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Dark Matter by Blake Crouch3 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsThe Many Worlds Hypothesis of quantum physics had been kicking around science fiction for years and years and years before Blake Crouch tapped into it as the premise of Dark Matter. Crouch’s approach, however, is far from the rigorous intellectualism of hard SF. With his staccato writing, his frenetic prose favoring an abundance of single-sentence paragraphs to keep the story’s pacing rarely less than breakneck, Crouch feels less inspired by science fiction’s luminaries than by that master of disposable bestseller product, James Patterson.

Dark Matter has a number of clever touches, and I’d be lying if I said Crouch hasn’t got a great handle on writing the ideal airport novel. The hook is solid — a man displaced in the multiverse must get back to his own timeline and family — and the story reads exactly like a movie, an easy-to-grasp high-concept thriller that feels like It’s a Wonderful Life as written and directed by Christopher Nolan. SF purists wanting the science to be treated with a bit more detail and less as “handwavium” to get the action going will probably bristle at the slick superficiality of it all. (For this reason I would consider Andy Weir to be the superior practitioner of this type of book, as he really makes the science feel like science and not magic.) But readers from the “I just want to be entertained” school will be on board.

Jason Dessen could have made world-changing breakthroughs as a theoretical physicist. But at a key moment in his life, he made a decision to settle down and marry his pregnant girlfriend, Daniela, an artist of great promise. Now, years later, with a teenage son, Jason and Daniela lead content but routine lives in Chicago. Once the rising physics star who could have gone on to publish revolutionary research, Jason now teaches undergrads, happy with his family but still haunted by roads not taken.

There is universal relatability here. All of us can and probably do think back on our early adulthood, wondering how different things might be if only we’d opened Door #2, #3, #4, et cetera, instead of Door #1. Regarding my own early twenties, I think back and can see only foolish choices, but perhaps much of that is a natural tendency to be too self-critical. As a character here points out, poor choices are learning experiences and opportunities for growth. But what if we were given the chance to unmake a distant, regretted decision? Or, as Dark Matter proposes, what if such a situation was forced on us?

Coming home late from meeting an old friend and former college roommate who has gone on to enjoy the professional acclaim he walked away from, Jason is suddenly accosted on the street by an armed, masked man who forces him to drive to a remote location at the edge of the city. Because Crouch is not exactly subtle about underscoring his themes with a massive highlighter, we immediately know that Jason’s assailant is a version of himself from an alternate timeline. Jason2 forces Jason to swap clothing, then knocks Jason out with an ampoule full of a mystery drug. Jason awakens in Jason2’s Chicago, where that version of himself went on not only to solve multiple intractable problems in quantum physics, but to build an actual gate to access the multiverses. But despite his success, Jason2 always regretted not settling down with Daniela, and has decided simply to travel to a timeline in which he did and replace himself there.

The rest of the story involves Jason’s desperate, Hitchcockian-man-on-the-run attempts to return to his own world (but how to find it, amongst an infinity of branching timelines?) and reunite with his family. His travels, many of which are in the company of a sympathetic colleague from Jason2’s timeline, allow the book a number of striking moments. Some images and scenes are genuinely haunting. And Crouch builds upon the conflict by adding complications arising directly from Jason’s own search, staying faithful to his premise. The climax and denouement are satisfying, especially in the way Crouch finishes on a decision that must be resolved only in our imaginations.

But for all the story’s excitement, there is a shallowness to it that’s unfortunate. Occasionally, pure contrivance takes over if Crouch needs to get the story going where he wants it to go quickly. The plot sometimes feels less like it’s moving forward than being moved forward. And to put it bluntly, Jason’s family are essentially reduced to a prize for Jason’s ability to solve all of his problems correctly. There’s entertainment here, but little depth or meaning beyond obvious declarations that choices and the consequences we live with from them are what shape our identity and mold our character. Reviewing Dark Matter a few years after its release, I have the opportunity to note the 2022 Michelle Yeoh film Everything Everywhere All at Once, and how it does everything Dark Matter does, but with immeasurably more humor, creativity and heart. The choice, of course, is all yours.