Review: Recursion by Blake Crouch

On occasion, you pick up a book that doesn’t quite rock your world, but is good enough that you’re willing to give the author another shot. Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter was one such novel, and I’m aware enough of context to realize that it probably was suffering due to the fact that I’d recently read Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland’s The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. D.O.DO. and Dark Matter shared enough similarities that I couldn’t help but compare the two, and even though D.O.D.O. isn’t Stephenson’s best novel, it had enough of his characteristic charm to carry it. Dark Matter‘s far more serious and grim tone and slightly unsatisfying resolution led it suffer when the two were compared. But I didn’t hate anything I read in Dark Matter, and that put the author on my “mild interest” radar. (Library= yes, purchase=no.)

Recursion shares a lot of similarities with Dark Matter; it’s definitely something you pick up and go, “Yup. Totally the same author here.” But instead of one or two people hopping realities, what we have here is a populace plagued with an increasingly common problem called False Memory Syndrome: a person wakes up one morning with the sudden memory of another existence along side their current life. Sometimes it’s a few days worth of memory, sometimes years or more; the novel opens with a woman suffering from FMS who woke up one morning with the memory a child who didn’t exist by a husband she’d never met. Her grief over the loss of her child is so desperate that it drives her to suicide, drawing one of our two protagonists (Barry, an NYPD detective) into the mystery of False Memory Syndrome. Our other protagonist, Helena, is a scientist researching memories in order to help her mother, suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Some mild spoilers from here on out. (Reveals from first third of the book or so.)

Recursion‘s conceit is that time is less a fixed thing and more a mechanism that our brains have evolved in order to process reality, and that by stimulating memory in precisely the right way the person actually enters the time period of their memory. This, of course, is an unintended consequence of the machine that Helena developed, and she’s driven to it by the books antagonist, her boss and sponsor, Marcus Slade. Marcus has coopted Helena’s device for his own purpose, and it is the use of that machine that is creating the false memories that people experience– they are not so much false as they are “dead,” timelines that never happened. Depending on the severity of these changes, the “false memories” can afflict anywhere from a few people to the entire world, and as things begin to spiral out of control, the severity of changes also begins to grow, leading to absolute chaos.


Recursion calls to mind the anime series Steins;Gate, where every change the protagonists make causes things to become increasingly awful. Now, one of my criticism of Steins;Gate is that they take the easy way out, and after spending half the series showing that altering time is a thing to be dreaded, they neatly begin undoing all their changes. I would have greatly preferred that the changes continued to snowball and the protagonists have to find a more creative solution out; neatly undoing everything undermines the horror of the first half of the show. Recursion doesn’t take that route, but the ending is a another sort of unsatisfying cheat. After the dread and chaos we’d spent the whole book associating with the onset of dead memories, the eventual solution is so pat that it’s immensely unsatisfying. Now, Crouch has a way with characters and part of what made the book good to begin with is the fact that I genuinely wanted happiness for both Barry and Helena. I want them to work for it, though, and I want a messy solution that required some effort, not a gimmick.

In the end, Recursion has kept Blake Crouch where Dark Matter put him. He’s on the mild interest category; worth picking up from the library, but I wouldn’t buy it short of a pretty decent sale.

Tense, compelling, but sabotaged by the ending. 3 stars.
About Joshua Young 45 Articles
Joshua M. Young lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife, son, and two more feral cats than the optimal number of feral cats. (That is, zero.) He holds a Master of Divinity from Ashland Theological Seminary, and yes, he's quite aware that writing this kind of stuff isn't exactly what you'd expect from a trained theologian. A life long lover of science fiction and fantasy, one of his earliest memories involves some confusion with a Klingon Bird of Prey and an X-Wing in the middle of a theater showing The Search for Spock, and, once upon a time, he could select the desired Robotech novel from his bookshelf, in the dark, by the feel of its spine. (Don't ask why that was a necessary skill. He couldn't tell you.) He has been published in numerous anthologies, including Planetary: Mercury, Planetary: Venus, and Tales of the Once and Future King.

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