Upgrade by Blake Crouch: a thrilling sci-fi masterpiece details a near future where examining what it is to be human is vital for survival.
In Upgrade, the writing flows smoothly and efficiently as the story hits the reader impactfully.
The world building, character creation, and science are all too real.
The pace is tremendous – Upgrade does not let up!
And the ending is both moving and realistic, painful in its beauty.
The Following Review of Upgrade by Blake Crouch Spoiler Warning.
Imagine sharing a last name with your mother who was solely responsible for killing millions, unleashing an unrelenting pandemic of genetic mutation in the world, and who also made so many geneticists and biologists very training an illegal act deemed so by the Gene Protection Agency.
Logan Ramsay is an extremely intelligent man, but one who grew up dreaming of being his mother’s equal of off-the-charts genius.
And then he stands trial for her crimes against humanity and goes to jail.
The jealousy is gone.
Once freed he starts a family, and Logan enjoys nothing more than playing chess with his daughter and being a family man, when he is not paying a personal penance for the blood his mother spilt.
Out of jail, Logan is working for the GPA to bust illegal gene labs and dealers of illicit genetic material.
This is a world where lower Manhattan is under water, and a Las Vegas confidential informant has his own lab where he makes new species for the wealthiest of collectors, including a new dragon, and he is allowed to, by the GPA, because he hands over those illegal scientists that come to him with more nefarious intent for material and supplies.
When a lab bust becomes a trap and an explosion of an ice bomb sends shards of genetic altering virus irrevocably into Logan’s system, he receives one of the first human DNA upgrades.
Logan learns how to dial down the emotional parts of his brain in order to think more rationally, or work less distracted.
He can read heart rates, blood pressure, and faces so well that he can discern the truth and lies and anticipate many actions before someone does it.
He is stronger than he has ever been.
He can remember every detail of everything he has ever read or seen in his entire life.
His sister is upgraded as well. The two of them learn that from beyond the grave their mother infected them with a Scythe program to alter hundreds of parts of their DNA and improve their overall state so that they will act to save the dying world.
It is Miriam Ramsey’s dying wish. Before humanity dies as a species in a hundred years, she has gifted it with the means to save it from itself.
But will humans remain humans when they are all upgraded, or will they be something else?
And what could go wrong trying to infect and convert billions of people?
Logan sees the need for the world to change but not at such a cost as homo sapiens becoming something else at his mother’s whim, and then his sister tries to kill him.
She takes their mother’s research and flees.
The only two upgraded humans on the planet nearly kill each other over their ideals, a point that is not lost on Logan as he does not see the upgrade as a final solution to the doomsday clock.
End of Spoiler Warning.
Crouch’s research into genetic markers, DNA, and myriad aspects of the human brain and its actions is truly remarkable, and he writes with ease, inserting the research in a way that is accessible to those who are not scientists and also in a way that is natural as it is shared by the characters in the story.
And the messages are not lost in the science or the riveting plot.
This is one of those things that great science fiction authors, like Isaac Asimov or Michael Crichton often achieve in their works.
You invest deeply in Logan’s character and those around him, while the story whips into a frenzy and all the while science is at the center of what is happening.
With Upgrade, Crouch has written a brilliant tale that goes deep into what it means to be human and whether or not being human at a genetic level can or should save the species.
Karel Capek’s The Absolute at Large (1922) – God is in the Machine: Capek may not be a name everyone is familiar with, but his inclusion into science fiction is undeniable with his introduction of the word ‘robot’ into common language through his 1920 play R.U.R. Yet, the Czech playwright and novelist is far from being a household name in the annals of modern discussion on science fiction greats.
In fact, “The Absolute at large” has been noted by R.D. Mullen from Science Fiction Studies as being “one of the genuine masterpieces of SF”, but noted that “it has surely had no great influence on popular SF”. This is something important to note when diving into this particular release, as one can argue it is more successful as a satirical look at consumerism and religion over a science-fiction story. However, there is still appeal to be found in the work by fans of classic European literature and sci-fi enthusiasts.
