I received an advance copy of this novel from the publisher, Ballantine Books, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
When I received an email announcing not only the galley release of Upgrade, but my randomly pre-approved status for it, I was ecstatic. I legitimately squealed. Dark Matter and Recursion were both instant favorites for me, so I couldn’t wait to read whatever Crouch had written next. Then I read the synopsis, which immediately brought to mind the movie and subsequent tv series, Limitless. I loved both iterations of the story, so my excitement swelled even larger. But Upgrade took that basic premise and encompassed not only the radical expansion of the mind, but of the workings of the body, as well. Even more amazing!
“The greatest threat to our species lies within us.”
However, whether due to my irrationally high expectations and excitement or the fact that I might not have been quite intelligent enough for this book, Upgrade left me feeling vaguely disappointed. While still a good story, it didn’t pack the same punch for me as its two predecessors. Subjectively, at least. Remember that this is strictly my opinion from my own experience with the book. No doubt this will be on several Best of 2022 lists. It just won’t be on mine.
“Maybe compassion and empathy are just squishy emotions. Illusions created by our mirror neurons. But does it really matter where they come from? They make us human. They might even be what make us worth saving.”
What exactly makes us human? If there was a way to upgrade your genome, to speed up evolution and become something better, faster, smarter, stronger, would you take it? How can we as humans stop our own decline and subsequent extinction? Does the life of the minority supersede the wellbeing of the majority? What risks are we willing to take, individually and collectively, to turn our downward trajectory around? These are some of the questions raised in Upgrade, and I loved the food for thought. There were some profound things said in this book. But they felt very self-aware in their profundity. Did I still highlight them and spend time thinking about them? Absolutely. Our perspective character’s struggles with these questions were the core of the novel.
“We were a monstrous, thoughtful, selfish, sensitive, fearful, ambitious, loving, hateful, hopeful species. We contained within us the potential for great evil, but also for great good. And we were capable of so much more than this.”
Logan Ramsey is trying to live down a horrific legacy. His mother was responsible for a genetically engineered worldwide famine. Though that wasn’t her intent, and the virus was originally designed to end a blight on rice crops, it mutated and spread to various other food crops across the planet, resulting in death by starvation for over two hundred million people. Imagine that legacy, especially when you worked for your mother’s lab. Logan’s struggles with guilt and grief and rage felt very believable, as did his fierce love for his wife and daughter. I loved those relationships and thought that Beth and Ava were lovely side characters. And I loved Logan during the first half or so of the book. But it felt like, the further into the plot Crouch got, the less substantial Logan became. The same could be said for all of the supporting cast. There were moments when the strength of the character development would reappear, but it always ended up fading back into the background. That being said, that early character development kept me invested in the plot, which is what matters most with a propulsive thriller of a novel like this one. Also, the scenario was hyper-realistic and felt plausible enough to maintain a ton of tension as I read.
“I had extraordinary dreams and an ordinary mind.”
“No one teaches you how to handle the death of a dream.”
Something I’ve always appreciated about Blake Crouch and Andy Weir is that, though very science-heavy, their books still feel accessible to those who aren’t as scientifically minded. Upgrade, however, felt almost too extreme for me. I found the science exhausting to try to keep up with, which left me feeling as if I wasn’t intelligent enough to be reading it. Which isn’t something you want in your fiction-reading experience. I blew through Dark Matter and Recursion very quickly, but I found myself frequently feeling overwhelmed by Upgrade and putting it down for a time in favor of other books. I also felt, for the first time with Crouch’s work, that I was being preached at through the inner thoughts of and dialogues between the characters. While I agreed with a lot of the more philosophical and ecological observations, something about the way in which these thoughts were presented made me feel somehow belittled or condescended on occasion. I am positive that this wasn’t the authorial intent, but that was the result.
“…what do we have to lose?”
“Everything it means to be human.”
Upgrade is a good story with a fantastic premise. It was pretty well paced and housed characters who shone brightly upon occasion. Objectively, it was a solid book, though I still don’t think it was quite on par with Dark Matter and Recursion. Subjectively, I felt it was trying too hard to deliver social commentary, and that the central story suffered a bit because of it. I’m extremely interested to see what the readerly consensus and outlying opinions of Upgrade are going to be, and if those opinions have any retroactive bearing on my own.
All quotations were taken from an uncorrected galley and are subject to change upon publication.
Expected publication date: July 12th, 2022
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