Blake Crouch has been writing seriously awesome genre-leaning fiction for a long time, but it was his Wayward Pines trilogy—recently adapted into a TV series—that sealed his reputation as the sort of writer who can be counted on to endlessly surprise his readers. After the ever-escalating insanity of those books, the question was simple: could Crouch (could anyone?) come back with a new story that even approached the same bar for weirdly logical unpredictability, let alone clear it?
Crouch’s answer comes in the form of his new novel Dark Matter, and it’s a resounding “Hell yes.” He meets the challenge and then some with what may be the most surprising sci-fi book of the year. On the one hand, Dark Matter is 100 percentBlake Crouch—a mysterious premise, a fast-pace setup, steadily building complications piled atop mysteries and challenges until you can’t begin to imagine how it all ends. So far, so Crouch—but what really elevates it over similarly ambitious SF stories is the heart and emotion he packs into it alongside wowzers plot turns, creating a story that messes with your head in disparate ways that ultimately align, Voltron-like, to form one awesome book.
Crouch efficiently establishes the premise in the first few pages, quickly acquainting us with Jason Dessen and his semi-perfect life. Dessen was once a hot rising star in the field of physics, but an accidental pregnancy forced him to a decision point—and he chose his family. Fifteen years later, he’s a professor at a humble college, his former colleagues are winning awards and doing incredible work, and he struggles with moments of despondency and jealousy. But overall he’s incredibly happy with his wife—an artist named Daniela who is in every way the love of his life—and their teenage son Charlie. Things aren’t perfect, but he knows he made the right decision, all those years earlier.
Then one night, without warning, he’s kidnapped. A man in a mask takes him at gunpoint to an abandoned factory on the edges of Chicago, administers a strange drug to him, and knocks him unconscious. When Jason wakes up, he’s in another version of reality. In this alternate world, Jasen Dessen didn’t get married. He left Daniela to focus on his work and went on to win awards and accept funding to build a practical application of his theories, theories that involve the Many Worlds model of quantum physics—the concept that every time we make decisions, alternate universes split off, complete with alternate versions of ourselves.
Do Not Want
The first thing that’ll twist your mind as you read is Jason’s reaction to this madness. You might expect Crouch to show Jason enjoying his alternate existence to some extent. After all, in the new world, he’s a celebrated genius with billions of dollars in funding and all the awards he’s ever wanted. Another novelist might show Jason tempted to stick around and enjoy some of that celebrity and success.
Instead, he’s instantly miserable and alarmed. This is not, after all, a story about second chances at a life not lived, or anything as ordinary as all that—Jason rejected this life 15 years ago for a reason, and he has no doubts about that decision. His first, fierce thought is to get back to his life—the life he wants, the life he chose.
I Am Not Myself Today
Crouch further messes with you through his villain. Without serious spoilers, it’s impossible to even discuss his or her identity, but it’s a twisty, marvelous mess that Crouch twists with ingenious complications as he embraces the true nature of the Many Worlds concept, which involve not just many alternate universes, but an infinite number of alternate universes—with more being created at every juncture, including the time Jason spends searching for a way back to his old life. It’s one of the freshest approaches to an SF antagonist in ages.
For a high-concept thriller, it’s surprising just how emotional a book this is. Jason’s focus remains squarely on his wife and his son. When he discovers that he’s not the only one with skin in the game, things get incredibly interesting—and what Crouch does next is remarkable. This is a book that celebrates the idea of true love: of soul mates. You don’t necessarily expect a twisty novel like this one to have such serious emotional heft, but Crouch makes the case that even in the midst of quantum confusion and the complete disruption of reality, two people can still identify each other as the person they love. It’s powerful, and makes an unique story stand out all the more.
A Crooked Path
All of these elements wind their way to a tense, yet surprisingly subdued, ending. Where other writers might go for bombastic action, Crouch zigs away in a surprisingly effective way, staying true to the characters while still shocking readers, and strumming hard those emotional heartstrings. Dark Matter is an SF thriller with soul, and I’m glad to live in the reality that contains it.