The novel chronicles the invention of the “Karburator”, a device that allows unlimited energy production generated from minute resources–a single chunk of coal can keep it running for years. However, the machine emits a peculiar byproduct of religious fervor that causes people in the vicinity to both hallucinate and perform actual miracles after prolonged exposure. Even more troubling, the machines which evoke the ‘absolute’ (God) are able to produce their own goods and sway the commercial landscape with charity over profitability. Picture corporations owned by religious communes and never-ending production chains making mounds of useless materials.
As such, the downfall of mankind becomes inevitable from the very conception of the ‘absolute’ and the reader is given both first-hand accounts from the author, as well as stories of isolated madness across the world, as the ‘Karburator’ penetrates every corner of humanity.
The manner of delivery is one that jumps between reflections on society, morality, and religion with a playful wit that can be extremely entertaining. Consequently, the message behind the work can be elusive to pin down, and even for myself coming back to this novel a decade later, I found my own perspective of it altered. Notably, it is easy to say that the work is opposed to religion, but there is room to interpret it as pro-human first and foremost.
Essentially, the book seems to claim there is a place for religion, but that the man-made concepts are something beyond the power of even God– he did not invent commerce or politics and has no place in it. There are even moments in the novel where the author admits his words are not meant to be blasphemous. At the same time, Capek’s views in this book are certainly up for debate but make for a wonderful talking point about the book nonetheless.
Its views on commercialism and fanaticism are approached in a method that is still applicable today. Certainly, a modern audience won’t find much value in outdated industrial industries, but the way the production of goods is discussed is still relevant. Replace the idea of religious worship with celebrity worship, and the production of clocks with phones and the text is easy to navigate in a modern context. Mind you, these may not be the best examples but rough ones that convey how easy it is to take the words of Capek and apply them to the modern era–the age of the work does not make it archaic beyond comprehension.
However, the most enjoyable aspect of the book has to come from the humor within.
*Slight spoilers ahead for Karel Capek’s The Absolute at Large
Capek gives some glorious visions of absurdity, from a tack factory that produces an endless number of the commodity to the point that there is an industry around hauling and hiding them away, to the tale of a carousel owner who starts a religion based around his machine as it begins to float across the land to recruit new followers.
Furthermore, the dialogue between people can be humorously witty: when one man is overcoming the effect of the ‘absolute’ his friend asks him what symptoms he felt, and he retorts “The love of thy neighbor” expanding that “I never knew it was possible to feel so much love”.
*Slight spoilers end
The book is full of many witty comedic moments that make it easily accessible to enjoy just as a satirical piece without trying to dig deeper into the meaning. Furthermore, the way that Capek describes the effect of the ‘Karburator’ and how it begins to affect different people based on region, occupation, and cultural beliefs makes for a deceptively grandiose read across 240 pages.
There is a lot that can be broken down, assessed, and discussed in The Absolute at Large, or you can just approach it strictly as a work of satire from one of the greatest, and less celebrated, minds in science fiction. Regardless, the book is a true gem and one that deserves to be checked out or revisited.
Crackle and Fire: An Angela Hardwicke Mystery by Russ Colchamiro combines compelling characters with noir-mystery and sci-fi tropes and blasts them into exciting new territory.
What is the audience for this work of speculative fiction? This is from the book’s description on Bookshop.org:
“[Crackle and Fire: An Angela Hardwicke Sci-Fi Mystery is] For fans of Doctor Who, Blade Runner and Philip Marlowe…”
And Crackle and Fire is just the first in The Angela Hardwicke Mysteries Book 1 series. Book 2 is coming in the not-too-distant future.
The following book review of Crackle and Fire: An Angela Hardwicke Mystery contains **MILD SPOILERS for the book’s plot in the opening.
Russ Colchamiro’s tale combines many of my favorite plot elements and world building for an innovative, gritty, pull-no punches neo-noir-mystery in the Universe.
The Universe may span the outer reaches of space, myriad places of which earth is just a tiny blip on the radar, and that is all the more reason for the need of the PI, the private investigator Angela Hardwicke.
