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Upgrade by Blake Crouch3.5 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsBlake Crouch likes to ground his science fiction action thrillers in moral themes, which, to be fair, are pretty simplistic. But that’s the idea. Get readers thinking about big-picture issues that aren’t too challenging, while keeping them hooked with nail-biting suspense and kinetic storytelling. With Upgrade — following a steady run of bestsellers including Dark Matter and Recursion — Crouch has delivered his version of a superhero story, and the theme of great power requiring great responsibility. I think we can all say that one’s been field tested pretty thoroughly.

But in Crouch’s capable hands, it’s a smashing piece of entertainment, even if the moral dilemma it offers isn’t much more than a variation on the trolley problem: should you be willing to kill up to a billion people to save all the others, even when the stakes are the survival of human civilization itself? And does anyone have the right to make life or death choices for entire populations simply because they have the power to do so?

It’s the near future, climate change has left us with the predicted food shortages, and large swathes of Florida and New York City are underwater. Logan Ramsay is the son of disgraced geneticist Miriam Ramsay, whose attempts to modify rice plants in China to make them resistant to viral infection backfired horribly, leading to a global famine that killed 200 million people. Miriam took her own life, and Logan spent several years in prison for his participation in the project. Now, years later, Logan is (or at least believes he is) paying his debt to society by working as an agent for the Gene Protection Agency, helping to bust illicit gene editing labs around the US.

During a raid on a suburban Denver home suspected of housing such a lab, Logan is injured by an IED that exposes him to a virus that begins modifying him at the genetic level. His reading speed is dramatically increased, he has perfect memory recall of events in his life going back decades, and he can even beat his unbeatable daughter at chess. Soon enough he experiences even more profound effects, such as an ability to slow his perception of time, even his heart rate, or anticipate a person’s thoughts or actions by observing small physiological changes. He is, quite simply, becoming superhuman.

Who would have done this, and why? The answer comes when Logan is quite unexpectedly reunited with his estranged sister Kara, who left her family behind for a military career. Kara breaks Logan out of containment, and they hit the road searching for more answers. When they discover just how far-reaching this virus is meant to be, let’s just say everyone’s trouble has only started.

As with his other novels, Crouch swings for the fences with a lot of propulsive action and suspense. I’m happy to report he’s veering away from some of his James Patterson-inspired stylistic quirks. There aren’t nearly so many passages in Upgrade that are just a string of single-sentence paragraphs. Also, it’s a book that improves as it goes. Early chapters leave a lot of gaps that raise plot-logic questions, but the second half is tighter and more consistent, with some good character moments between Logan and Kara. Crouch is working in Michael Crichton’s turf, and Upgrade presents a gene-science scenario that is probably no more or less believable than Jurassic Park. And he absolutely knows his way around an action scene. The story’s finale, involving a raid on a partially sunken skyscraper in Lower Manhattan, is one hell of a set-piece.

I mentioned the moral dilemma of the story, and while it may be too familiar, I liked Crouch’s solution and the arguments behind it. I don’t know if Crouch intended Upgrade to be a repudiation of the John W. Campbell ethos, where the cold equations are what they are and the heartlessly rational universe cares nothing for our human foibles. But what good is a physically upgraded humanity if we just become better, stronger versions of the messed-up meatsacks we already are? Crouch skillfully leaves Upgrade on an optimistic note, with a poignant observation about the need for empathy that manages to avoid mawkish sentiment. There are a lot of different ways the human race can be better, but if we want to have a future, we should upgrade the ones that really will bring us together.