“Recursion,” the new book by North Carolina native Blake Crouch, is a 324-page thriller that started with a single science headline.
In 2013, researchers at MIT announced a breakthrough experiment in which artificial memories were successfully implanted into lab mice. The study was a major development in the study of False Memory Syndrome, or FMS. Documented in hundreds of scientific and legal cases, FMS describes a condition when a person remembers and strongly believes in events that never occurred.
For Crouch, the MIT experiment and its sci-fi implications were the seed for his new book, published June 11. “Recursion” digs deeply and sometimes uncomfortably into the nature of memory.
“When I saw that story, my own brain started spinning, because this is the kind of emerging technology I’m always looking for,” Crouch, 41, tells The News & Observer in a phone interview from his home in Colorado. “My last few books, I’ve been trying to find these pieces of new science and marry them to my own story ideas and characters.”
Since Crouch’s debut novel in 2004, the UNC graduate has established himself as a reliable author of smart commercial fiction as well as a go-to source for new TV and film ideas. His books have become best-sellers, and “Wayward Pines” and “Good Behavior” both have been made into television shows. His 2016 New York Times bestselling novel “Dark Matter” is now in development at Sony for a possible feature film adaptation.
And before “Recursion” had even been published, Netflix landed the rights to the book and has plans for both a feature film and TV series adaptation. Producers include heavy industry hitters Shonda Rhimes (“Grey’s Anatomy”) and Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield” and the upcoming Batman movie).
“Projects like this are why I came to Netflix,” said Shonda Rhimes in a Netflix news release. “The opportunity to explore a multi-genre universe in innovative ways is extremely exciting.
It is Rhimes’ first film project for Netflix since she signed a deal with the streaming service, according to Deadline.
“I’m not writing it,” Crouch said.” 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.”
North Carolina roots
Born and raised in Statesville, a city north of Charlotte, Crouch says his storytelling inclinations manifested early on.
“I used to tell my little brother scary bedtime stories,” he said. “The stories eventually became serialized and got more complex as they went. That was my first go at storytelling, I suppose.”
Crouch laughs, remembering.
“I typed them up, too,” he says. “On our first computer, the Tandy 1000; dot matrix printer.”
Crouch attended UNC and credits his instructors in the creative writing program for encouraging him early on, including department veterans authors Bland Simpson and Marianne Gingher.
“I wrote my first novel [“Desert Places”] when I was at UNC, and I got to work with Bland Simpson,” Crouch says. “I did an independent study. He helped me edit and eventually sell that novel. Bland and Marianne Gingher, she was incredibly supportive. They gave me a real boost when I needed it most.”
Crouch says he appreciates the unconditional support he received at UNC to write the kind of stories he wanted to write. University creative writing programs are often dismissive of sci-fi, fantasy and other kinds of genre fiction, Crouch says.
“What’s great about the UNC program — when I was there, anyway — they didn’t turn up their nose at quote-unquote genre fiction,” Crouch says. “Or, as I say it, fiction that people actually want to read.”
Mind vs. memory
Science-based thrillers have a long and successful tradition in commercial fiction; Michael Crichton built an empire from them. But they can be tricky to pull off. Too much science can bog down a thriller, but too little can strain plausibility.
“I’ve always trusted that my audience is very smart,” Crouch says. “They’re always willing to go along with some big ideas and fairly heavy science.”
“Recursion” has the overall shape of a conventional thriller – cops and bad guys and lots of action – but inside those lines it paints with decidedly sci-fi colors. The book introduces an exceedingly cool kind of time-travel premise, spinning off multiple timelines that are mind-bending without being confusing.
The gist: Scientist Helena Smith has made an important discovery in neuroscience, possibly discovering a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. She is approached by a shadowy operative of an even shadier tech mogul and offered unlimited funding with no strings attached.
Of course, in science thrillers, there are always strings attached. Smith’s research soon leads into uncharted territory where mind and memory bump up against quantum physics and a new kind of time travel.
Meanwhile, in New York City, detective Barry Sutton is investigating a wave of suicides apparently related to False Memory Syndrome. People are waking up with total recall of entirely different lives. As the crisis spreads, the world proceeds to freak out.
Any details past this would spoil the fun, but those familiar with Crouch’s previous work will dig the vibe.
His breakout “Wayward Pines” trilogy explored similar themes of quantum states and alternate realities. The series, starring Terrence Howard and Matt Dillon, was adapted for television in a 2015 Fox series co-produced by M. Night Shyamalan.
Crouch authored the novella series “Good Behavior,” which aired on TNT for two seasons. As it happens, “Good Behavior,” starring Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery, brought Crouch’s ideas back home. The series was one of the few productions to film in Wilmington after the North Carolina legislature curtailed the state’s tax incentive program in 2014.
As for the book version of “Recursion,” Blake says he’s glad it’s done. Outlining the book was exponentially more complex than any previous book, he says, in that the story’s time-travel elements required tracking multiple parallel timelines.
“I ended up filling this whiteboard in my office with this giant graph,” Crouch says. “It looks like the work of a crazy person. It got massively complicated.
“Remind me not to do time-travel stories again.”