The Weird, Twisted Science of Blake Crouch's Sci-Fi Thrillers

Posted by Cybil on May 31, 2019
Author Blake Crouch is all about interesting collisions. His breakthrough Wayward Pines trilogy mashed up elements of mystery, science fiction, and thriller into a loopy metaphysical tangle. The series was quickly adapted into a Fox series, with M. Night Shyamalan producing and directing the first episode. Crouch's next book, Dark Matter, offered an even more spectacular collision, with a story that bounces the hard numbers of quantum physics off the weird science of alternate realities and the many worlds theory.

Dark Matter is currently in development to become a feature film, but Crouch has already moved on to his next story. Recursion, hitting shelves this month, is another particle collider of narrative ambition. The story smashes up ruminations on memory and identity with cutting-edge neuroscience and that most tricky of sci-fi tropes—time travel. Oh, it's a trip, man.

Crouch likes to explore the event horizon of emerging technology, writing stories of sustained speculation that remain grounded in real science. In fact, Recursion was inspired in part by a science headline from a few years back—MIT researchers had implanted synthetic memories into a mouse. That concept started caroming off other ideas in Crouch's notebook, and a new novel was born. It's how science fiction is supposed to work.

Calling in from his home in Colorado, Crouch spoke to Goodreads contributor Glenn McDonald about the new book, the nature of memory, and the cosmic implications of déjà vu.

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Goodreads: The new book references a real-life science story about mice and memory implants that made a relatively big splash in the headlines a few years back. Was that study part of the impetus for Recursion?

Blake Crouch: In a lot of ways it was, yeah. That was a real thing. These scientists put a mouse in a small metal box and, instead of curiously sniffing around, it instantly froze in terror. That's because it was recalling an earlier memory where this particular box would send an electrical shock to its feet. But that memory was completely false. That mouse had never received an electric shock. It was reacting to a false memory that the team had implanted into the mouse's brain. It was quite an amazing process; they had these mice and they went in through their skulls and actually implanted memories.

When I saw that, my own brain started to go a million miles an hour, because this is exactly the kind of new technology that I can extrapolate it out. For my last few books I've tried to find some piece of emerging technology or science, then try to marry that to my story ideas and characters. I knew that I wanted to do something with memory.

GR: Do you remember how they actually implanted the false memory?

BC: They essentially put these really fine filaments or electrodes into the mouse's brain. They had targeted specific neurons. But it was quite an invasive procedure for the mouse—they physically went in through the skull—so I had to change that up for the book. I needed the technology for humans to work a little faster and not be as invasive and life-threatening.

GR: When you latch onto a science idea like this, how far do you go into the hard-core research—the studies and the journal publications?

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BC: Pretty deep. I did the first draft of the book basically leapfrogging off the research with the mice. And obviously I'm also thinking about characters and plot. Toward the end of the book, my last pass, I went back and got even more serious about the science.

I know a guy, Clifford Johnson, he's with the astrophysics department at USC, and he works with me as a kind of consultant. He helped out on Dark Matter, too. I sent him Recursion and asked whether the system I came up with was plausible. My goal is always to do something that is plausible. It doesn't have to be up-and-running right this minute, but I like to work with things that in 10 or 20 years might be real science.

GR: The book works really well in that sense, I think. It gets into a kind of time travel, which is always complicated, but it's internally consistent. It plays fair by the rules it establishes.

BC: Oh yeah, I think that's right, that's all you can ask for. You need to at least adhere to your own rules that you're creating out of the gate.

GR: Early on, the book digs into the phenomenon of déjà vu, which pretty much everyone agrees is weird and fascinating. And you have an idea in the story that could potentially explain it?

BC: Well, I've had really powerful instances of déjà vu in my life, and not just déjà vu but déjà vu-of-déjà vu—the feeling that you've been in that moment before and having déjà vu at that time, too. It's this whole meta thing.

So I started looking at that in tandem with the idea of the Mandela effect—have you heard of that? It's this documented thing that happens around the world, where people seem to have false memories. The main example is this thing where a lot of people have a memory of Nelson Mandela dying in prison in the 1990s, when obviously he didn't.

GR: Oh, like the Berenstain Bears thing? Where people remember those books as BerenSTEIN, but apparently it's always been BerenSTAIN?

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BC: Right, and that one really hit me, because I remember the covers of those books as BerenSTEIN, too. I started thinking—what if these things, along with déjà vu, are some kind of clue to the larger nature of our existence? Maybe there are other realities branching out and running parallel with ours. And our déjà vu moments are some kind of weird connection where we're reaching out to our other selves in those realities. Dark Matter covers some very similar themes, of the road not taken, quantum mechanics.

So I thought, wow, what if this Mandela effect is actually caused by false memories that are part of these dead timelines? Then déjà vu would be a really neat and tidy explanation for this.

