Making up for our mistakes is hard enough even when it comes to small things like accidental slights or pranks gone wrong or errors at work. We don’t like being wrong. But I don’t think anyone has gone to the lengths that Helena and Barry do in Blake Crouch’s astonishing Recursion. This novel has one of the most tangled, destructive, and tenacious time-travel accidents I have ever seen. It’s brilliant.
Recursion kicks off, fittingly enough, in two different times. In 2007, Helena Smith is running out of grant money for her study of mapping and recording memories for Alzheimer’s patients. In 2017, Barry Sutton is investigating the suicide of a woman who claims to remember an entire, alternate life. False Memory Syndrome, a new and mysterious condition in which people have memories of another life that feels just as real, is linked to whatever Helena is working on, but it takes almost half of the novel for Helena and Barry to meet. Until that happens, we see Helena get tempted by unlimited funds to work on her memory project while Barry traces scant clues to a hotel where—for the right price—people can somehow go back and undo their greatest mistake or tragedy.
To try and explain what’s really going on in Recursion would a) ruin the book and b) require a lot of graphing paper. Suffice to say, the law of unintended consequences rears its head almost immediately. Those who want to travel through time and make things better refuse to listen to Helena’s Cassandra-like warnings that the technology needs to be immediately destroyed. If Recursion had a subtitle, it would be “this is why we can’t have nice things.” Humans just cannot handle the power to re-write history. That said, I don’t think I’ve ever seen our species fuck up as badly as we do in Recursion. Because the stakes are so high and because the time-travel technology seems so foolproof, the last half of the book is nail-bitingly tense. I honestly had no idea if Helena and Barry were going to pull it off.
Recursion is some of the best science fiction I’ve read in a long time. It’s certainly in the top tier of time-travel novels. Crouch’s version of time-travel is incredibly original. Nothing in this book is like any other time-travel story I’ve ever read. Because of its originality, I had a great time thinking through the ethical and philosophical paradoxes this story presents. I think the original mechanism for time-travel will attract readers who struggle with the either vague or just ridiculous mechanisms that appear in other stories. (Standing stones? Blows to the head? Wibbly-wobbly devices?) Recursion just knocked my bookish socks off.