Wizards Meddling In the Source Code of Life

Fiction is a uniquely capable vehicle for exploring the power and consequences of new technologies, grounding thought experiments in human experience and playing out second and third order effects. In his new science-fiction thriller, Upgrade, Blake Crouch imagines a near-future where every aspect of personal and public life has been revolutionized by genetic engineering, for better and for worse. And while the novel glitters with deeply researched ideas, this speculative brain candy is woven through a story with enough ratcheting tension to make even the most stoic of hearts skip a beat.

Needless to say, I loved Upgrade, so it was a special treat to interview Blake about how he wrote it. May you enjoy his stories and ideas as much as I do.

Upgrade by Blake Crouch.

What is Upgrade’s origin story? How did it grow from the first spark of an idea into the book I’m holding in my hands right now?

I wanted to write it after Dark Matter but was very intimidated by the science. After Recursion I knew it was time. I started off with a completely different book idea, which I thought was going to be my Jurassic Park and involve creating new creatures. It was cool, but lacked what I was most captivated by—humanity. How does this tech effect us? So I started over with the idea of this guy with a terrible family legacy, who gets a chance to change the world.

What surprised you most while researching the book? What unexpected things did you learn about genetic engineering? What specific aspects of this scientific frontier deserve more attention?

The most shocking thing to me is how close we are to the technologies in Upgrade. Gene-editing germline is illegal in the U.S (banned by act of Congress) but it’s not hard to imagine a day in the not too distant future, when computing power has grown exponentially, and we become wizards who can meddle effortlessly in the source code of life. There is no bigger scientific breakthrough in our lifetime, or ever, than CRISPR-Cas9.

How should we regulate new technologies? How do we find a balance between encouraging innovation and avoiding its negative consequences? What should governments do differently when it comes to technology policy?

This is a very good question that someone much smarter than me should answer. But the balance between the potential good (longevity, disease eradication, invisibility (jk)), and the bad (unintended consequences associated with wielding an unimaginably powerful gene-modifying tool) is one of the most pressing questions for our species.

What does family mean to you? Why did you decide to explore parent/child/sibling relationships in such depth with this novel, and what did you discover through doing so?

I think family defines us. We inherit who we are from our family, so it only seemed natural that this novel take on a kind of family saga aspect. What did I discover? That’s for me and my therapist to discuss. 🙂

The idea that “you can’t do nothing” in the face of seemingly unassailable adversity reverberates throughout the story as well as the historic moment we’re living through right now. How do we find courage in dark times, and how are you seeking to “do something” in your own life?

I’m trying to do something through storytelling. I think it’s, pound-for-pound, my best shot at making a difference. I think each person finds courage in their own unique way. For me, it comes from hope. Or rather, trying not to lose my grasp on it when I see the sheer idiocy and selfishness of our species as our country goes to pieces in front of our eyes.

What did writing Upgrade teach you about writing? What has publishing it taught you about publishing? How are you different for having told this particular story?

I can really only speak to what it taught me about writing, which is: it’s fucking hard. It doesn’t get easier. Each book demands to be written in its own way, on its timeline. Even after ten or twelve books, I still feel like a novice going into a new idea. And I have to be at peace with that. It’s supposed to be scary or you aren’t stretching.

As Upgrade comes out, you’re hard at work on adapting Dark Matter for television. What can screenwriters learn from novelists? What can novelists learn from screenwriters? What are the most interesting anomalies you’ve noticed working across both formats?

I don’t know. They are such different mediums. And because I only adapt my work, which I’ve already thought out in great detail, I wouldn’t begin to know how to tell someone to write an original screenplay. But my process is: write the best book I can. Set it aside. If I feel massively compelled to continue the story, and expand it, in a visual medium, then I go for it. I think scripts are about landing crucial moments, and books are more about creating an overarching vibe—whether that’s romance, terror, or what I do—thrillers. But it’s all just storytelling. The main thing I always find myself screaming at both screenwriters and novelists is: “Nail your ending!” It happens so rarely.

What’s the most recent book you fell in love with, and what about it resonated with you? What should fans of Upgrade read next?

Come Closer by Sara Gran. Just a dark, twisted miracle of a nightmare. If you love Upgrade, there’s a great book coming out later this year by Ray Nayler called The Mountain in the Sea. It’s a thriller about a super-intelligent species of octopus. Need I say more?

If you want to stay in touch, the best way to follow my writing is to subscribe to my newsletter. Complement this interview with Daniel Suarez on writing Change AgentBarry Eisler on writing Livia Lone, and this conversation about the power of speculative fiction.