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'Upgrade' takes a unique, fun path to the end

<em>Upgrade</em>
Ballantine Books
Upgrade

Blake Crouch has always been a dependable storyteller.

He spins out grounded, accessible tales with an admirable internal precision no matter the genre. He can do spooky. He can do spec-fic that shades over into near-future sci fi. He does disaster and mystery and procedurals that all feel effortless. Crouch's books are fun the way a summer blockbuster is fun. And on the page, he exudes the smooth, slick confidence of someone who knows exactly where he's going and just how to get there. Even his surprises seem like clockwork. They all go off precisely when he wants them to.

His newest, Upgrade, is no different. In it, he does the dependable science-fiction trick of imagining a future altered by one significant technology and a character significantly impacted by said technology, then mushing the two of them together to see what happens next.

Here, we have a mildly dystopian near-future world where gene editing technology has advanced to a point where nearly anything is possible. Want to make all malaria-carrying mosquitos be born male so the species dies out and the disease is eradicated? Done. Want to build a dragon from crocodile and Komodo genomes? There's a guy in Vegas already working on that — special order for a client, worth millions. But because nearly anything is possible, gene editing has also been outlawed. It's too dangerous. Too many mad scientists out there. That's ingredient A.

Ingredient B is Logan Ramsay — disgraced scientist, paroled felon, currently employed by the Gene Protection Agency, the federal law enforcement branch that enforces the laws against gene editing and goes after the rogue scientists, hidden labs and dealers in proscribed genetic material. Logan's mom was Miriam Ramsay, one of the world's most brilliant geneticists, now dead by suicide. Miriam is the reason all this gene stuff is illegal now in Crouch's world. Because Miriam was working on a gene project to make rice crops more hardy and accidentally caused a global famine that killed 200 million people. Logan was working with his mother. That's why he went to prison. That's why he is where he is now.

And when we meet Logan, he's just a regular guy. Or a regular science-fiction gene cop, anyway — barfing nervously before raids, running around in a HazMat suit saying things like I fastened the magnetic straps on my inductive body armor and took my weapon out of the go-bag. There's a specificity to Crouch's language that tends to take him down cul-de-sacs of jargon and gear-porn. He drops brand names and technical specifications the way other writers use commas. He obviously learned a fair bit about genetics while researching the details of Upgrade and he never misses a chance to talk about it. But it's cool. Much of the book happens in Logan's head (we see all of it through his eyes in a tight, first-person, single-narrator set-up) and I have zero doubt that he, the character, would totally talk that way — the kind of guy who couldn't cook you a burger in the backyard without explaining, in detail, the make and model of his grill and precisely why he'd chosen that one in particular.

Needless to say, Logan doesn't stay a run-of-the-mill gene cop for long. I mean, just check the title. The book is called Upgrade. And this Logan? He's going places. First, into the basement of a house in Denver in search of a clandestine lab on a bogus tip from the world's most obvious White Collar Bad Guy (they caught him in an airport wine bar, ferchrissakes), then to a hospital quarantine room when the otherwise empty basement turns out to contain a homebrew IED. Logan lives, seems to suffer no ill effects (other than being slightly blown up), is released, goes back home to his loving wife and teenaged daughter, but soon discovers that he's quietly developing...superpowers.

OK — not superpowers superpowers, exactly. Except that yeah, basically superpowers.

It starts with being able to read faster and remember things better. Then he beats his very smart daughter at chess (something he hasn't been able to do in years). And before you know it, his bones are getting denser, his muscles are getting stronger and the gene cops — the ones he used to work for — are throwing him in supervillain jail and accusing him of self-editing.

Now stop a second. Crouch could've just gone on from this point and told a dull, standard-issue technological superman story. Dude gets magical sci-fi powers, saves/destroys the world, the end. But what's interesting about Upgrade is that Crouch doesn't do that. Instead, at exactly this moment, we're introduced to Miriam Ramsay's other child. Logan's sister, Kara.

Kara the black sheep. Kara the soldier, the loner with her Montana survivalist cabin and bag full of guns and burner phones. Kara, who is also developing powers she can't explain.

Kara is the hinge point at which Upgrade pivots, becoming a kind of modern Romulus and Remus yarn about two siblings each given remarkable powers and asked to use them to repair a world dying from starvation, war, disease and climate change. By the time they're done, Logan and Kara will both be like gods walking in a world of mere mortals — each with a very different view of what must be done to save humanity, and at what cost.

Crouch doesn't linger. He knows how to do a chase, when to blow stuff up and when to bring the house lights down. Like I said at the top, he's walked similar trails before. He knows where he's going.

But what makes Upgrade special is that his path is unique. He takes turns that are unexpected, explores some stunning vistas along the way, and even if the endpoint is a little bit obvious, watching him get there can be a lot of fun.

Bloody, grim and occasionally pedantic, but still fun.

Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Star Blazers. He's the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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