Issue #265 – Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

And you may ask yourself
How do I work this?
And you may ask yourself
Where is that large automobile?
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful house!
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful wife!

I have a feeling that in an alternate universe I’ve already read this book.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is a perfectly serviceable science fiction novel that reads more like a contemporary thriller that just happens to have an SF theme to it. In that sense it kind of reminds me of the way Michael Crichton writes… though without the lengthy and accurate scientific explanations or bibliography at the end. I simply mean that even though it is of one genre (SF) it reads more like another (Thriller). Which is not a bad thing.

However, less of a good thing is the fact that I’ve seen this plot before…several times in slight variations. It’s déjà vu all over again.

Jason Dessen has a nice comfortable life as a physics teacher with a loving wife and teenage son. Then he’s abducted, knocked out, and wakes up in a world that is not his own. He soon learns his wife is no longer married to him, they never had a son, and instead of being a college professor, he’s considered one of the most brilliant minds on the planet.

However, this isn’t a time travel novel, but one of parallel universes. For Star Trek TNG fans, the most obvious comparison will be the Worf-centered episode “Parallels,” which shares most of its core concept, if not its execution. Others might be reminded of the TV show Sliders, especially in the late second act. And I’m sure there are other books, movies, and shows that it will remind you of and twig you onto what’s happening, long before the protagonist does.

This is a problem—but only if you are looking at the story from a SF point of view. But, viewed as a thriller that simply has an SF element in it, this becomes more forgivable. The question then becomes whether or not you care about the lead character enough to follow his journey.

Fortunately, the answer is yes. This story, while primarily about Jason’s struggle to get home, is also about Jason in far a wider spectrum—a lifetime’s spectrum. The other Jason (Jason 2 as the protag refers to him) had a very successful academic life, focused entirely on work, but absolutely no time for a personal life. Original Flavor Jason is the opposite, and while he is happy, he sometimes thinks about the road not taken. As we all do.

Ultimately that is what this story is about, the key conflict going on, and it’s something he has to face as he eventually learns that getting home is even harder than he thought.

For SF fans, two thirds of this book isn’t going to feel wholly original, and that might take away some of your enjoyment. In terms of “science” it largely retreads broad and familiar subjects, Schrodinger’s Cat, parallel universes, dark matter, the prisoner’s dilemma in game theory, and so on. Easy touchstones to reference and allow the reader to move on to the character driven aspects of the story.

The science is dubious at best, like the trope about humans only using ten percent of their brains. This book doesn’t use that old debunked chestnut, but it gives you an idea of the level of “science” you’ll find here. To be fair, though, that can be said for a lot of SF. It all depends on what kind of SF you’re writing. However, if you’re looking for a “cozy” book to read, that familiarity won’t be a problem.

To its credit, the third act throws a serious wrench into the works, and the author explores an aspect of this parallel universe scenario I never thought it would. That made me far more invested in seeing how things would work out in the climax.

Overall, I enjoyed this book and would recommend it, under the provisions I’ve already mentioned. It’s perfectly enjoyable both as a thriller and as an SF story, and while its core plot is familiar, it does take on a shift later on that you might not see coming. I suppose you could call this an ideal airport novel, but it won’t win any Hugo or Nebula awards.

And you may ask yourself
What is that beautiful house?
And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go to?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right? Am I wrong?
And you may say yourself, “My God! What have I done?”

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