Review: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

Until everything topples, we have no idea what we actually have, how precariously and perfectly it all hangs together.

Dark Matter is a fast-paced, sci-fi thriller about identity and alternative universes. It begins with some creepily ominous foreshadowing that immediately piqued my curiosity, then quickly launches into a series of perplexing events that kept me compulsively turning pages, desperate to find out what happens next. So be warned, you might not be able to put this book down once you begin!

The story centers around Jason Dessen, a physics professor who leaves his wife and son at home one evening to attend a celebration for a colleague at a local pub, gets mugged on the way back, and wakes up to discover that none of the life he remembers exists. He is surrounded by people who seem to know him but not know him. He has no wife and son, someone else lives in his house, and no professor with his name is listed in the directory at the local college.

It turns out that Dessen was a wunderkind who created a sensation with his radical theories on quantum mechanics and the multiverse when he was in graduate school, but then he abandoned the all-consuming world of research for a low-key, family-centered life. And the bizarre dilemma in which he suddenly finds himself has something to do with that. But even his essential understanding of the gadgetry around him and the cosmic forces underlying his situation isn’t enough for him to grok what’s going on, so he must deftly navigate a reality he has never seen before and keep readers on the edge of their seats as he tries to figure out what it all means before it’s too late.

I’d read about half the book before I realized what had happened to Dessen. But there was no time to catch my breath and marvel at the ingenuity of his quandary. My compulsion simply shifted to determining how the heck he was going to get out of this mind-boggling predicament! And then the next one and the next one....

IMHO, if you look up “gripping” in the dictionary, a picture of this book belongs in the definition.

About the science

A wee quantum of humor Source
I don’t want to spoil any more of the simultaneously astonishing and suspenseful plot than you might already have gleaned. I do want to reassure you that you don’t need to know physics to follow Dessen’s exploits. In fact, if you’re a physicist, you might balk at the “science”, but I don’t know enough about quantum mechanics to nitpick its hypothetical applications in fiction, so I found it all fascinating. My understanding is that the author likes to choose facets of science he’s interested in learning more about, and then let his imagination forge a path through the infinitely diverse but logically plausible possibilities. After all, the plausible possibilities related to our temporal fourth dimension are spectacular enough they don’t need embellishment.

The book’s title refers to an invisible component of the universe that we can’t see. You don’t need to know what dark matter is, but I wanted to refresh my memory. Here’s what the book says:
“Most astrophysicists believe that the force holding stars and galaxies together—the thing that makes our whole universe work—comes from a theoretical substance we can’t measure or observe directly. Something they call dark matter. And this dark matter makes up most of the known universe.”

“But what is it exactly?”

“No one’s really sure. Physicists have been trying to construct new theories to explain its origin and what it is. We know it has gravity, like ordinary matter, but it must be made of something completely new.... Some string theorists think it might be a clue to the existence of the multiverse.”

Here’s a bit more detail from the interwebs that you can skip right over if you like:
The visible universe—including Earth, the sun, other stars, and galaxies—is made of protons, neutrons, and electrons bundled together into atoms. [snip] This ordinary, or baryonic, matter makes up less than 5 percent of the mass of the universe. [snip] The rest of the universe appears to be made of a mysterious, invisible substance called dark matter (25 percent) and a force that repels gravity known as dark energy (70 percent). Source

Quantum physicists “discovered” dark matter in the late 20th century. They postulated its existence as part of the answer to a question that regular physics couldn’t explain: why is the expansion of the universe accelerating rather than slowing down? Dark matter doesn’t interact with visible matter and we can observe it only indirectly, by its gravitational effects on nearby galaxies. (Read more about that on the NASA website here.)

We’re done with the science now

Parts of this book made me fondly recall Paddy Chayefsky’s Altered States, from 1978. Another part reminded me of the Hall of All Days in Karen Moning’s Fever series. But explaining why would spoil too much, so I’ll just leave you wondering about that.

Author Blake Crouch also wrote the Wayward Pines trilogy, which I enjoyed very much (mini-review here). (Although Dark Matter shares the same name as a Canadian TV-and-graphic-novel series by other authors, those things are unrelated to Crouch’s book.) In both of these stories by Crouch, the protagonist wakes up in a world he doesn’t recognize, a world in which some parts seem familiar, while others seem slightly altered or completely foreign. They got there in completely different ways and must solve completely different problems, but Crouch is a consummate crafter of confusing conundrums, and half the fun is figuring out what happened. And then how to get back to “real” reality. Which might not be what you expect. The other half is marveling at the cleverness of the twists and turns!

The Wayward Pines books are better than the TV series,
of course, though season 1 isn’t bad

Despite all the potentially intimidating talk about physics here today, Crouch is first and foremost a terrific story teller. There might be mystifying scientific concoctions brewing behind the curtain, but he serves up anything you need to know in easily digestible morsels. And he’s good at it. He actually made me understand what a 4-dimensional tesseract is, which none of the many articles I read about the science behind the movie Interstellar succeeded in accomplishing for me. His ability to fabricate alarming fantasies using theoretical premises from various scientific disciplines is one he shares with some of my other favorite sci-fi authors from over the years, like Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park series, Prey, Timeline) and David Brin (Earth, The Uplift Saga, other Uplift series).

And like those authors, Crouch’s tales might make you think about things you thought you knew in new ways. Not only the marvels of the external realms in which we live, but inner realms, and the filters through which we perceive everything around and within us. In particular, Dark Matter puts your definition of identity through a few bracing paces before it’s done.
If you strip away all the trappings of personality and lifestyle, what are the core components that make me me?

So if you’re looking for a quick and thoughtful thriller that grabs you and won’t let go — perhaps that perfect companion for a stormy day or a weekend getaway — this might be the one! Because after you’ve sampled those first few pages, there’s a high probability that you won’t want to stop until you’ve devoured every word down to the bottom of the very last page!

This Wench rates Dark Matter...


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