What I'm Reading (No. 131): let’s talk sci-fi — Replay, Recursion, and Forward

I’m not always into sci-fi, but when it’s good, I can’t put it down. The titles featured this week all fall into that category (although in Replay there’s no discussion of the mechanism of time travel).

Let’s do some defining first, as I think a lot of people conflate sci-fi with both fantasy and dystopian fiction. Fantasy involves other made-up worlds and creatures and features magical elements — Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, etc. Dystopian fiction generally takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting, focusing on social structures. Sometimes you’ll get fantasy and sci-fi elements in there, but certainly not always. Think Handmaid’s Tale, The Hunger Games, The Road, etc. Science fiction explores the real-world possibilities of extreme scientific and technological advancements, often which allow for time and/or space travel.

Let’s get right to it.

Recursion by Blake Crouch (2019, 329 pages)

After I read and loved Dark Matter in May, I had to get my hands on Crouch’s newest novel, Recursion. Dark Matter focused on the idea of living alternate timelines — what would happen if we could see the versions of us that made different life decisions? Recursion lives in that same space, but centers on the idea of memory. What happens when our memories are no longer reliable? If our memories of the past are suddenly and fundamentally altered, what happens to our reality?

This is the world that New York City policeman Barry Sutton finds himself immersed in after he responds to a suicide call in which a woman is trying to figure out which version of her memories are the “real” ones. It’s a worldwide phenomenon dubbed False Memory Syndrome; in an instant, people’s brains are flooded with a whole other set of memories and in some cases the world around them is physically altered.

Barry, a divorced and grieving man, finds a few clues and embarks on a globe-spanning, time-traveling, memory-hopping escapade.

This book, just like Dark Matter, moves so fast. That’s the nature of the thriller genre, right? These types of books, by their very nature, take the reader through quick turns and twists that keep the pages flying. But in most thrillers you don’t get characters with as much depth and heart as Crouch delivers. The balance he strikes between development and insanely fast plot movement is remarkable, and is why his books have gotten so much attention the last few years.

As I knew he would, Crouch put so much soul into Recursion that there were times where I forget it’s a thriller (with a heavy dose of apocalypse thrown in, for good measure). Because of the ending, I’ll give this one a nod over Dark Matter, but you should really read both of ‘em.

Replay by Ken Grimwood (1988, 309 pages)

Whereas Recursion gets heavy into the science of memory and even the governmental ramifications of altering memory on a mass scale, Grimwood’s novel from 1988 is almost entirely honed in on the personal level. If there’s a fixed point in time where you know you’ll die and go back 25 years to another fixed point in time, over and over again, how would you live?

In Jeff Winston’s first “replay,” he makes some big bets and seemingly risky investments and makes a lot of money. Wouldn’t we all do that? As the reader expects, that existence turns out to be pretty empty. It feels like an obvious story arc at first, but the reality of being able to make an almost unlimited amount of money would likely be all-too-tempting in the moment.

So over the course of his many other “replays,” Jeff easily makes enough to live, but then attempts to figure out what it is that makes life worth living. How can he exist in a way that doesn’t leave him feeling stagnant at the end of it all? Does it involve trying to change history? What about finding love and having a family? Maybe creative pursuits and simple living are the answer. Jeff explores all of this, while also keeping an eye out for other people experiencing the same thing.

I hadn’t heard of Replay — or Ken Grimwood — before a reader of this newsletter recommended it to me. The premise alone was enough to reserve it at the library right away, and I’m sure glad I did. It’s a fun book with relatable characters; it’ll have you thinking about what choices you’d make differently, both on a grand scale and day-to-day, if you had a few 25-year replays in your back pocket.

“Forward” Series by Multiple Authors (2019, 275 total pages)

Blake Crouch curated this series of six short novellas written by a selection of a few of my favorite authors and a few I’d never read before. The central theme for each is what tech will do to our future and what that world looks like. Each story is very different and they were all enjoyable in their own way; I can definitely recommend all six without reservation. That said, just for kicks, here’s my ranking of the stories with a brief description of each:

1. The Last Conversation by Paul Tremblay. A man wakes up in a sterile room with no memory. Luckily, there’s a nice doctor there to help get that memory back. As the past comes into clearer focus, though, the reality of the situation gets murkier. Did the man know the doctor before? Why isn’t she letting him progress as quickly as he wants? And what’s with this new tickle in his throat? I’d not heard of Tremblay before, but after reading this story, I have a hankering to explore all his novels.

2. Emergency Skin by N. K. Jemisin. An explorer in a strange suit visits a ravaged Earth. This explorer is told that after the climate apocalypse, the few humans left have devolved into a filthy, barbarian group. This was the trippiest story and perhaps the most fun of the collection. I’m certainly now intrigued about Jemisin’s other work.

3. Ark by Veronica Roth. An asteroid is heading towards Earth and most everyone is off the planet already. One young woman has remained behind with a group of others doing some last-minute scientific cataloguing. She’s considering staying and watching the world end . . . what will she ultimately do? This one really made me want to read Roth’s “Divergent” series.

4. You Have Arrived at Your Destination by Amor Towles. I was surprised to see Towles’ name in this sci-fi collection. In his story, a man goes into a lab to take a look at not only the basic genetics of a desired baby, but also that child’s possible futures. It’s a good plot, but not as fully realized as I would have hoped.

5. Summer Frost by Blake Crouch. I enjoyed the surprising twists here, but the story of AI becoming sentient just wasn’t as original as the other novellas.

6. Randomize by Andy Weir. The author of The Martian looks at what happens when quantum computers figure out how to infiltrate Vegas. Fun characters here, but there’s not much depth to the story.

Interestingly, when you look at reviews it seems that everyone has a different ranking of these stories. Really just depends on what floats your boat and what doesn’t! I got the whole collection on sale for a couple bucks and it’s unfortunately only available on Kindle (though if you don’t have a Kindle device, you can always read on your phone, tablet, or computer). Check it out and let me know your own ranking; I’d love to hear.

That’s all for me this week. As always, do let me know what you’re reading and enjoying. And thank you for the time and inbox space!