Science fiction has a long history of predicting the future, especially where technology is concerned. But in the following email interview with writer Blake Crouch about his new “sci-fi” thriller Upgrade (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), he discusses how the gene editing at the heart of it is not something we’ll have to deal with later, it’s happening right now, and it could influence more than just this book.
Photo Credit: Jesse Giddings
To start, what is Upgrade about?
We busted our asses writing the jacket copy (or rather, my editor did), so I’m just going to share that with you. Any other attempt to describe this novel would be far less interesting:
At first, Logan Ramsay isn’t sure if anything’s different. He just feels a little…sharper. Better able to concentrate. Better at multitasking. Reading a bit faster, memorizing better, needing less sleep.
But before long, he can’t deny it: Something’s happening to his brain. To his body. He’s starting to see the world, and those around him — even those he loves most — in whole new ways.
The truth is, Logan’s genome has been hacked. And there’s a reason he’s been targeted for this upgrade. A reason that goes back decades to the darkest part of his past, and a horrific family legacy.
Worse still, what’s happening to him is just the first step in a much larger plan, one that will inflict the same changes on humanity at large — at a terrifying cost.
Because of his new abilities, Logan’s the one person in the world capable of stopping what’s been set in motion. But to have a chance at winning this war, he’ll have to become something other than himself. Maybe even something other than human.
And even as he’s fighting, he can’t help wondering: what if humanity’s only hope
for a future really does lie in engineering our own evolution?
And then when and where does it take place?
Upgrade takes place all across America, but mainly in the West, near where I live.
Where did you get the idea for Upgrade?
I was doing an interview on Science Friday for Dark Matter back in 2016, and Ira Flatow asked what I was working on next. I didn’t know yet. He suggested I look at the technology known as CRISPR-Cas9, a next-gen gene-editing tool. When I started researching what gene-editing could accomplish, I was blown away. Knew I had to write about it.
Is that why, for this story, you went with gene editing as opposed to cybernetics or some other way people can improve their bodies? Because this could also work with magic or alien technology or even splicing human genes with those of other animals.
Because I wanted to write about a technology that is here, that is now, and which poses the greatest imminent upside, and potential downside, for our species. I’m interested in what is possible, or almost possible, because that’s the world we’re on the cusp of inheriting.
It sounds like Upgrade is a sci-fi novel, and maybe a dystopian and / or cyberpunk one at that. How do you describe it, genre-wise?
It’s actually a grounded thriller. I don’t think of it as dystopian. I barely think of it as science fiction. I wish it were those things, instead of the world we are actively making for ourselves.
Upgrade is, of course, not your first novel. Are there any writers or specific stories that you think had a particularly big influence on Upgrade, and not on any of your other books?
Probably the biggest literary influence on Upgrade was Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series. I was drawn to the idea of the lone protagonist, up against the world. I hadn’t written a character quite like that before, and no one does it better than Lee.
How about non-literary influences; was Upgrade influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games? Because it kind of reminded of the stuff in Star Trek and Star Trek: Deep Space 9 with the Eugenics Wars and Dr. Bashir and KHAAAAAAAAAAAANN!!
The biggest influence on this book, hands down, wasn’t a movie or a show. While there are some that tackle a protagonist who’s undergoing explosive mental and physical change, I wanted Upgrade to be based in reality. Which means the greatest influence on my book was my subject matter expert, Michael Wiles, who is a molecular geneticist. Dr. Wiles helped me to understand what was possible now in the field of genetic engineering, and where it may take us in the next 20 to 40 years.
Aside from Dr. Wiles, did you read anything scholarly about the subject?
I read Jennifer Doudna’s book, A Crack In Creation. Dr. Doudna was one of the inventors of CRISPR. Or rather, she discovered and helped to perfect how it could be used to edit DNA. As the “creator” of CRISPR, the most powerful gene-editing technology currently available, I was fascinated with how Dr. Doudna struggled with the immense power of gene-editing. Here’s the crux of the debate. It could be used to make our lives infinitely better, or we could wipe out entire species with this technology. These aren’t fantastical, speculative ideas for the next millennium. They right around the corner. This is what I’m trying to tell you. My book is barely science-fiction.
I mentioned a moment ago that Upgrade isn’t your first novel. You’ve written seven that were part of a series — three in your Wayward Pines series, four in your Andrew Z. Thomas / Luther Kite series — and seven that are stand-alone novels, including 2016’s Dark Matter and 2019’s Recursion. Where does Upgrade fall? Is it a stand-alone novel, or the first in a series?
It’s a stand-alone sci-fi novel like Dark Matter and Recursion. I don’t think I’ll write a sequel. I’m on to new ideas. I left it all on the field on this one.
Normally this would be the point in the interview where I’d ask if you think your novel could also work as a movie, TV show, or game. But that bastard Steven Spielberg ruined that for me by buying the film rights. Aside from the deal, and the fact that you’re writing the screenplay and executive producing the movie, is there anything else you can tell us about the film?
Not at this time unfortunately, but I am over-the-moon to get a shot at writing a movie for the great people at Amblin.
In writing the script for the Upgrade movie, have you hit upon anything that made you exclaim, “Dang it, I should’ve done that in the book!”?
I haven’t started writing it yet, but I can guarantee you that I will have many of those moments along the way.
This won’t happen, but if Stevie turns to you one day and asks, “So, who do you think we should get to play Logan and his mom?”, who would you suggest and why them?
I never publicly comment on my initial casting thoughts because they will undoubtedly evolve as the movie comes together, and I would never want the actors we ultimately hire to look back on this interview and see me talking about other people. I know…it’s a very strange business.
Speaking of your books being made into movies, there’s also a Dark Matter movie in the works, as well as a movie and some TV shows based on Recursion. But we haven’t heard much about either lately. Is there anything to report?
Not yet. I really only talk about film and TV projects when I’ve sold one, and when one has been greenlit, so I’ll have to stay mum for the moment.
Going back to Upgrade, is there anything else you think people need to know about this book before deciding whether to buy it or not?
I wrote it first and foremost to entertain people, and I think this is a massively entertaining book. But in terms of subject matter, it also stands as the most important book I’ve written. It’s a love letter to our species. It’s about our future, which is already here. But mainly, if they love novels they can’t put down, I hope they’ll give Upgrade a shot.
Finally, if someone enjoys Upgrade, what gene-splicing sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you recommend they read next and why that?