Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is a scientific thriller that explores the idea of multiple universes (Available July 26, 2016).
At some point, in most of our lives, we make a decision or two that shapes what becomes of us for a number of years or decades, if not forever. Many of us spend some time wondering what might have been had we made the choices other than the ones we made at those pivotal moments. Jason Dessen, the lead character and narrator of most of Blake Crouch’s novel Dark Matter, gets to experience the different versions of the life he might have led.
Dessen is a guy in his mid-30s or thereabouts. At the outset of the story, he is married, the father of a teenage boy, and a physics professor at a small college in Chicago. Prior to family life, Dessen was a promising physicist, seemingly on the verge of making highly impactful research discoveries in the field of quantum mechanics. But, when his girlfriend—a visual artist who appeared destined for achievement in that area—got pregnant, he let his research program go and focused on family life, taking the more modest professional avenue of becoming a teacher to undergrad students. His wife also sacrificed her career and is now a stay-at-home mom who doesn’t do much artwork.
Then, on a night when Dessen has the humbling experience of seeing a friend and former research colleague get celebrated for winning a scientific award—the kind of prize Dessen might well have received if he had kept working at his experiments—his world gets changed.
He is abducted while walking home from a bar. He gets taken to a strange facility by his captors, who clearly think he is someone other than himself—or, truer to say, they think he is a different version of himself. The Jason Dessen these people are after is a brilliant scientist who is close to making world-changing quantum breakthroughs; he is not married and does not have a child and is not a college professor. And, they clearly want some things from him and will go to any means necessary to get those things. The Jason they talk about, and want some kind of performance out of, is both him and not him. So what’s going on?
It would take up too much space for me to describe how the real crux of the story comes about, and I might ruin the ride for people new to the book if I attempted that. So, suffice to say that what winds up happening is Dessen, via the kinds of scientific experiments he was working on before he dropped his research agenda, comes to live in the multiverse: he is able to view different versions of himself and what his life would be like if he had made different choices along the way and if different circumstances had occurred to and around him. And, he is able to act within those worlds.
He goes through all of this not in some cozy dream state, but rather via a set of dangerous conditions and episodes that threaten to break down his psyche, if not kill him. Some of the passages from the book highlight what happens to Dessen and what he is thinking as he has experiences these perilous brainfuck happenings:
“We all live day to day completely oblivious to the fact that we’re a part of a much larger and stranger reality than we can possible imagine.”
“Imagine you’re a fish, swimming in a pond. You can move forward and back, side to side, but never up out of the water. If someone were standing beside the pond, watching you, you’d have no idea they were there. To you, that little pond is an entire universe. Now imagine that someone reaches down and lifts you out of the pond. You see that what you thought was the entire world is only a small pool. You see other ponds. Trees. The sky above. You realize you’re a part of a much larger and more mysterious reality than you had ever dreamed of.”
It’s like forgetting everything about yourself and then reading your own biography.
The Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics posits that all possible realities exist. That everything which has a probability of happening is happening. Everything that might have occurred in our past did occur, only in another universe.
If you strip away all the trappings of personality and lifestyle, what are the core components that make me me?
Crouch’s novel is a suspenseful thriller that gets at many basic human questions and complexes:
- How do we know that the reality before us is the only one that’s happening?
- How would we feel if we could witness the different versions of the lives we could have led if we had made different decisions along the way?
- Which is better: to achieve significant professional accomplishments while sacrificing human relationships that would have kept you from attaining them, or to have only modest success in your professional life while having lasting interpersonal experiences in love, parenthood, etc.?
This is the first Crouch novel that I’ve read, and, while I’m always open to worthy titles within any literary genre, as a rule, I don’t read many scientific thrillers. So, I can’t compare Dark Matter to other books of its kind or to Crouch’s other efforts.
Taken at face value, I found it to be a well-conceived story with plenty of suspense, remarkable in some ways and not so much in others. Dessen is an interesting and believable guy, and his adventures are fascinating, but the side characters could have been drawn out more. I didn’t see anything wrong in the word-for-word writing, but I also found it to be kind of average. Overall, it’s not a novel I would call entirely memorable, but while reading it, I enjoyed the ride, and I especially liked contemplating the psychological, existential, and scientific concepts it explores.
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Brian Greene writes short stories, personal essays, and reviews and articles of/on books, music, and film. His work has appeared in 25+ publications since 2008. His pieces on crime fiction have also been published by Noir Originals, Crime Time, Paperback Parade, The Life Sentence, Stark House Press, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, North Carolina.