A frustrating part of much sci-fi is watching authors struggle their way through scientific justifications for their book’s premise. Any commitment to even the vaguest hint of verisimilitude means a writer can find themselves churning out pages of theoretical word salad, all in service of making it seem like they know what they’re talking about. Part of the uncanny beauty of Dark Matter is how it manages to make discussions about quantum mechanics sound romantic. And that tender element of Blake Crouch’s latest speculative adventure yarn is also its appeal. Put plainly, Crouch takes a sharp sci-fi premise and infuses it with love: An emotion simultaneously recognizable and oddly foreign to most of us, most of the time. We all recognize our individual experiences with the feeling, and can place those in the context of its universal element—passion and affection for another person or persons that transcends all other concerns—while still acknowledging how the unique character of other peoples’ love remains forever alien to us. This is true of most emotions, but in the force of its intensity, love persists as arguably the most uncanny of all. And that dual force, of total understanding and utter inability to justify love in any logical way, is what drives Crouch’s novel, and lends it such potency.
The book’s central conceit is a juicy one, and while most readers will guess the rough outlines of it within the first 40 pages, it deserves to remain a mystery, as the eventual arc of its usage sails far beyond the normal parameters of the Twilight Zone-esque twist. Jason Dessen is a man happy with his family but disappointed in his career, a familiar-enough sensation for anyone who has pondered the road not taken. So when he’s kidnapped by a masked stranger, drugged, and awakes in an unknown facility where’s he’s greeted as a conquering hero by employees who seem to know him personally, it doesn’t take long for the reader’s instincts to grasp the situation more rapidly than Dessen himself. He’s in an alternate reality, one in which he made very different choices, and the results of this change force him to confront deep questions about who he is, what he wants from life, and why those things matter.
Crouch’s prose is limpid, but doesn’t suffer from the dumbed-down diction of a Dan Brown. Once his story gets going, the language is fleet and nimble, doing just enough work to propel the reader forward without coming across as utilitarian or rote. A useful point of comparison here would be Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, another gripping page-turner that never devolved into lazy lit. And, like that novel, Dark Matter is concerned above all with the heart, and what we do to it—or let happen to it—over time. Best of all, Crouch achieves a heartfelt and resonant conclusion without sacrificing the innovation of his narrative. The third act constantly zigs where you expect a zag, teasing out the implications of his reality-shifting situation with maximum care and consideration for all possible outcomes. The result doesn’t stun or shock, but instead sits with you, an emotional and philosophical provocation that also reaffirms unfashionable concepts like patience and devotion. A contemporary Frank Capra, Crouch has spun a tale that only looks cheesy from the outside; Dark Matter is It’s A Wonderful Life for the 21st century—a tale that requires you to live in it, and remember once more the value in all those hoary clichés about love.
For a place to discuss the ending we don’t reveal here, head over to The Last Page.