I wrote that to be a fun reveal 100 pages in, but I don't really think of it as time travel. I mean, there's an argument to be made that it is. But I think of it more as memory travel. The conclusion I came to at the end of this book is that memory is more fundamental than time. Memory is the actual thing that gives us the illusion of time.

GR: It's that quantum idea that time itself is just an illusion, which echoes some really old concepts in philosophy and cosmology.

BC: Right. I love that it also fits in with this idea in biology about sensory volume with creatures. This is the idea that our brains only perceive the certain radius in space and time that we need to perceive.

When our ancestors were swimming around in the murky depths, we didn't really need time. We couldn't see more than an inch or two in front of us. We could decide whether to eat something or run away from something, that was about it. But as we've evolved, we've developed a need for time. We can see that mountain 20 miles away and we want to know how long it takes to get there. Now our brains need to create time and distance and memory.

GR: It all seems really heavy, but you make it work in a relatively traditional thriller format, with a cop and a scientist and a bad guy. How do you outline something like this?

BC: This one was really hard. It was harder than any other story by several orders of magnitude. I started out with a journal, as I do with all my books. I'll spend a few months just taking notes on characters, what the characters do, the science involved. When I've got a chunk of ideas I'm excited about, then I move that over to the outline stage. That's when the rubber meets the road. Once I have a working outline, I get going. It can change at any time.

GR: How did you handle the book's multiple timelines?

BC: I have a giant whiteboard in my office that I use to get ideas out. I ended up doing this massive detailed graph of every single timeline in the book. It was so complicated that I needed to be able to look at it all in one place. Honestly, it looks like the sketchings of a crazy person. Like that Mel Gibson conspiracy movie. Figuring out how to end this book was so hard and just about broke me. The paradoxes, you think they're your friend, starting out. They build inherent weirdness into the plot. But when it comes to actually trying to resolve them, they become your worst enemy.

GR: The human brain is not built to monkey around with this stuff. Did you see the movie Primer from way back when?

BC: Oh, yeah. The Shane Carruth movie? I've seen those online graphs where people try to map out the various timelines. It's bananas. I don't know that I would ever dip my toes into time travel again.

GR: Do you keep to a typical writing schedule?

BC: I don't. The hardest part of my books so far has just been finding the ideas and getting my arms around how best to tell the story. That takes a lot of time, and it's not something where you can just sit there and wait for the inspiration to hit. I'm actively looking, absorbing things around me all the time.

But once I have the idea, I do tend to stick to a pretty rigorous schedule of trying to get out about 2,000 words a day. I won't say it's easy—it's not—but it's easier than looking for the next big idea, the next bit of science to dig my teeth into. With the writing itself, it's like anything else. The more you do it, the easier it is to get started. It gets faster. The more you do it, the more you do it.

GR: The title is great, and it works on several levels. How did you arrive at Recursion?

BC: [Laughs] Painfully. Slowly. Settling on the title was one of the last things we did. For a long time I wanted to call the book Remember. It had a kind of ominous feel to it. But in the end, it felt a little soft. It didn't have teeth.

They're hard to do, but I love one-word titles. I love a title that gives you a feeling and an atmosphere for what you're about to read, but doesn't lay it out too explicitly. Recursion was one possibility on a list of a hundred that I sent out to friends and people for feedback. One of my buddies said he liked Recursion because he said it sounds like I think my audience is really smart. And I do think my audience is very smart. I ask them to go along with some big ideas and heavy science from time to time.

GR: Who are some of the other writers in your field you admire?

BC: Hmm, let's see. Well, I love Andy Weir. He wrote a little book called The Martian.

Right now my partner and I are doing an anthology of six science fiction stories for Amazon. We just literally went out and got our favorite authors. And they're not necessarily science fiction authors. So, let's see. I love Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow. I love Paul Tremblay; he's writing some of the best horror of the moment. A Head Full of Ghosts. The Cabin at the End of the World.

I love N.K. Jemisin; she does a blend of sci-fi and fantasy, incredible world-building. Who else? Ted Chiang. He wrote the story that the film Arrival was based on. He has a new collection coming out called Exhalation, which is just unbelievably great. He writes a story, like, every other year maybe. But they're just perfection.

And I just read a really fun book from the screenwriter David Koepp. It's called Cold Storage. It's horrifying but also has these oddball Carl Hiaasen–style characters. Really interesting read.

GR: You have a couple of things in development for TV and film now, is that right?

BC: Yes, Dark Matter is out there. I wrote a script for it, but [film] development moves at the speed of molasses. It's still alive and in the mix. I'd love to see it become a film.

Recursion is set up at Netflix now with Shonda Rhimes and Matt Reeves. I'm not writing it—I'm letting them figure this one out. The plan is to start with a film with multiple series that will track down the multiple timelines.

