In his latest novel, Dark Matter, Blake Crouch asks us to imagine we’re fish, swimming in a pond. Within our cozy confines, we can swim all day, and in any direction we please; to us, that pond is the whole universe. All we can’t do is get out of the water. Imagine, however, that someone reaches into the pond and lifts us out. Suddenly, we see trees, and sky, and other ponds, too. “You realize,” Crouch tells us through the words of his main character, Jason, “you’re a part of a much larger and more mysterious reality than you ever dreamed of.”
Crouch demonstrated the art of the twist in his enormously popular Wayward Pines trilogy, and here, he brings his skill for suspense to a science-driven thriller, and to breathtaking effect. Dark Matter is a meditation on love and life and the paths untaken along the way, and it is simultaneously a taut and tense science fiction thriller.
By most measures, Jason Dessen leads a solid, pleasant life. He is in good health. He has a good, if not thrilling, job as a physics professor. When he comes home, he finds a good-natured teenage son and a wife he adores.
Still, he has made sacrifices. Jason’s reminded of this when he meets up with his old college roommate, recently the winner of a major scientific award for his work. Much like his wife, Daniela, who gave up her art career because of a surprise pregnancy, Jason abandoned his own research and altered his career path to accommodate his new, unexpected family. Seeing Ryan’s success—and being needled by Ryan about it—is a tough pill to swallow.
Could Jason, as Ryan believes, have gone on to do something great? Did he settle when he settled down? What might have been if he’d continued his research, or if Daniela had terminated the pregnancy, or if either of them had made a thousand other choices in life?
There are, of course, plenty of stories about what might have been. The difference here is Dark Matter’s intensity as a thriller. Not long after his encounter with Ryan, Jason is abducted by a masked assailant, who forces him to drive to an abandoned power plant, where he’s promptly stripped, beaten, and drugged into oblivion.
When Jason wakes, it’s to unfamiliar faces, in an unfamiliar place. Everyone seems to know him, and all tell him they want to help. But nowhere in the picture is Daniela, or their son, or any semblance of the life Jason knows. To these people, Jason isn’t a married ho-hum college professor; he’s a scientific genius who has made an incredible breakthrough.
What’s unclear—even more than the mechanics of what has happened—is which life is a dream, and which is reality? Or, in fact, are they both realities, spawned at the divergence of one or several small moments? As Jason struggles to parse these questions, and to find a way back to the family he left behind, he must also confront the parts of himself he has tried hard to ignore.
Most of us are curious about what our lives would be like if we’d made a different choice, or chosen a different path. We dream about the presumed greatness that passed us by. But given the opportunity to live that other life, we might hesitate. Things in the here and now start to look a little rosier. The opportunity costs escalate when you leapfrog realities. For Jason, confronted with two strong, tactile worlds that claim he belongs in them, the choice to go home is made more difficult. Which is home? And which Jason is the real Jason: the one who built a family, or the one who built a legacy?
Those moral quandaries, and the accompanying questions of identity and sense of self, share the stage with the science in this fiction, which involve the titular dark matter and more than a few mentions of Schrodinger’s cat. If Crouch, at times, seems to play a little fast and loose with the concepts he’s discussing, it’s in the name of maintaining the suspense and propelling the plot’s pace at a quickening, thickening rate, and because of that, is quickly forgiven.
The story never flags, and never grows cold. Jason is a sympathetic, flawed narrator, whose problems, exacerbated by unique and technologically mysterious circumstances, will be relatable to anyone who has ever wondered about the direction their life has taken.
“It’s terrifying when you consider that every thought we have, every choice we could possibly make, creates a new world,” Jason says. Disregarding the more speculative points of the novel’s central dilemma, Dark Matter will leave readers wondering about their own ponds, and whether there’s more outside their borders.