MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The novelist Blake Crouch was searching for an idea for his next book, and he'd hit a wall.
BLAKE CROUCH: And then I came across this article about two MIT scientists who were implanting false memories in the brains of mice and actually tricking these poor mice into believing they had experienced a reality that they never experienced. And when I read this, I thought, this is my book.
KELLY: And he wondered, what if he scaled that idea up from mice to people? In Crouch's new novel "Recursion," people are waking up with two sets of memories - their own memories and an alternate set that feels just as true. "Recursion" is a thriller with a dash of sci-fi. When I sat down with Blake Crouch, I wanted to know, how much did he sweat getting the science right?
CROUCH: Lots of day sweats, lots of night sweats. I wanted to do as much pure science justice to this high concept as I could. I think that I'm a huge science geek even though in university I took as few science classes as possible.
CROUCH: But I've come around to love it.
CROUCH: And I think entertainment can be a real vehicle for explaining and firing up the masses' imagination when it comes to science. So I hired a wonderful scientists. He's the physicist for USC. His name is Clifford Johnson. And he read my first gangly draft, and then we sat down and started talking about how to make this plausible.
KELLY: I should mentioned by way of backdrop, give people just a little bit of a sense of the plot here - one of your central characters is a neuroscientist. Her mother has Alzheimer's, and so neuroscientist daughter devotes her career to trying to restore memory - not just stop memory loss but actually bring back lost memory. To what extent did you and this scientist you hired conclude that is remotely possible?
CROUCH: Without getting too far into the weeds of the actual tech, he had this brilliant notion to use something called a MEG microscope, which measures electromagnetic radiation fields coming off of neurons firing. And as I do in many of my books, I then made a little leap. Maybe the science doesn't exist right now to do the things that are happening in "Recursion," but I look it as being maybe 10 or 15 minutes into the future.
KELLY: Ten or 15 minutes into the future - and your characters as they go along are wrestling with big questions. What is time? What is reality? What is subjective about each of those? Why was that something you wanted to explore in a thriller?
CROUCH: (Laughter) I have asked my therapist on...
CROUCH: ...Several occasions. Why do I keep wrestling with questions of reality and time and all the fundamental questions surrounding our existence? You know, perhaps it's what I see happening in the world with the notion of fake news and the truth becoming more and more slippery and just the very notion of reality and of consensus reality or what we all think is real versus our own unique perspectives and how those differ. I couldn't help but want to tackle these things in the book because the books that I write are very much a reflection of my inner-curiosities, my inner-struggles, my - and my most deep interests in science.
KELLY: So can you walk me through how that plays out with one of the scenarios or one of your characters in the book?
CROUCH: Well, it probably started with Helena, who, as you mentioned, is this neuroscientist who is driven to build this device that can preserve our core memories. And she's driven because her mother has Alzheimer's. When I was young, my grandfather came to live with us, and he was suffering in really late stages of dementia and Alzheimer's. And I still remember waking up in the middle of the night, and he would be in the closet of my bedroom thinking he was getting into a train. And he only lived with us for about six weeks, but it made a huge impression on me as a kid. So that's one piece of it. Then I look at someone like the character of Barry Sutton, who is the detective that opens the book.
CROUCH: And Barry is very much a - kind of a reflection of where I was several years ago when I started this book. I was just coming out of a divorce, and I was wrestling with the questions of grief and of how we look back at painful memories and not be kind of subsumed in them. Sadly my books are often therapy in reverse. And I often don't know why I'm writing about these characters when I start out. But by the time I get to the last page, it's pretty apparent to me which of my personal issues and challenges are actually manifesting in my characters.
KELLY: Yeah. So I want to grill you on some of the dilemmas that you set your characters up to wrestle with.
KELLY: They're not only wrestling with false memories. They are capable of time travel, and they're pushing themselves on this question of, OK, just because we can time travel, should we? If we could go back and change history, if we could go back and prevent a war - you have one of your characters saying, you know, if we could stop the assassin who shot Franz Ferdinand in 1914 which sparked World War I, would we do it? Let me put the question to you. I mean, would you?
CROUCH: Absolutely not (laughter). I think...
CROUCH: ..."Recursion" is a cautionary tale to the very real danger and hope that science brings to us. You know, tomorrow is much closer than we think. And as you look at other emerging technologies from CRISPR, the gene editing technology that allows us to essentially rewrite the human genome, to emerging artificial intelligence, that is all amazing technology that could either be our downfall or could be our future. And I wanted to tap into that with the technology at the heart of "Recursion" and play out all these different scenarios for what would one person do with this technology. What would a powerful company do with this technology? What would our government do with this technology?
KELLY: That said, you put some really hard cases in there. At one point, your characters are considering if we could go back to the hours right before a mass shooting and prevent it from happening. I mean, how can anyone argue against that?
CROUCH: I was writing this book and was writing this - that scene as one of these horrible school shootings broke on the news, and it really put my own morality, my own ethics to the test because I am a parent. And I am watching the heartache of all these parents in the wake of this tragedy. And I'm thinking, I would do anything. I don't care. I would burn the world down...
CROUCH: ...To save my kids. And when you start putting that sort of emotion and that sort of motivation against the larger global interest, I think that's where you have the most fascinating moral dilemmas of the book.
KELLY: And it is fascinating because I hear simultaneously how completely compelled and intrigued you are by science and the possibilities out there and yet very, very wary about unintended consequences.
CROUCH: Well, also, the kinds of books that I write - (laughter) we need things to go wrong, so I think it's...
CROUCH: It's inevitable that we're going to play out sort of the more nefarious possibilities.
KELLY: So you will explore some of the worst-case scenarios to keep us flipping into Chapter 30, whatever.
KELLY: Blake Crouch - his new novel is called "Recursion." Blake Crouch, thanks very much.
CROUCH: Hey, thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.