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Light the corners of my mind – ‘Recursion’

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Memory is a powerful thing. Certain memories are so vibrant, so potent, that recalling them almost feels as though we’ve been transported back to the moment in which they took place.

But just how real could that sense of transport truly become?

That’s one of the central notions in “Recursion” (Crown, $27), the new novel from author Blake Crouch. It’s an exploration of what might happen if mankind was allowed to use our most vivid memories as a gateway to what came before. It’s a compelling thriller built on big ideas – typical of Crouch’s thought-provoking sci-fi sensibility.

In the now, New York City police officer Barry Sutton is doing his best to deal with the fallout from a new phenomenon that has recently started popping up all over the world. Dubbed False Memory Syndrome, the affliction drops full sets of alternate memories into the minds of those who suffer from it. Whole lives never lived appear fully formed in their heads; the dissonance between what was and what was not often proves too much to bear.

A decade earlier, Helena Smith is a neuroscientist whose entire career has been devoted to the study of memory. She has given her life over to the idea that memories can be fully mapped and recorded and reexperienced; her work is an extension of her love for her mother, who is slowly disappearing into the fog of dementia. Her goal is to find ways to preserve our most precious memories, and when a reclusive billionaire offers to fund her, she progresses far beyond her wildest dreams.

Unanticipated discoveries place these two lives on a collision course. When technology finds ways to recalibrate humanity’s perception of time, drastic changes begin to unfold – changes that will have consequences for the future, the present … and even the past.

As the threads of reality begin to unravel – slowly at first, but quickly picking up speed – Barry and Helena are the only ones with any chance of preventing the catastrophe that lies at the end of this particular path. And while in some respects, they have all the time in the world, in others, they have no time at all.

“Recursion” is science fiction at its apex, combining sophisticated concepts with sharp plotting and interesting characters. There’s a density to the narrative that could easily prove too complex, but Crouch has such a delicate touch that even as we bounce from perspective to perspective and time to time, there’s never the slightest issue. Juggling multiple timelines is tricky business, but even as the stories cross and uncross, with branches begetting branches begetting branches, the thread is never lost. It’s all handled masterfully.

Time and its meaning are a regular source of fascination for Crouch – his previous novel, the excellent “Dark Matter,” addressed the nature of time as well. With “Recursion,” he turns that fascination inward, focusing on the individual’s interior perception of time and considering how shifts on a micro level might ripple out in a macro sense. It’s smart and challenging in ways that you don’t often see in genre fiction – even genre fiction specifically intended to be smart and challenging in those exact ways.

One of the things that’s so much fun about Crouch’s work in general – and “Recursion” in particular – is the degree of difficulty with regards to narrative complexity. His books are marvelous puzzle boxes, stories wrapped in stories that challenge the reader without ever demanding more than they can give. It’s a fine line – one Crouch walks with nary a misstep.

Another of Crouch’s many strengths is his understanding of character – you can have all the cool ideas in the world, but if the characters experiencing and expressing them are flat and/or uninteresting, your story is going to fall flat. But both Barry and Helena have a richness to them, a degree of idiosyncratic detail that renders them three-dimensional in a manner both fascinating and heartbreaking.

“Recursion” is top-tier science fiction. Conceptually and narratively, it is a mesmerizing work, carefully constructed and exquisitely executed. It’s a story of the power of memory … a story you’ll never forget.

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