetic meat. Crouch crafts a world that’s easy to imagine in our very near future. Juxtapose this with the fact that genetic research is now illegal, and it paints a dark picture. The one field of science that stands to solve many of humanity’s problems has been barred because of a freak accident and a tragic loss of millions of lives. Blake Crouch uses his setting as a way to ask important questions about morality and ponder solutions to problems that could very well bring humans to extinction.
For the reasons above and many others that I won’t dare spoil here, I loved Upgrade. Blake Crouch has cemented himself in a permanent slot on my annual TBR. his stories move quickly, engage with big ideas, and never overstay their welcome. Upgrade fits the bill just as Dark Matter did before it, and I’m excited to dive into his other work.