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» Click here to read Ray Palen's review.


Review #1 by Pamela Kramer

Blake Crouch's latest novel, UPGRADE, doesn't start with a bang but rather a slow, uphill journey that draws us in gradually. But don't relax; before the second chapter begins, the action ratchets up. By the end of that chapter, you will want to keep reading to find out what happens next --- and quickly. That level of excitement and wonder continues to the very last page. Crouch is a master at creating stories about fantastic events and the people who are affected by them. There are few real bad guys in this story; instead, there are characters who, because of their arrogance, believe they can save the world.

Logan Ramsay’s mother was a genius; he was not. Miriam worked in DNA editing, and by trying to stop a virus from ruining rice crops in China, she ended up causing a famine that killed billions of people. The name Ramsay became infamous, and the world banned all scientific DNA experimentation because of her work. That, in turn, caused a huge underground business devoted partly to conceiving and constructing otherworldly creatures by creating and altering the DNA of animals. Logan is a cop in the newly formed government agency that tries to catch those breaking the new DNA-restrictive laws.

"[R]ead UPGRADE because it's a fascinating, thrilling and action-filled novel with elegantly drawn characters and a brilliant plot. But also read it because it will make you think about the human condition and why and how we feel for each other."

While Logan's work is not fulfilling, his home life is. He adores his wife and daughter, cherishing the time he gets to spend with them. When a dangerous mission goes wrong, Logan is exposed to DNA change himself, and he finds that he can't go home.

Crouch’s narrative forces us to face what our inaction regarding climate change might wreak on our planet. While some characters in the novel believe that the action needed can only be accomplished by those with superior intellect, Logan comes to realize that brains alone will not solve the problems facing Earth and humankind. Crouch shares the findings of 20th-century anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar. His theory is that, because of how we evolved, we can only maintain relationships with 150 people. Once we hear about tragedies involving larger or even massive numbers of people --- say millions or billions --- our ability to feel compassion fades.

Dunbar writes, "[It's] not because we're evil. Our emotional hardwiring can't cope with it. We're living in a global community of ten billion, with brains that can only feel compassion for our immediate clan." Distance makes the lack of empathy increase, and he points out that part of the lack of urgency we feel about climate change is because those who will be most adversely affected aren't even alive yet. How do we feel compassion for those unborn beings when we lack compassion in the present for huge groups of strangers?

This reality was driven home in perhaps the cruelest manner this month when people I know were in the middle of the mass shooting in Highland Park, Illinois, where I taught children for two decades. The crowd of targets was well within the "limit" of 150 people to which Dunbar refers. Granted, places like Sandy Hook, Parkland and Columbine evoke feelings of horror, but this incident was far more chilling to me because of that immediacy. And our climate change issues are equally doomed. As I write this review, one senator refuses to work with other members of his party to ensure that provisions trying to limit climate change are enacted. Crouch writes, "We don't have an intelligence problem. We have a compassion problem. That, more than any other single factor, is what's driving us toward extinction."

Crouch’s take on religion is equally thoughtful. He points out that we let sentiment instead of reason guide our behavior: "The genes that steered us toward sentiment and its downstream belief patterns are still present in our genome. They were advantageous at the dawn of humankind, when we had no understanding of the universe. They led us to invent myth and religion and tradition, and these systems unquestioningly put us on the path to stability and cooperation. But now they're letting us ignore the facts all around us. Poverty, disease, starvation, and all the hatred those hardships breed, growing worse every decade --- as we squeeze the last drops from our plant's resources."

It would seem to be intentional that, although this book is written from a future perspective --- when the situation is much bleaker and climate change will have wrought much more damage to our planet than at the present time --- we can see in those words what is happening at this very moment in the set of decisions, or lack of action, that is occurring.

So read UPGRADE because it's a fascinating, thrilling and action-filled novel with elegantly drawn characters and a brilliant plot. But also read it because it will make you think about the human condition and why and how we feel for each other. It's a prescient book that begs to be the center of thoughtful discussions.


