How sci-fi writer Blake Crouch turned gene-editing tech into a Spielbergian epic
An exclusive interview with the New York Times bestselling author on his latest sci-fi mindbender, Upgrade
Crouch has amassed a considerable body of speculative fiction work over the past decade, deftly weaving contemporary, digital age fears into his books, layered with chilling portents of next-level technology gone awry that keep us wide awake far into the wee hours of the night.
And Hollywood took notice. Since his Wayward Pines trilogy was adapted into a Fox series back in 2015 starring Matt Dillon, Crouch’s Dark Matter (2016) and Recursion (2019) have both landed deals for big-budget TV and feature film adaptations at Netflix and Sony Pictures, respectively.
Ballantine Books released Upgrade in July to stellar reviews and enthusiastic sales. It revolves around the transformation of Logan Ramsay, a Gene Protection Agency agent who’s dosed with a gene-hacking virus that supercharges cognitive abilities in fresh and frightening ways. His mother was an infamous geneticist who perished years ago after accidentally wiping out 200 million souls trying to solve world hunger. Now, he must tap into these genetically engineered enhancements against his own sister, Kara, who has a sinister agenda to alter society forever.
Back in February, Deadline reported that film rights to Upgrade were purchased by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Partners. Crouch is aboard the project (possibly for Spielberg to direct) to adapt the screenplay himself and act as one of its executive producers.
“As I was writing the book, there were these sequences that felt just like classic ‘80s Spielberg,” the writer tells Inverse. “That it landed with Spielberg’s team at Amblin is literally a dream come true.”
Inverse spoke with Crouch about his newest sci-fi page-turner to hear more about how this unsettling story originated, what research rabbit holes he fell down, being scared by science, and his thoughts on the ethical issues of artificial upgrades and genetic tampering in the future.
This interview has been edited.
Inverse: Where did the seed of Upgrade originate and what was it about its near-future premise that intrigued you?
Blake Crouch: This was a beast of a book to write. When I finished Dark Matter back in 2015 or 2016, I was starting to look for the next big science region I could plug into. The way I create my books is that they typically start with a field of emerging science I’m interested in, then I look to find some characters and a plot to plug into. Genetics and CRISPR technology, all these things were front and center in my mind. This was much more grounded than the things I’d been writing about in Dark Matter and a lot more urgent in terms of our world. But then I got scared by the science. I was intimidated by the biology and chemistry. All of my understanding of science is self-taught. I was an English major and creative writing minor in university. So I put it off and back-burnered it and went off and wrote Recursion. But it was always there at the back of my mind. When I finished Recursion, which had pushed me in new ways that Dark Matter hadn’t, I felt like now was the time. I just had to get over the fear of the science, so I dove in.
How did the journey of writing Upgrade change you as an author and a person?
What’s changed in my books, and I’d say this trend started with Wayward Pines, ramped up in Dark Matter, became really prevalent in Recursion, and was on full display with Upgrade, is that I’m just not afraid to throw pages away and toss an entire back half of a book out if I don’t feel like this is the very best version of these characters and story that I can tell. For every book now, I want to leave everything on the field. I want to put pressure on myself to do what I do better than the last time. I know what my fans expect and it’s my job to give that to them and more.
What was it like immersing yourself in the research for Upgrade and what startling fringe facts did you discover?
The most shocking thing was that a lot of the tech in the book, we’re already doing a lot of it. Now we don’t have the ability to fully upgrade ourselves to the extent that Logan and a lot of the other characters experience in Upgrade. But in terms of being able to go in and edit our own genetic code, to up-regulate certain attributes and down-regulate others, the existence of gene drives which are the most powerful scientific tool that exists in any field today. The only difference between where we are now and the world of genetics I’m envisioning in Upgrade is that we don’t have the full computing processing power to extrapolate phenotypes from these extraordinarily massive data sets that are composed of our DNA. The editing tools are not as targeted as what I’m imagining in the book, but these are just levels of degrees. It’s going to happen. We’re not that many decades away from really being able to play God with life.
There’s a recurring theme of old-fashioned romanticism in your novels and Upgrade is no exception. Is that something you consciously insert or something that grows out of the organic creative process?
I think to some extent the romantic elements in my books emerge out of the concept. Dark Matter and Recursion had a very strong romance at the core of them. They’re undying love stories. I knew there was going to be an element of that in Upgrade, but I also didn’t want the entire book to be about Logan changing and the dynamics with his wife as he becomes something other. The love story here is really between Logan and our species, between me and our species. When I started writing Upgrade I was writing it in this heightened state of feeling like our world was falling apart and our species was making a lot of really dumb decisions. And I want to believe the best about us.
We’ve accomplished so much. As bad as things seem right now, most people would still say they’d rather be alive now than a hundred years ago. The trend of cooperation, sympathy, empathy, and compassion is continuing, but we have these downturns that might last years or a decade where it truly feels like we’re going backward. Those were the things that were on my mind as I was writing this book trying to basically write a love letter to our species. Look how beautiful the world that we have is. If you look at all the other galaxies in the universe you see how few and far between the Goldilocks planets are. What a chance we have here, and we’re blowing it. Stop it with this insanity and let’s move forward and take care of each other.
In a world where this next-level gene editing exists, what would stop people from using these intelligence and perception upgrades for nefarious purposes instead of benevolent reasons?
Nothing. That’s the scary side of the genetics coin. There are people who will use it for good and those who will use it for evil. That’s just the nature of Mankind. We embody both sides of the extreme. And that’s one of the big things that the science community is wrestling with now. How do we keep our arms around this tech?
Right now you can order a CRISPR home kit and spend a weekend doing some very small gene editing things. What happens when the ability of gene editing advances to the point where we can edit ourselves in much more profound ways? There are more guardrails that are going to have to be put up. And they exist now. It’s generally illegal in the genetic editing community to edit at the embryonic stage to determine things like eye color and a million other attributes. As the tech becomes more malleable and easy to use, these guardrails will have to continue to go up.
Upgrade was optioned by Amblin this year and you’re attached to adapt your own novel into the screenplay. Are you excited about being involved and bringing it to the big screen?
I love screenwriting. It uses different muscles than writing prose. I think they each inform the other. In terms of the adaptation, it’s literally a dream come true. As I was writing the book, there were these sequences that felt just like classic ‘80s Spielberg. You never know where a book is going to land when you take it out to sell to Hollywood. That it landed with Spielberg’s team at Amblin is literally a dream come true and I’m so excited to get started. Hopefully, it’s going to begin soon, but right now I still can’t believe it’s happening.
Blake Crouch’s Upgrade is currently available at all bookstores and online retailers.