How sci-fi writer Blake Crouch turned gene-editing technology into a Spielberg epic

If ever there was a worthy candidate to assume Michael Crichton’s throne as the king of clever techno-thrillers is best-selling North Carolina novelist and screenwriter Blake Crouch.

Crouch has amassed a sizable body of speculative fiction over the past decade, deftly weaving contemporary fears of the digital age into his books, layered with chilling omens of next-level technology gone awry that hold us back. awake until the wee hours of the night.

And Hollywood took notice. Since his wayward pines trilogy was adapted into a Fox series in 2015 starring Matt Dillon, Crouch’s Black matter (2016) and Recursion (2019) both landed deals for big-budget TV adaptations and feature films at Netflix and Sony Pictures, respectively.

Release of the Ballantine books Upgrade in July to rave reviews and enthusiastic sales. It revolves around the transformation of Logan Ramsay, a Gene Protection Agency agent who is dosed with a gene-hacking virus that supercharges cognitive abilities in new and frightening ways. His mother was an infamous geneticist who perished years ago after accidentally wiping out 200 million souls while 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 change society forever.

Cover for Blake Crouch’s UpgradeBallantine Books

Back in February Deadline reported that the film rights of Upgrade were purchased by Amblin Partners from Steven Spielberg. Crouch is on board the project (perhaps for Spielberg to direct) to adapt the script himself and act as one of its executive producers.

“While I was writing the book, there were these sequences that sounded like classic Spielberg from the 80s,” says the writer. Reverse. “That he landed with Spielberg’s team at Amblin is literally a dream come true.”

Reverse spoke with Crouch about his new science fiction page-turner to learn more about the origin of this disturbing story, the research he stumbled into, the fear of science and his thoughts on ethical issues artificial upgrades and genetic tampering in the future.

This interview has been edited.

Reverse: Where does the seed come from? Upgrade its origin and what intrigued you in its near future?

Blake Crouch: It was a beast of a book to write. When I’m done Black matter in 2015 or 2016, I was starting to look for the next great scientific region that I could connect to. The way I create my books is that they usually start with an emerging scientific field that interests me, then I seek to find characters and a plot to integrate. Genetics and CRISPR technology, all of those things were on my mind. It was much more grounded than the things I had written about in Black matter and much more urgent in terms of our world. But then I got scared of science. I was intimidated by biology and chemistry. All my understanding of science is self-taught. I was an English major and a creative writing minor in college. So I put it off and I put it on the back burner and I left and I wrote Recursion. But it was always there in the back of my head. When I’m done Recursionthat pushed me into new paths that Black matter didn’t, I felt like it was time. I just had to overcome the fear of science, so I took the plunge.

How was the writing journey Upgrade change you as an author and as a person?

What changed in my books, and I would say this trend started with wayward pinesaccelerated in Black matterhas become widespread in Recursionand was full screen with Upgrade, is that I’m not afraid to toss out pages and throw away the whole back half of a book if I don’t feel like it’s the best version of these characters and this story that I can tell. For every pound now, I want to leave it all on the ground. I want to put pressure on myself to do what I do better than last time. I know what my fans expect and it’s my job to give them that and more.

Upgrade author Blake CrouchBallantine Books

What was it like immersing yourself in the search for Upgrade and what surprising marginal facts did you discover?

The most shocking thing was that a lot of the technology in the book, we already do a lot of it. Now we don’t have the ability to completely improve as Logan and a lot of other characters live in Upgrade. But when it comes to the ability to enter and modify our own genetic code, to up-regulate some attributes and to regulate others, the existence of gene drives is the most powerful scientific tool that exists today. today in any field. The only difference between where we are now and the world of genetics I envision Upgrade is that we don’t have the full computing power to extrapolate phenotypes from these extraordinarily massive datasets that are made up of our DNA. The editing tools aren’t as focused as I imagine in the book, but they’re just degree levels. It will happen. We’re not that many decades away from truly being able to play God with life.

There’s a recurring theme of old-fashioned romance in your novels and Upgrade is no exception. Is it something you consciously insert or something that comes out of the organic creation process?

I think to some extent the romantic elements of my books emerge from the concept. Black matter and Recursion had a very strong romance at the heart of them. They are eternal love stories. I knew there would be an element of that in Upgrade, but I also didn’t want the whole book to be about Logan’s change and dynamic with his wife as he became something else. The love story here is really between Logan and our species, between me and our species. When I started to write Upgrade I was writing it in this heightened state of feeling that our world was falling apart and our species was making a lot of really stupid decisions. And I want to believe the best of us.

We have accomplished so much. As bad as things look right now, most people would say they would rather be alive now than a hundred years ago. The trend of cooperation, sympathy, empathy and compassion continues, but we have these downturns that could last for years or a decade where we really feel like we are going backwards. These are the things that were going through my head as I was writing this book basically trying to write a love letter to our species. Look how beautiful the world we have is. If you look at all the other galaxies in the universe, you see how rare and remote Goldilocks planets are. What luck we have here, and we miss it. Stop it with this madness and let’s move on and take care of each other.

wayward pines ran for two seasons on Fox.20th century fox

In a world where this next-level gene editing exists, what would stop people from using these intelligence and perception enhancements for nefarious purposes rather than benevolent ones?

Nothing. This is the scary side of the genetics coin. There are people who will use it for good and others who will use it for evil. It’s just the nature of humanity. We embody both sides of the extreme. And that’s one of the big things that the scientific community is struggling with right now. How do we keep our arms around this technology?

Right now, you can order a homemade CRISPR kit and spend a weekend doing very small gene-editing things. What happens when the ability to edit genes advances to the point where we can edit ourselves in much deeper ways? There are more guardrails that are going to have to be put in place. And they exist now. It is generally illegal in the gene editing community to edit at the embryonic stage to determine things like eye color and a million other attributes. As technology becomes more malleable and easy to use, these guardrails will need to keep going up.

Upgrade was picked up by Amblin this year and you’re committed to adapting your own novel to the screenplay. Are you excited to get involved and bring it to the big screen?

I love screenwriting. It uses different muscles than writing prose. I think they inform each other. In terms of adaptation, it’s literally a dream come true. While I was writing the book, there were these sequences that sounded like classic 80s Spielberg. You never know where a book is going to land when you take it out to sell it in Hollywood. That he landed with Spielberg’s team at Amblin is literally a dream come true and I’m so excited to get started. I hope it will start soon, but at the moment I still can’t believe it’s happening.

by Blake Crouch Upgrade is currently available at all bookstores and online retailers.