Her inner monologue is self-critical and always interesting, as this inner speech often betrays to the reader the nerves that flare up, or the terror that floods her vision, when on the outside, she appears as cool as they come.
Angela Hardwicke has seen a lot and her mannerisms – such as having the tears in her long trench coat sewn over and over again – show a vast amount of experience, stubbornness, and grit.
The woman is savvy and cautious, but also tired; she is as tired as any of Raymond Chandler’s most worn-out cops, PIs, or fugitives.
The writing echoes Hardwicke’s exhaustion, and right from the outset of the story her mental weariness proves very costly.
She slips up in taking on a case from a likeable guy that is so nervous he borders on squirrelly.
And what a fun character Gil Haberseau turns out to be!
The accountant is terrible at math.
But people like him, so he gets on pretty well.
That is, at least until Gil’s intern disappears with stolen files tied to the worst of the mob, the Anshanis.
When Hardwicke wants no part of the ruthless Anshanis (after a past run-in gone sour), Gil corrals her by mentioning her name was in the stolen files, which is why he has come to her.
But he has almost no information to give the PI that will help her track down the missing intern.
She can feel the lies, the inherent danger that is only showing the tip of the iceberg above the water’s surface.
And then, as clacking shots are made on pool tables around her, the obvious damning truth – the omitted truth – comes home to her, but not in a self-reliant epiphany; it is her friends that have to explain it to her.
Gil is no accountant.
And his ‘intern’ may come from other dimensions in the vast multiverse to their own universal realm, Eternity, meaning the stakes and the complications pertaining to them are infinitely more than Hardwicke could ever have imagined.
To start the case, really start the case this time, she ambushes her own client in his apartment and confronts him for his lies.
The intern, from a remote planet called earth, could be big trouble.
The story is riveting in both the personal aspects of its characters and the page-turning action, but it also has a grandiose scope far beyond the notion of the known universe.
Fractured Lives: An Angela Hardwicke Sci-Fi Mystery (The Angela Hardwicke Mysteries Book 2) By Russ Colchamiro will be released in September 2021!
“The Golden Man” by Philip K. Dick explores mutants hunted in a long short story, or short novella, from 1954, long before Stan Lee’s X-Men emerged!
It is set in a post-apocalyptic world where atomic radiation has produced mutated human beings.
A government task force has been created to hunt down these mutants.
SPOILER WARNING for “The Golden Man” an 11,600-word science fiction short story written by Philip K. Dick and published in the April 1954 issue of If magazine.
Mutants are either neutered or killed, depending on the strength of their abilities, so that they cannot harm humanity.
But the one mutant still at large is the elusive Golden Man who is always a step ahead because of his ability to see the future.
PKD explored a future where the next step in evolution may very well leave humans behind.
He explored the idea of the next superior being as neither a benevolent leader-type, nor a malicious genocidal dictator-type, but rather a Magneto-like being that would set a course of natural selection that would replace humanity in favor of a new mutant race.
Evolution itself, after all, is a natural process with no malicious intent behind it. Human beings simply would not be able to compete.
The comparison between the X-Men nemesis, Magneto and his mindset, cannot be ignored here, though PKD preceded Magneto’s invention by close to a decade.
This practical perspective is rather interesting and refreshing.
Superheroes, essentially mutants, have dominated popular culture for quite some time. Heroes, like the Justice League of DC comics, have helped lead humanity where villains, like Magneto of X-Men, are more interested in leaving humanity behind.
“The Golden Man” alludes to a more plausible Darwinian approach that seems to encroach on Magneto’s thoughts and arguments, at times, but stands alone in its insightful approach to the mutants in the story.
This novella was the inspiration for the movie Next with Nicolas Cage.
Ironically, similar to that of iRobot, the studio borrowed just one small concept from the entire story in its adaptation.
Surprisingly, the only similar parallel these two works share is the elusiveness of both characters when avoiding arrest.
Hollywood certainly had a fun time showing off this skill with Cage during the casino chase.
