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The ability to enhance your body is everywhere today: wearable tech to help you sleep better or exercise more efficiently, “smart drugs” to sharpen your focus and memory recall, injectable fillers to tweak the features of your face, genetic testing to identify and mitigate potential health risks.
But what if humans fully unlocked the most powerful and invasive optimization technology – the ability to edit the entire human genome – and unleashed it on the world?
That’s the premise of sci-fi author Blake Crouch’s new novel, “Upgrade,” set in a not-too-distant future where science has blown past the capabilities of the groundbreaking real-life gene-editing tool CRISPR (celebrating its 10th anniversary this year) and entered an era where it’s possible to make humans superhuman, both physically and cognitively. At the same time, the world’s population is hanging on to the brink of normalcy, with worldwide food shortages and major coastal cities partially underwater, as it faces imminent extinction from climate change.
“I just found myself often wishing, what if gene editing, in addition to editing disease…wouldn’t it be amazing if we could just edit the way a species thinks, and have everyone care about the fact that we’re heading down this very bad road in terms of climate change and these existential threats, which are not so existential anymore?” Crouch said in a phone call. “As I wrote the book, I started realizing that that kind of a power has a very dark side about it. And it took me in directions that were quite surprising.”
The book, which now has a film adaptation in the works, follows Logan Ramsay, who works for the Gene Protection Agency to root out criminals using gene editing illegally. He’s also the son of a brilliant scientist who accidentally caused a mass-casualty famine when she tried to eradicate a leaf disease in China’s rice paddies using experimental gene technology.
Ramsay finds himself at the center of a plot to upgrade humanity in order to save it from extinction when he’s infected with a virus that rewrites huge swaths of his DNA. His genetic makeover gives him ultra-ramped-up memory and focus, perfect control over his autonomic nervous system, the ability to sense micro-changes in other humans, and a method for walling off emotion. But the upgrade has darker implications for the world when he unravels its creator’s intentions.
A ‘Pandora’s box’
Crouch consults with experts in his storytelling to make hard science widely accessible; the bestselling author’s past titles “Recursion” (about artificial memories), “Dark Matter” (quantum mechanics) and “Summer Frost” (AI sentience) all currently are being adapted to film or television as well.
In “Upgrade,” Crouch poses heady existential questions on whether humanity is really up to the task of surviving – and what we would require as a species to do it.
Whether or not genome editing becomes the tool we wield, Crouch says in many ways, we’re already laying the groundwork for bio-enhancement. Apple Watches, Fitbits, fitness apps and period trackers collecting our personal metrics to give us better insight into our bodies have already become commonplace, while Elon Musk’s divisive Neuralink brain chip implant is looming on the horizon.
“(We have a) reliance on technology and artificial intelligence to help us understand how our body is operating in real time…and I think the really interesting thing is how much of our lives we’re handing over to algorithms,” Crouch said.
“There’s a real quest for certainty, and for optimization, and where that comes from I think is pretty obvious,” he added. “We’re programmed not to want to die, and it’s all in service of prolonging our lives and the quality of our lives. And I think we’re willing to give up a fair amount of freedom and autonomy to achieve that.”
Though “Upgrade” quickly shifts from sci-fi thriller to horror when all is revealed, the author insists the book isn’t just an “alarm bell” about genetic engineering.
“The technology is extraordinary, it’s magic, it is a Pandora’s box. And if humanity figures out how to use it for good, we could extend our lives, we could eradicate disease, we could change the entire food system of our planet,” he said. “But in the wrong hands…it gets used in truly terrifying ways.
“It just demands a lot more public awareness, and thoughtful conversations about how we handle this power.”
“Upgrade” by Blake Crouch is available now.
Add to Queue: Upgrade U
Read: “Jurassic Park” by Michael Crichton (1990)
Genetic engineering is a mainstay in sci-fi, but Crichton’s franchise-spawning classic about escaped cloned dinosaurs is Crouch’s favorite example. “It was so thoughtfully, meticulously researched and so believable,” he said. “It really changed my life.”
Watch: “Gattaca” (1997)
Instead of the engineered replicants of “Blade Runner,” who were created as an exploited class below humans, “Gattaca” envisions a world where genetic selection allows the biologically favored to reign. The Andrew Niccol-directed film follows Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke), whose life trajectory is set from birth by his undesirable DNA, but he’ll do anything to escape his menial job to go to space.
Read: “The Mutant Project: Inside the Global Race to Genetically Modify Humans” by Eben Kirskey (2020)
Anthropologist Eben Kirksey interviews scientists, entrepreneurs, activists, scholars and chronically ill patients, among many others, who are invested in the idea of a genetically modified future but have different views on what it should look like and the potential pitfalls humanity faces along the way.
Read: “Oryx and Crake” by Margaret Atwood (2003)
Atwood’s post-apocalyptic tale – the first of the MaddAddam trilogy – leaves readers in the dark about what caused humanity’s downfall as the protagonist, Snowman, tries to survive as possibly the last human on Earth, accompanied only by the childlike humanoid Crakers. Through flashbacks to his pre-apocalypse life with his best friend and enigmatic lover, the Crakers’ origins and purpose are revealed.
Watch: “Human Nature” (2019)
Go deep into the potential of CRISPR with this Netflix documentary. Geneticists, biochemists and other experts come together to discuss the transformative potential of gene editing – including the diseases it could eradicate, the engineering of animal organs to be compatible with humans, and the advancements of fertility and potential for “designer babies” – as well as the ethics at play.