Book notes: Recursion by Blake Crouch

Recursion by Blake Crouch book summary review and key ideas.

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Recursion: A Novel by Blake Crouch


Reality is broken.

At first, it looks like a disease. An epidemic that spreads through no known means, driving its victims mad with memories of a life they never lived. But the force that’s sweeping the world is no pathogen. It’s just the first shock wave, unleashed by a stunning discovery – and what’s in jeopardy is not our minds but the very fabric of time itself.

In New York City, Detective Barry Sutton is closing in on the truth – and in a remote laboratory, neuroscientist Helena Smith is unaware that she alone holds the key to this mystery…and the tools for fighting back.

Together, Barry and Helena will have to confront their enemy – before they, and the world, are trapped in a loop of ever-growing chaos.” -Audible

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Opening thoughts:

I was looking for a science fiction book and saw this author. He wrote another book I liked so I decided to pick this one up.

Key notes:

Book One

  • This detective is trying to prevent this woman from jumping off a building. She says she has FMS, false memory syndrome, which is apparently pretty contagious
    • She explains how excruciating it is to have beautiful false memories of a fake life
  • The detective has lunch with his ex-wife and they reminisce about their daughter
  • He has a night out with his fellow cop and coworker, but the night ends with him back at her apartment on the sofa, drunk and filled with regret and still thinking about the happy days of the past
  • She accepts funding from a rich billionaire to do her memory research with unlimited funding but will drop off the face of the earth to do it in secrecy
  • Helena, the researcher, is living on Slade’s decommissioned oil rig for the past few months, which feels like being paid to stay at a 5-star resort that also happens to be your office
  • Helena explains to Slade that memories are so fascinating and important because it’s literally the bridge between us and reality, how we perceive, remember, and currently experience reality

Reader’s note: I just realized Helena’s story is 10 years prior to the detective’s story

  • Her boss reveals that he wants a fully immersive experience before allowing her to map her mother’s memory
    • She’s worried that one day he’ll revoke her access and betray her using the scope of his power that he’s been hinting at
  • Detective Barry Sutton gets a call from the man he visited, Joe
    • He reveals that there was truth to all these false memories and that a powerful company allowed him to redo his life
  • He tries to find this building that Joe directed him to but ended up being captured and his life spared
  • They start to do some strange procedure on him
    • His captor made him relive the night his daughter was last alive and it brought him to tears
    • Barry gets put in the deprivation tank that Helena helped create 10 years prior
    • Barry is reliving that night his daughter died but is able to control his actions in the simulation
  • Slade tells Helena that she made something that doesn’t just return people’s memories, but also returns them to the past
  • The man who captured him shows up in this new reality / timeline
    • The man tells him to not try and game the larger system, but to live his life slightly better, and be grateful for what his boss and this technology did for him

Book Two

  • Slade explains his theory that time is just perception and that it is all happening at once
    • We evolved to be able to think and perceive based on our senses and what they take in
      • Depriving our senses allows us to perceive through time
  • Slade admitted he was a lab assistant to her in an alternative timeline where her research accidentally sent a man’s consciousness back in time and altered their reality/timeline
    • He was the first to realize it
  • Barry feels emotionally overwhelmed about getting a 2nd chance at life with his family
    • Not only gratitude but the fear that it could all be taken away in an instant 
  • He and his wife and daughter experienced the FMS and all the memories of their alternate life. He then explains to them what happened
  • A huge event caused Megan to kill herself
  • Helena meets up with Barry to tell him she’s from the future to prevent him from calling in a SWAT team to raid the memory facility

Book Three

Book Four

  • The higher-up officials from the DoD learn of the chair and their small division’s operations of righting wrongs
    • Slowly the military starts to use it more frequently for their own military activities
    • However, they don’t respect the rules of not using it for greater than 5 days in the past which has devastating consequences for everyone during the recall process of dead memories
  • They learned that the technology leaked a year ago and now different governments and organizations have the memory chair abilities, which were wreaking havoc on society
  • Helena goes back to when she was 16 and wrote in her journal to recount her past lives and to warn herself to try and prevent the tragedy of the future