Although Nicholas Cage has the similar ability to see into the future, he certainly does not have the Golden Man’s secondary traits and his philosophy that make him so extraordinary. If you are a fan of film adaptations (as I am) you may find this interesting.
I, ROBOT by Isaac Asimov: book review of science fiction classic highlights the prose, storytelling, and stark differences in views regarding this premiere work about robots and AI, aka artificial intelligence.
In Asimov’s I, Robot, Dr. Susan Calvin (robo-pyschologist for U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men Inc.) describes the development of robots, through nine short stories, to a reporter in the 21st century.
The Following book review of I, Robot by Isaac Asimov is a Spoiler-ful WARNING Level YELLOW: it contains mild spoilers for the novel, but not detailed plot.
When read from beginning to end I, Robot can be seen as an evolution of Asimov’s Robots. Each story shares an interaction between humans and robots and often hints upon the unease of a growing artificial intelligence.
Here is the story synopsis, and the review continues below it.
Paperback Released April 29, 2008 | ISBN 9780553382563
About I, Robot
This classic science fiction masterwork by Isaac Asimov weaves stories about robots, humanity, and the deep questions of existence into a novel of shocking intelligence and heart.
“A must-read for science-fiction buffs and literature enjoyers alike.”—The Guardian
I, Robot, the first and most widely read book in Asimov’s Robot series, forever changed the world’s perception of artificial intelligence. Here are stories of robots gone mad, of mind-reading robots, and robots with a sense of humor. Of robot politicians, and robots who secretly run the world—all told with the dramatic blend of science fact and science fiction that has become Asimov’s trademark.
The Three Laws of Robotics:
1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2) A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
With these three, simple directives, Isaac Asimov formulated the laws governing robots’ behavior. In I, Robot, Asimov chronicles the development of the robot from its primitive origins in the present to its ultimate perfection in the not-so-distant future—a future in which humanity itself may be rendered obsolete.
“Tremendously exciting and entertaining . . . Asimov dramatizes an interesting question: How can we live with machines that, generation by generation, grow more intelligent than their creators and not eventually clash with our own invention?”—The Chicago Tribune
Each story in the book shares an interaction between humans and robots and often hints upon the unease of a growing artificial intelligence.
Asimov’s future (actually our past as his first short story is set in 2015) includes mining stations on asteroids and Mercury, spaceships with hyperdrive, and super computers along with robots taking over simple jobs like farming, while also running for office and even secretly running the world.
Although nine stories follow Asimov Three Laws of Robotics, many stories describe robots having difficulty with these laws (either by manufacturing defect or meta-cognitive awareness) leading to their eventual interpretation of them – even a so called religion. His infamous laws governing robotic behavior have changed our perception of robots forever.
The three laws of Robotics: 1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2) A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Despite the name Hollywood gave the film, I, Robot, starring Will Smith, the book is far from the film in terms of actual story elements, though the film is fun and captures some of the spirit, as well as a couple specific uses of the book.
Spoiler Alert: If you were a fan of the 2004 science fiction action film I, Robot directed by Alex Proyas do not expect many similarities with Isaac Asimov’s 1940-1950 short story collection of the same name. The 2004 film is much more closely based on Jeff Vintar’s original screenplay Hardwired. That film adopts Asimov’s creation of “the three laws of robotics,” shares two similar characters, and borrows one scene from his works.
Overall I, Robot is a thought provoking read, blended well with science-fact and science fiction.
If you have not read the novel, expect a vastly different story than the film with the exception of the chapter titled “Little Lost Rabbit.”
Isaac Asimov was a Russian-born, American author, a professor of biochemistry, and a highly successful writer, best known for his works of science fiction and for his popular science books.
Professor Asimov is generally considered one of the most prolific writers of all time, having written or edited more than 500 books and an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards. He has works published in nine of the ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal System (lacking only an entry in the 100s category of Philosophy).
Asimov is widely considered a master of the science-fiction genre and, along with Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, was considered one of the “Big Three” science-fiction writers during his lifetime.
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