Time travel is one of the best travelled staples of science-fiction, from books to television shows to movies, it is the ultimate form of exploration. The concept of time travel is almost as old as the history of writing, with the first known written example dating to around 400 BCE. In the Sanskrit epic, Mahabharata, King Raivata Kakudmi journeys to heaven to meet Brahma, the Hindu creator god. When he returns to the moral world, centuries have passed. Time travel in fiction, from this ancient epic to Stargate and Doctor Who, usually involves physically transporting one-self through time, bringing your body and memories with you. Threats include meeting your past self, or encountering the grandfather paradox, or making changes to the past which may affect the future. Very rarely do we get a novel in a similar vein to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, where time travel is a person journey into your own memories.
I have written about Blake Crouch and his Wayward Pines trilogy on this blog before. This is an author who knows thrillers and crafting a suspenseful story. Even that trilogy of novels entertained time travel, in a way. The protagonist is cryogenically frozen in the modern day and awakens years in the future. While a one-way trip, this set the stage for Crouch’s interest in time travel fiction. The rules of transportation function a little different in his latest novel, Recursion. Similar to Vonnegut’s classic book, time travel can only happen in your own personal timeline in Recursion, and is done so by returning one’s consciousness to a specific memory. From there, they can essentially redo their life from that moment, retaining all memories of their previous life. There is no chance of meeting a previous version of yourself, or mistakenly stepping on a butterfly in the Cretaceous. You can only travel as far back as your brain has been able to record long-term memories. This imposes useful limits on the story and ensures that the plot always remains personally relevant to the main characters.
Recursion follows neuroscientist Helena Smith and New York police detective Barry Sutton, alternating between their third-person points-of-view. Both characters are grieving when we meet them, and this shared sense of grief pushes them forward in the first part of the book. The story opens with Barry Sutton as he is first on-scene to a suicide attempt. A woman suffering from something called False Memory Syndrome is standing on a rooftop ledge, waiting to jump. She claims to have a complete set of memories of another life, with a different name, even a husband and child. The stress of holding these sets of memories proves too much for her, and Barry cannot prevent her death. Barry cannot stop himself from thinking about her, and decides to investigate this alternate life. Meanwhile, several years prior, Helena is working on a machine to stimulate memories in Alzheimer’s sufferers, trying to find a way to help her mother remember her daughter. She is discovered by the wealthy industrialist, Marcus Slade, and invited to work on his private decommissioned oil platform, along with other brilliant scientists. She discovers that her technology is the prototype of unintentional time-travel. By stimulating a person’s memories to a specific moment, and then killing them, that person is sent back in time to that exact memory.
In Recursion, False Memory Syndrome is much more than remembering a fake life you have not lived. It is the collision of two alternate timelines. Crouch uses the novel to investigate what might happen when the world finally catches up to the moment a person used Helena’s technology to travel back in time. Originally thought by the world to be a mysterious mental illness, people either learned to live with the affliction, were admitted to asylums, or committed suicide. The life remembered can be major, such as years of living completely different. Or it can be an extremely minor effect, taking up just the previous day. At one point early in the novel, Barry experiences a moment of False Memory Syndrome during his personal investigation, where he “remembers” spending the day lounging in his apartment after not responding to a suicide attempt. Eventually, this illness is revealed to be the result of time catching up. At the moment time catches up to the moment when an individual traveled back in time, everyone whose life has been changed from the original timeline “remembers” their life. Beginning as a localized, small-scale event, the constant time travelling eventually sets in motion a catastrophic series of events as larger and larger changes are made to timelines.
Recursion features a uniquely escalating plot, with events building upon each other and introducing larger and larger consequences. The initial antagonist of the novel is also revealed to not be the final antagonist. The central conflict of the novel is not about defeating any one person, but about preventing the misuse of this new technology, and exploring what happens when people severely misuse a world-altering discovery. Helena quickly learns that Marcus Slade is both unscrupulous and unethical, and intends to use the time-travel technology for his own needs. She is able to escape his lab and teams up with Barry after an incident of world-wide False Memory Syndrome. The potential for misuse becomes all too clear at this time. People around the world suddenly remember a timeline where a skyscraper in New York did not exist, but it exists in this time. After their conflict with Slade, DARPA obtains the technology, and soon the rest of the world does. As governments and other actors continually alter time, tensions escalate to the point of seemingly no return. As with all time travel stories, misuse invites annihilation.
Recursion is not just a story about time travel and its disastrous effects. It is also the story of a love between Helena and Barry, a love which crosses between uncountable timelines and lifetimes. These two characters may have met by pure happenstance, but their partnership almost seems fated as the novel progresses and we see more of their time together. Once together, there are no secrets between them and they are bound by the singular goal of saving humanity and time from destruction. Even, after decades spent together, a break is needed, they never take too much time away from each other. This is a couple whose loves spans potentially hundreds of years, and whose trust in each other is absolute. Even when one travels to a time when they have not met, the other always feels the connection, knowing that they are meant for each other. It almost feels like fate, as if time itself knows that these two people will be able to save the world if together.
Overall, Recursion is a great science-fiction thriller with a cool and different take on time travel and its consequences. The escalation of the plot is both ridiculous enough to be entertaining fiction, and logical enough within the confines of the story that it all makes sense for the story. Reading the book, one gets the sense that events could not have played out any other way. If you a lover of science-fiction, and even if you are not, this is a good novel for you.
Recursion can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold
Total Read Time: 6 days
Next on the List: The Dragon Republic, by R.F. Kuang