GR: When you read for pleasure, do you typically read one book at a time or do you have multiple books going at once?

BC: I do multiple books, yeah. I have books on my Kindle, books I want to read in physical form, books on my phone even. Three or four at a time is probably average. I don't always finish them. It's almost like a competition because you end up spending the most time with the books that you want to read the most.

GR: Anything else you'd like to highlight or discuss about the new book?

BC: No, this was great. I don't usually get to dig into the science too much with these interviews. I remember I did Science Friday on NPR when Dark Matter came out. That was the last time I got really into the weeds with the science. That's the fun stuff.

Blake Crouch's novel Recursion will be available in the U.S. on June 11. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-26 of 26 (26 new)

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message 1: by Patrice (new)

Patrice Fascinating; on so many levels!

message 2: by Patricia (new)

Patricia Delagrange This is so great - to be able to read what went into writing this book. I love Blake's books and am going to buy this one right away.

message 3: by David (new)

David Putnam Thanks great interview

message 4: by Kevin (new)

Kevin Kempf Awesome! Blake you sick freak! I love your books!

message 5: by Melissa (new)

Melissa I just got this through Book of the Month on Friday. I LOVED Dark Matter and can’t wait
to start Recursion!!

message 6: by Aristotle (new)

Aristotle I received an early release from NetGalley.
Book was a first class read.
My nose keeps bleeding. I think it's an after affect from reading Recursion

message 7: by Deb (new)

Deb Bolen I love Blake Crouch’s Books. What kind of person comes up with these ideas?? LOL! Love it! Going out to buy Recursion tomorrow! I especially can’t wait to see The Dark Matter movie. Please make sure they don’t butcher the movie, ok?

message 8: by S.M. (new)

S.M. Bailey Yeah, I have that kind of deja vu too. Unfortunately for me, it’s called, Temporal Lobe Epilepsy.

message 9: by Arden (new)

Arden Belrose ♛ Phantom Paper Oh wow, I've had those kind of déja vus, too!! Dark Matter was one exhilarating read, I felt a heady rush of adrenaline and excitement when I got to the alternate-reality travelling part!! So good. Blake Crouch certainly puts in an honest effort in his works, and it shows. Awesome stuff, Blake!

message 10: by Nikki (new)

Nikki Great interview. Thanks for the insight to your writing process.

message 11: by InexactEarth (new)

InexactEarth Awesome interview with an extraordinary author! Thank you very much!

message 12: by Monique (new)

Monique I loved Dark Matter but I think I loved Recursion evrn more. What a wild rollercoaster ride! Time is a subject that fascinates me: Augustine and Heidegger are amongst my idols regarding time, so is Plato for his obsetvations on perception, and your book touched on all these topics in addition to the mindblowing science. I still can't believe that you kept those timelines straight!

Thank you for two amazing reads in a row!

message 13: by CadmanReads (new)

CadmanReads Nice interview. Great hear we might also see movie versions of the books.

message 14: by Billy (new)

Billy Super hyped about Recursion now!!!

message 15: by Ashish (new)

Ashish B Looking forward to reading the book

message 16: by Nastya.Books (new)

Nastya.Books Can I translate this interview? Answer plese

message 17: by Lori (new)

Lori Currently halfway through Recursion and loving it. Dark Matter was my book of the year when I read it. Excited to see these come to the screen, and interested to see if they can pull it off well. Loved to hear how these story ideas come up and get developed. Thanks for sharing!

message 18: by Elyse (new)

Elyse Loved Dark Matter even though it hurt my brain and the Wayward Pines trilogy! Can't wait to read this one! Got it from BotM!

message 19: by KittyAnn (new)

KittyAnn Reading Recursion now.. loving it! Loved Dark Matter, hoping Recursion thrills me to the end like DM! haha

message 20: by Jim (new)

Jim This is awesone. I love getting a window into the creative process

message 21: by Eric (new)

Eric Hartunian The interview gave illustrative insights to the creation of this book.

message 22: by Nancy (new)

Nancy  Miller Very intriguing interview! Dark Matter was fascinating. My book group loved it. Terrific imaginative author.

message 23: by Richard (new)

Richard There should be a sequel following Amanda's story once she split from Jason. Blake, are you listening?

message 24: by Marijke (new)

Marijke Ermens Loved reading the interview and I’m really thrilled for the new book!! I stumbled upon dark matter and when I started reading that, I couldn’t put the book away.. i was so drawn into the story that I slept like 5 hours that day because I didn’t dare to put it on my nightstand! The only other time that happened was when I read Hyperion by Dan Simmons. That says allot!

Looking forward reading more future books! And I hope dark matter is going to be a film one day!

message 25: by Strazdas (new)

Strazdas This was a good read. More of this kind of interviews please.

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