Quantum buffoonery in a fun but unconvincing sci-fi romp
Blake Crouch, Macmillan, 2016
Fans of the TV series Fringe, which ended in 2013, will know the narrative potential of parallel universes. They can be a textbook example of the uncanny in literature – similar enough to be recognizable but with noticeable, and sometimes amusing, differences. For example, we learn that the second universe’s version of Batman is called the Mantis, and then are forced to consider that, however silly a superhero taking his inspiration from an insect is, a flying rodent is not that much cooler.
The raging geek within me was therefore excited by the sound of Dark Matter. The novel tells the story of Jason Dessen, a physicist teaching at a small college in Chicago. He has married the girl of his dreams and together they raise a sweet 15-year-old son. To get this ‘perfect’ life he has sacrificed a glittering career at the forefront of theoretical physics. On the day he discovers an old friend of his has received the Pavia prize—a sort of Wolf prize, presumably named after the book’s editor Julian Pavia—he is abducted and wakes up in a parallel version of Chicago. In this life, he is a world-renowned scientist (and Pavia laureate) working on inter-universe travel via quantum superposition. He has to use his counterpart’s research to venture into other universes, hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home.
Several things grate about the book. For a start, the (we are told) genius-level Dessen takes an absolute age to work out that the person who abducted him (all the while asking very specific questions about his relationship with Daniela) is the parallel version of himself. Even setting the blurb aside, I’d wager that any reader would work that out almost immediately.
The style is at times unbearable. A review in the Guardian took issue with the author’s tendency to write one-sentence paragraphs. The reviewer cited a passage in which the narrator describes his surroundings. I initially assumed that the author was evoking the MUDs of the 1980s and 90s—a suitably geeky reference—and was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. However, the whole novel really is written like that.
The open field is white and still.
The streetlamps wink out.
I sit up, unbelievably stiff.
Presumably Crouch believes that this will make it more thrilling to read. It certainly encouraged me to turn the pages more quickly, but is that a good thing?
Someone has clearly told Crouch to get on with the story as quickly as possible: we are barely introduced to Dessen’s family before he is whisked away to a laboratory in universe no. 2. Within another ten minutes of reading time he’s escaped the lab and is on the run. We are presumably supposed to care about what Dessen has left behind but, honestly, this reader was not given enough time to: instead, the narrative forces you from one barely-fleshed-out scenario to the next, like a badly-planned stag do. I couldn’t help thinking, as I read Dark Matter, that this style reminded me of someone: after ten minutes on Wikipedia*, Dan Brown could have written this novel.
This is not to say that Dark Matter isn’t exciting: the book really gets going when Dessen explores other universes, and the denouement is frankly so bizarre that I couldn’t help but admire Crouch’s audacity. All in all, it’s a fun read, but I have come to expect more from sci-fi.
Science Fiction is at its best when it gets a little cerebral and takes the time to guide the reader through the world it is creating. Pratchett and Baxter’s recently completed Long Earth series, for all its faults, does this; they were influenced by authors like Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven, who could build a convincing world and tell an involving story in under 300 pages. Dark Matter has an admirable go at the science, but fluffs the fiction. Perhaps in another universe there is a version of this novel which manages to marry the two, but this sadly ain’t the place.
*I’m not suggesting that Dan Brown researches the background to his novels by spending ten minutes on Wikipedia. Maybe five.