Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch

Overview: Have you ever wondered what your life would be like if you had chosen a different path? Jason Dessen, an ordinary college physics professor, has asked himself that question many times after giving up a career in research to start a family. On his way home from an average trip to the store, a masked abductor takes him to a remote location, injects him with a mysterious serum, and asks him that burning question: Are you happy with your life?

Later, Jason wakes up to find himself in a world where he is a renowned physicist, respected and famous for the very research he had given up. While this success was certainly something Jason had dreamed of, it came with a price: in this world, he had never married or fathered a son. Jason soon realizes that the answer to “What if?” is not what he imagined it would be, and he must use every ounce of his intellect and willpower to return to his own life, in his own world.

This story is the perfect balance of science and fantasy, thriller and heartwarming (or maybe heart-wrenching is the term I’m looking for?) fiction. Where do I even start? Here it goes:

Themes: Crouch founded his novel on the concept of parallel universes as described in string theory (the main character is a physicist, after all). How accurately the story reflects this theory? I have no idea. I’m not an expert, but do not fear – you don’t have to be one in order to read this book. Besides, it’s safe to say that Crouch used a little poetic license in order to make this story more of a science fiction fantasy rather than an exact reflection of scientific fact.

That being said, there are several underlying themes that are incredibly relatable and rooted in reality, like unconditional love for family, the source of one’s identity, and being happy with the life you have (just to name a few). The use of science fiction is merely a vehicle to explore very real concepts at a deep and visceral level. Yes, the poor guy must travel between parallel universes in order to get back home to his family – but it’s still a “coming home” story nonetheless. Think of it as “It’s a wonderful life” with a futuristic twist. And a bit more action.

Plot: As for the plot, it was always one step ahead of me. There were multiple times throughout the story where I found myself thinking “Huh, this is not where I thought things were going.” I loved this. As a reader, predictable plots get boring. Knowing how events are going to play out can keep me from feeling invested in the story, and this was never an issue. I blazed through this book for that very reason – I had no idea how the main character was going to solve his problems, and boy did he have problems to solve. I had to keep turning the pages in order to find out.

Characters: I have read several thrillers that are certainly “thrilling”, but I JUST DIDN’T CARE about the characters. Crouch painted his main protagonist, Jason, as a truly relatable and likeable person. He wasn’t your typical action hero – just an average college physics professor who wanted to get back to his wife and son. Having no special fighting or survival skills, he scraped his way through each obstacle using pure desperation and his knowledge of physics. I was rooting for him.

An exciting plot AND well developed characters are the key ingredients for a very good read, and Dark Matter achieved both. Even though the story was action packed, Crouch still took the time to thoroughly develop the main character so that readers would truly care about the outcome of the story. While this was a science-fiction thriller, it was not so far removed from reality that I couldn’t relate to Jason’s motivations and thought processes. I was compelled to see the story through in order to make sure he was ok (because that’s what friends do, of course).

Writing Style: The writing style was clearly used to emphasize all of the areas I’ve mentioned above. Crouch embraced the concept “less is more”, writing in succinct and often incomplete sentences that accomplished multiple things: First, it created an aura of mystery. As a reader, you were never told everything you wanted to know – just what you needed at that moment. Frustrating, yes, but also great for the story.

Second, the use of brief, incomplete sentences powerfully conveyed the anxiety and/or exhaustion that the main character often experienced on his journey. And I mean often. It also emphasized the cold and sterile scientific theme of the novel. The storyline was bleak and nearly (don’t worry – only nearly!) hopeless at times, and the writing style accurately and brilliantly reflected all of this.

Cons: [spoiler alert in this section!] While I did love the character development for Jason, I cannot say that the other characters in the novel were well developed – then again, that may be intentional. This story was mostly a one man show – so much so that Jason was competing with dozens of alternate Jasons to get back to his wife and son. Yeesh.

This leads me to another potential con: How do you respond when you’ve become attached to a character who is both the protagonist and antagonist? I don’t mean this in a “he’s both good and bad” way. There are literally hundreds of versions of Jason in the multiverse. Not all of the Jasons are good. Not all are bad. All of them want to get back to (our) Jason’s version of home. It may cause a bit of a headache, and in my case, it makes the outcome much less satisfying when the main character had to triumph over… well, himself. Not everyone may view this as a con (in fact, some may see beautiful symbolism in it), but if you’re like me you may feel a little conflicted over this.

Conclusion: I loved this novel. While it’s not exactly the kind of feel-good read one would bring on vacation, it will keep you turning pages until you’ve reached the end. There are many profound underlying themes in this novel that give it more depth than the average action-thriller, making it one of the best I’ve ever read in this genre.

Rating: ★★★★★

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