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Blake Crouch’s new novel an unsettling look into future

(Courtesy of Maria’s Bookshop)
Author will be at El Moro on Sunday for early release, signing of ‘Upgrade’

Local author extraordinaire, Blake Crouch, has done it again. His newly released novel, “Upgrade” is a mind-blowing leap into the “near” future with a list of circumstances most readers haven’t thought to worry about. But worry will occur to most after delving into this highly researched and compelling novel.

“Upgrade” begins in the fall in Denver. Told in first person, the reader meets Logan Ramsey, an agent for the Gene Protection Agency – GPA – who is tasked with finding people who are illegally manipulating human or other genes. Rogue scientists are making synthetic products including designer pets, clothing, food and much more.

Crouch has set this thriller in a time period that isn’t named but it’s definitely in the future. How far, the reader doesn’t know. Hints can be found in reading about hyper-jets, self-driving vehicles and delivery drones. Earth and its inhabitants – humans and all other life forms – are in deep trouble. What started the current trouble was caused by an unintended byproduct of a planned beneficial action.

Logan’s mother, Miriam, was a brilliant scientist who invented Scythe, a biological DNA-modifying system. Scythe was a gene editing and delivery system that brought about The Great Starvation, which began in China. Rice plants in China were being attacked by disease, so Miriam and her fellow scientists created a type of locust that would save the plants. After releasing the insects, disaster followed when the locusts mutated and caused worldwide famine. Logan was working with his mother and was held partly to blame and was sent to prison. In attempt to do penance for what happened, he became one of the 50 agents of GPA.

If you go

WHAT: Early release book launch and signing for Blake Crouch’s new novel “Upgrade.”

WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday.

WHERE: El Moro Tavern, 945 Main Ave.

MORE INFORMATION: Visit https://bit.ly/3P86MAA.

Logan lives near Washington, D.C. with his wife, Beth, and daughter, Ava. Beth and Logan are in love and very happy with their lives. Ava is a smart and happy youngster who regularly beats him at chess. Logan is not happy pursuing scientists who are being punished because of what his mother did. The Great Starvation caused meat shortages, supply chain issues and even the loss of some species.

During a raid in Denver, Logan is assaulted and severely injured by an IED. He awakens in an ICU in severe pain; he spikes a high fever and has incredibly complex dreams. Finally, he gets better and can go home. Gradually, Logan realizes he is changing: His intellect is improving, concentration is better and physically he feels stronger. This change causes his life as he has known it to come to an end. Logan is thrust into a race to save humanity from itself while trying to evade those who want to stop him.

Crouch has created a future in “Upgrade” that is almost here. Many of the scientific breakthroughs are already happening, just not as advanced or in place. The story brings attention to the ethics needed to cope with scientific advances. It also highlights how different factions might react. Good can come from these discoveries, but in the wrong hands (or minds), much harm could come to this planet and its creatures.

Crouch has an uncanny ability to describe his settings in great detail that can transport the reader into his fictional world. The characters populating “Upgrade” are fully realized with multiple and complex personalities. One of the many enjoyable parts of the novel that local readers can experience is being taken to locations in the story that are familiar. The action takes readers to Denver, Santa Fe and Silverton. Crouch sets the pace of action high and takes readers through his complicated plot at breakneck speed. “Upgrade” should be a must-read this summer.

A conversation with Blake Crouch about ‘Upgrade’

Q: So, inquiring minds would love to know, where did you get your idea for “Upgrade”?

A: During the last few insane years in America, I often found myself wishing our species wasn’t so dead-set on selfishness and self-inflicted extinction. Then I wondered what someone with an immensely powerful gene-modification tool might do armed with the ability to change how an entire species thinks and relates to one another. I went into the book thinking I would absolutely inflict this change on our species, for the good of our species, but the writing of it took me in a different, very surprising direction.

Q: How long did it take to do the extensive research that was needed to write this book?

A: About two years. And I was still doing research during the writing process. Basically, I would come up with the plot stuff I wanted, then turn to the science and see what was possible now, and what might be possible in years to come.

Q: How did you find your expert geneticist Michael Wiles, PH.D.? What was their response to your plot?

A: The Science and Entertainment Exchange, an LA outfit that matches creators up with subject matter experts, put us in touch. Dr. Wiles was instrumental during the writing of this book. In terms of the plotting, Wiles encouraged me to go bigger. My initial concepts were too conservative in terms of what a powerful gene-modification tool might really be capable of.

Q: Do you think that somewhere someone is currently doing real research on the concept put forth in “Upgrade”?

A: Yes. For instance, a biophysicist in China named He Jiankui was sentenced to three years in prison a few years ago after he announced he had created the world’s first gene-edited babies. He mutated the CCR5 gene to confer HIV resistance. People are currently trying to decide how best to care for these children.

Q: Do you have personal qualms about the ethics of this research? If so, can you mention them?

A: I do think it is very dangerous to edit germline (eggs, sperm, early-stage embryos) because the changes that are made there are heritable to future generations. This is one of the reasons germline gene-editing is banned in the U.S. by an act of Congress.

Q: Do you think it is genetically possible to make those changes in a human that you put forth in your book?

A: At the moment, somatic genetic-engineering (meaning in grown humans, not embryos) is used to address sickle cell disease and HIV. Understandably, there’s a lot of concern and trepidation about leaning heavily into genetically modifying humans because of the potential for off-target mutations. For example, you intend to treat one disease or bring forward one attribute, but something unintended and negative occurs. This is why the vast majority of gene-editing is focused on cells and animals in research labs to try and understand diseases and build safe therapies for humans.

Q: Other than the mind blowing scientific research to do for the book, what was the most challenging hurdle to finishing the book?

A: Finding the right approach for this idea. I wrote nearly 70,000 words taking a completely different angle, which I ultimately abandoned because it didn’t really impact humanity in the way I wanted it to. The general idea of genetics is so sprawling, I struggled with finding how to be specific in my approach. DNA is the source code of all life. From dinosaurs to us. But in hindsight, obviously the main thing that matters when it comes to DNA modification is how we will use this power when it comes to changing humanity.

Q: Who do you think your biggest audience will be for “Upgrade”? When I started reading it, I was a little lost and intimidated by the science – what was real that I should know or what was fiction.

A: Most of it is real. Now ... we don’t necessarily have the computing power to pull off some of the crazier moments in “Upgrade,” but most of it – the idea of a gene drive, the ability to easily modify our own genome, the potential to build new life forms and terrifying viruses ... it’s all just beyond our fingertips. Right now, scientists can build apples that don’t brown when you cut them, onions that don’t make you cry, cats that glow in the dark, cabbage programmed with the poison found in scorpion tails. All that is already happening. In the not-too-distant future, the power of gene-editing will turn geneticists into wizards; once we turn the full power of this science on ourselves.

Q: Now the burning question ... What thoughts are swirling in your mind that will lead to your next book?

A: I do have an idea I’m very excited about, but of course, I would never discuss before it’s written as it takes all of the energy out of it.

Leslie Doran is a retired teacher, freelance writer and former New Mexican who claims Durango as her forever home.

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