Science, Sincerity, and the Super Humans

Author: Blake Crouch

Logan Ramsay’s mom was a brilliant scientist, but she caused worldwide starvation and the deaths of 10s of thousands. Logan remembers helping her with her research – the genetic modifications that should have created a planet of plenty, but instead went awry. He remembers helping to release the insects that caused it. And now, as an adult, he lives under this cloud.

Logan has spent his entire life avoiding science, trying to make up for what his mother did. He isn’t the smart one anyway, the one with the genius intellect. And so, he works at an agency that is trying to make the world better, to stop the now outlawed geneticists. But when Logan walks right into a trap, he discovers that he has been duped. He is now the new carrier of a mutating genome. Like it or not, the future of the world is now in his hands.

I feel in love with Blake Crouch when I read Dark Matter and Recursion. I liked the tight pacing and the Michael Crichton-esque techno thriller vibes – science gone bad as it were. In Upgrade the narrative starts strong, following Crouch’s usual motif: what happens if science changes the world as we know it? Of course, just as the dinosaurs run amok in Crichton’s most famous work, genetic engineering here has the potential to become quite the boogey man. It’s a fascinating and timely examination of a science that is starting to make a bigger and bigger footprint in our daily lives – but is it believable, even for fiction?

The story stays realistic(ish) up until a point. Once Logan gets zapped with the targeted genetic material, he starts to become smatter, stronger, just generally better. Of course, this is terrifying to those around him, because there is no telling where the changes will end and if they will spread to others. Up until this point, watching the change is delightfully spine tingling and unsettling, and Logan’s evolution is suitably strange. But then a new force joins the mix, and it’s downhill from there.

Broken out by another human with even more evolved genetics, Logan begins an unlikely cat and mouse game. His soon-to-be nemesis wants to infect the world. He does not. Of course, there are lots of ethics involved and there are complications to the spreading of genetic mutations – such as the percentage of people they kill instead of evolving. In the traditional way of all villains, however, waiting is just too pedestrian, and the baddie is ready to make this super bug go global.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Now – the idea of spreading a genetic mutation in the first place like it is done in the book is too fantastical. I refuse to believe that picking up something that can and will recode your entire DNA in the matter of a few days can be dispersed as easily as the common cold. Crouch tries to make it sound real and science-y and smart, but I call bull.

Likewise, as Logan squares off against the big villain of the piece, he takes all these walks down memory lane while becoming ever more un-human because of his “super smarts.” He talks about not really feeling anything for those around him anymore because the daily interactions even with his beloved family aren’t smart enough for him (I’m being flip, but you get it.) Yet, he is still spurred by his remaining humanity to stop the infection of the world. This leads to an unlikely subplot where the characters continually and randomly inject themselves with more scientific goop (usually made on substandard equipment in mere hours, to keep that tight thriller timeline taut). At this point, I completely stopped believing in everything. Not likely at all. Too fantastical and too engineered.

After all this, there is a shoot-em-up Rambo like sequence which ends the book. This is followed by more revelations, a touching moment of humanity among these super evolved people who are beyond feelings now, and a dire warning as Logan looks at climate change and other extinction events that are on the horizon, hoping we will be better but ultimately knowing that without this supped up genome, we are doomed to be stupid and short sighted.

It’s all a bit much and yes, I struggled with the rating on this one. I’m going to say around a 2.5 and round up to 3, just because there were some entertaining aspects and Upgrade wasn’t bad, per say, just deeply flawed.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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