By Ilia U.
Yes, there are alternate timelines, incurable plagues, and consciousness generators. It is, after all, a sci-fi thriller romp across the multiverse. But Dark Matter‘s true strength is in the characterization of its protagonist – who serves as Ariadne’s thread in this labyrinthine tale.
With just a few pages in, author Blake Crouch manages to make us care about Jason – husband, father, undistinguished professor in a midling college, and former rising star in the field of quantum mechanics. Like any average human being, Jason does casually wonder where the path not taken could have led him. But he is so genuinely content with the life he has with his wife and son to dwell on what-ifs and might-have-beens.
It is Jason’s frank’s unbitter self-awareness about how his life is both exceptional and mediocre that first pulls the reader in. Then the story (abductions! drug-altered mind states! strange new worlds!), told in near-perfect pace, pushes you to forego two nights worth of sleep and keeps you turning pages till the end.
Like Jason’s life, Dark Matter begins ordinarily: one unsuspecting Thursday night, Jason heads to his local bar for a drink with an old roommate and swings by Whole Foods to pick up ice cream. He never reaches home – Jason Dessen is abducted and wakes up to a world that is not his own.
Fleeing the underground research facility where he is held, Jason finds that, in this iteration of events, he never marries Daniela and never sires a son. Instead, this version of Jason dedicates his life to science and designs a box that is a gateway, an infinite junction of sorts, to all possible realities of a single point in time and space.
What follows next is a desperate fumble through alternate realities in search of Jason’s home, his version of Chicago: the version where the Charlie and Daniela he knows and loves exist.
“What if our worldline is just one of an infinite number of worldlines, some slightly altered from the life we know, others drastically different?”
The concept of multiple universes is now par for the course in science fiction but Crouch uses this familiar trope to explore human individuality and identity. What is it about our lives, ourselves, that make them ours? Is it our DNA, our choices, or our contexts? As the best pieces of science fiction do, Dark Matter becomes a catalyst for the reader to reflect on the human condition.
Dark Matter is never too high-concept to make it inaccessible to readers who don’t usually dabble in sci-fi. (The novel is so readable and engaging, it isn’t surprising the film rights to it have been bought by Sony Pictures.) Crouch makes the story human by anchoring it on Jason as he experiences his worst subconscious fears, hunger, extreme climate change, and charged encounters with other versions of the people in his life.
Perhaps the main source of joy in reading this thriller is seeing Jason try and solve his way out situations thrust upon him – much like Mark Watney in Andy Weir’s The Martian. Crouch really raises the stakes and allows his main character to handle them. Dark Matter might not have enough science for the hardcore sci-fi readers, but it sure has enough heart and humanist optimism to maybe tip the scales to its favor.
Reviewer recommendation: If you do decide to pick up this book, be sure to pass by the supermarket for some midnight snacks – you’ll need the fuel to keep up with Jason Dessen through the wee hours of the night.
Dark Matter is available at Fully Booked Online.