Review #2 by Ray Palen

If you took Michael Crichton, Carl Sagan and Neil Gaiman, and threw them into a blender, the resulting mixture would resemble the work of sci-fi/thriller author Blake Crouch. His latest release, UPGRADE, is no exception.

Someone has it in for Logan Ramsay. Regardless of the great work he has done as an agent for the Gene Protection Agency (GPA), no one can forget that he is the son of Miriam Ramsay. Miriam was the world’s preeminent cell biologist, famous for creating The Story of You, an ancestry and genetic testing company. When a bacterial leaf blight impacted the production of rice in Shenzhen, China, she developed a virus that was genetically inserted into locusts to infect the rice paddies and destroy the threat. Regrettably, the experiment went bad --- an epic fail that caused damage on a global scale. It led to a food shortage that killed 200 million people, and it wasn’t long before Miriam drove her car off a cliff.

"UPGRADE is a novel that will provide much discussion and leave you with challenging ethical dilemmas that will not go away easily, as all good literature should do."

As a result of this unthinkable tragedy, gene editing is now a crime. Billboards still depict messages that read ONE MISTAKE CAUSED THE GREAT STARVATION #GPA #NEVERFORGET. At the start of the book, we learn that Henrik Soren has been accused of genetic crimes. While he is being detained, Logan and his partner Nadine Nettmann, along with other members of the GPA, head out on a raid to an address that Soren gave them. It ends up being a trap, and Logan is impacted by an element that affects him initially in an unknown way. The explosion causes not only physical damage but something far greater. Whatever pathogen was involved has altered his genetic code. It has upgraded him and is in the process of changing him, making him better.

While under observation, Logan receives an anonymous text: They know you’re changing. You need to leave the building NOW. Before he can do anything, Edwin Rogers introduces himself to Logan as the new agent who is taking over his case. He informs Logan that his mother is still alive. Logan asks to be let out so he can assist Rogers in locating Miriam, but that won’t be possible. Everyone, including his own family, has been told that he was killed in the raid.

With the aid of a masked stranger, Logan is able to escape his imprisonment. Once he is free, his accomplice reveals herself to be his sister, Kara, who he has not seen in three years. Kara shares that she had been stung by a bee, which ended up being a drone that carried the same pathogen to which Logan has been exposed. Therefore, she also has been upgraded. The siblings are now on a mission to find their mother before anyone else does and determine why they were chosen for this upgrade. They follow clues using their enhanced powers and find Miriam’s vehicle hidden deep in the woods.

Through recordings that they uncover, Logan and Kara learn that their mother was behind this planned upgrade, which was going to be used selectively among a minute percentage of the population while the rest of the world perished. Genes were blamed for steering mankind towards sentiment. This led us to create myth, religion and tradition, which put us on the path to stability and cooperation. As a result, we ignored the unfortunate facts around us: poverty, disease, starvation and hatred, all of which is growing worse with each generation. If nothing changes, we will die off because we refused, for so many childish reasons, to do the obvious things that would save us. Thus the answer would have to come from science and genetic tampering and redesign to give the best of the species a chance to start over.

The narrative then jumps ahead one year. Logan and Kara are now on different sides of this genetic battle. Each side has good reason for supporting what they are doing. But Logan already has lived through one global failure because of his mother, and he will stop at nothing to keep this upgrade idea from taking hold. What he refers to as the Gene War is in full force, and the novel wraps up with a flurry of action and suspense that will keep readers riveted. All the while, there will exist the continued moral question of what we should be doing as a species and what should be left to take its natural course.

UPGRADE is a novel that will provide much discussion and leave you with challenging ethical dilemmas that will not go away easily, as all good literature should do.

Reviewed by Pamela Kramer and Ray Palen on July 20, 2022

by Blake Crouch