What would happen if you could access alternate versions of your life? What if you could be a superstar in your field? Would you do it? And what would it cost? These are questions that Blake Crouch wants to answer in his book «Dark Matter». He succeeds two out of three times.
Jason Dessen is not successful by objective standards. He’s happy, but he could have been more. He could have been a stellar physicist. One of the greats of our generation. He could have won the prestigious Pavia Prize. He had a family instead, became a teacher and ultimately ended up content. The night his friend Ryan Holden receives the Pavia Prize, Jason is abducted by a man in a geisha mask.
When Jason wakes up, he is in a laboratory. There are people referring to him as «brother» he’s never met. People who claim that he’s the greatest physicist ever. His wife doesn’t know him. He has no son.
This is not his world.
This is also where the book derails for the first time.
Brief Interlude: The Multiverse
Dark Matter relies on the narrative device of The Multiverse, which is one of the areas of study in physics. It supposes that parallel to our dimension, there are a number or an infinite number of dimensions that are just a mite different from ours.
Because, so goes one theory, let’s say you decide to eat pasta today. Somewhere out there, there’s an alternate dimension where you don’t eat pasta. You have pizza instead. From there, your life diverges from the life that both versions of you have lived up until now.
Now, to make this even more complex, let’s say Pasta!You decides to have a beer. Somewhere out there, there’s a dimension in which there’s not PastaBeer!You, but a PastaWine!You. This goes on and on, with every decision you make. Somewhere out there, there’s a version of me who decides to delete this sentence. Somewhere out there, there’s a version of you who died back when you did that risky thing. A version where you got married, had a kid. One where you picked up playing the harp. One where you became a cashier. And so on. The possibilities are endless and it’s all quite mind boggling.
Obviously, we have not found a way to traverse the dimensional boundaries, seeing as we can only theorize that there are alternate dimensions. In fact, physicists are still divided on whether or not there are infinite dimensions and if so, how does it all function. However, fiction loves the concept. A number of authors have tackled the topic, among them Warren Ellis in his comic book Stormwatch and subsequent Wildstorm-titles. In Stormwatch and The Authority, Ellis introduces The Bleed, a dimensional superstructure, allowing the characters to access other dimensions.
In Dark Matter, this dimensional superstructure comes in the form of a box, aptly named The Box in the book. From there, you can access the book’s version of The Bleed, which is an endless corridor full of doors. Take a door, and you’re in another dimension.
The Plot of Three Books
The idea behind the book is an excellent one. One that has not been explored that often, possibly due to the sheer complexity of the subject matter. Because Dessen did not wake up in some kind of dream world or something, he woke up in a different dimension. One where The Road Not Taken would have left him. In this dimension, Jason did not have a family, he did not marry. He did win the Pavia Prize and he did find a way to access the dimensional superstructure, allowing him to go to see versions of himself who have led different lives.
Now, I’m going to rip into this book, take it apart and scrutinize it. However, I want you to know that I wholeheartedly recommend this book. The ideas and concepts in it are good enough that you can rip into them and have valid thoughts in the context and constraints of the novel. In fact, this is the sort of book that allows scrutiny to the extent only a good book allows.
To explain all his ideas, Blake Crouch takes about a third of the book. The sheer amount of exposition needed to make this quite ambitious novel work is handled quite brilliantly, really. Of course, Crouch has to dumb down his physicist lead for a bit to get it all in, but it works. In fact, it works quite well. Despite there not being much of a plot in the first act of the book, it is entertaining and interesting.
Once Jason’s ketamine wears off, he escapes with one goal in mind: He wants to get back with his family. One of the main issues here is that we never get to see the road not taken. Because we’re already a third into the book, there simply isn’t enough space to elaborate on what the life of Jason2, as this dimension’s version of Jason is named, is like. It’s described, but the Jason we follow in the book never gets to experience it. Thus, his character learns nothing.
This has a grave impact on character development. As in: There is none. The Jason we have in the end is the same Jason we had in the beginning, just with some added trauma that is pushed aside at the sight of his family.
The third book starts once Jason finds his way home. And that’s where it gets really interesting. Because The Bleed in Crouch‘s dimensional superstructure is a long corridor with an infinite number of doors. Let’s say the main Jason takes the 500th door. There are 499 versions out there that are also wanting to get back to his family, but they’ve taken different doors. There are infinite versions of him, having taken doors 501 to ∞. Some versions of that Jason make it home, others don’t.
However, there are now at least 109 versions of our hero Jason in his home dimension, each one having had more or less harrowing adventures across the Multiverse. This is where the big let down of the book comes in, because here’s where Crouch has written himself into a corner.
Because at any minute, there might be more Jasons coming to his home dimension. After all, each dimensional jump he makes, there are now an infinite number of Jasons all trying to make their way home. Theoretically, the home dimension could be crowded by millions if not billions of Jasons by tomorrow, all trying to get back with his wife and son.
At the point, Crouch realizes this, the story has only 36 pages left to wrap it all up. What follows is something straight out of Rick and Morty. Not only is it nihilistic at best, but also a pretty lame cop out.
A Good Ride
All that said, Dark Matter is a quick read and a good one at that. In fact, I don’t regret reading it one bit. It’s a quick read that lives more off of the brilliant idea and the concept behind the story rather than what actually goes on. If anything, this book could have been longer. I wanted to see what Jason’s life would have been with the road not taken. What about the bleeding and wounded Jason in the superstructure? What about Amanda?
Dark Matter is a very unique book with its own twists and turns up until the ending. Some of the ideas are outright brilliant such as the chatroom of Jasons. It is, however, not without its flaws, but never stops being highly enjoyable.