Book Five

  • For the last couple of decades they’ve been together they were trying to figure out a way to prevent the dead memories from flooding back in to prepare for everyone in the world remembering the tragic alternative timeline
  • During this 2nd failed attempt, the Chinese and Russian governments launched ballistic missiles on major U.S. targets in hopes of trying to finally destroy the chair and prevent someone from going back several decades or centuries and undoing the birth of billions

Reader’s note: Why do they keep positioning themselves far away from the chair when they know the exact time everyone’s memories will return and potentially attack them? So frustrating and stupid of them

  • He wakes up in this 3rd iteration of their relationship, and the journey on her has clearly taken its toll. She looks like a shadow of her former self and tried to kill herself a few years back
    • While their relationship is brand new each time for him, to her, they’ve been together for about 80 years 
  • For this timeline, they captured Marcus Slade in hopes of getting him to tell them how to stop the dead memories and end the loop of the world killing itself over and over
  • He woke up in their 7th timeline together and she left him a goodbye video before her mind fractured and wasn’t able to go back
    • They spent their last 4 years peacefully in Antarctica together but having given up and realized they couldn’t save everyone
  • He remembers what Slade told him so he tries to go back to a dead memory from the original timeline, a day before Slade kills Helena the day after Megan’s birthday
  • He was finally ready to not look back anymore. He was willing to accept that sometimes his existence will contain pain
    • No more trying to escape with nostalgia or a memory chair
    • Life with a cheat code isn’t life. Our existence isn’t something to be optimized for the avoidance of pain
    • What it is to be human is beauty and pain, each meaningless without the other
  • All of the hurt and pain of loss come because we’ve experienced the beauty of having it


  • He confronts Slade the day before he tries to kill Helena and tells him that his plan succeeds, but costs the lives of billions of people

Reader’s note: This is such a touching scene, him seeing his wife he’s spent several lifetimes with, and seeing her for the first time like this. And the last time was when he was burying her, and he finally gets to see her again

Closing thoughts:

I enjoyed this book and it was such a unique concept. Similar to this author’s other book I read, Dark Matter, he seems to enjoy writing about time travel and alternative universes.

If anything, books like these make you think “what if I were able to change ___ about my reality” or go back and make something different. And it’s interesting to see how these character utilize this ability. But then we learn that the lesson is that it’s not about optimizing your life to make things better, but to live in the moment and make the best of what you have.

In particular, this book is about not trying to avoid pain, which is inevitable in life. It’s about moving forward with what you do have and enjoying the beauty in life that you have because you’ve experienced pain.

Parts of this book, or rather the characters themselves were frustrating at times. As I mentioned, I found it a bit annoying that they weren’t smart enough to position themselves near the chair when the time came, instead of far away, then having to race back home to get back to the chair. I also didn’t like how the author was fluffing up those scenes, trying to build dramatic tension. Half of the time, I was thinking “okay, we get it, it’s a race against the clock. We know they’re going to make it, just hurry up and move along the main plot.”

Overall, still a decently good book. Would recommend if you like his other book and the sci-fi genre.

One Takeaway / Putting into practice:

The biggest takeaway I have from this book is the last main point from the end of the book:

  • Life isn’t about optimizing to avoid or ignoring pain. Pain and loss allows us to appreciate the beauty in life

I think this is one of the most obvious lessons that Barry learns at the end. He ultimately can’t avoid his daughter’s death even despite having a reality-altering machine. But that’s okay, and he’s able to move on from it by the end.


A reality-altering time machine is wreaking havoc on people’s memories. Detective Barry Sutton and scientist Helena Smith have to figure out a way to stop the man behind this plot before it destroys the world.

Similar books:


Rating: 3 out of 5.


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