Monday, July 25, 2016

Book Review: DARK MATTER

Title: Dark Matter
Author: Blake Crouch
Publisher: Crown
Pages: 352

I don’t generally read science fiction, but the blurb on the back of Dark Matter enticed me to make an exception. At its heart, this is a love story, wrapped up in a solid plot that forces you to ponder on the milestones in your own life.

Dark Matter talks about the theory that every thought we have, every choice we make, creates a new world. However, like fish in a pond, we remain oblivious to the complex reality that surrounds us.

Jason Dessen, his wife Daniela and teenage son Charlie are a happy family. Jason teaches undergrad physics at a small college in Chicago while Daniela teaches art to students. Both have made their family their priority, giving up brilliant potential careers as an atomic physicist and artist to be together.

Ryan Holder, Jason’s friend, has the professional and monetary success that Jason chose not to have. Jason goes across to congratulate Ryan at the local bar. While there, Ryan questions Jason’s choice. Upset, Jason heads home, only to find himself held at gunpoint by an abductor and made to drive to a location unknown to him. 

There he is injected and he loses consciousness. When he comes to, he is greeted by a group of unknown people, who give him the impression that he is a very renowned scientist. He realizes that he is the first one to return after 14 months away. He has no idea where he is supposed to have returned from. That premise has us hooked.

Panicking, Jason escapes from the building of Velocity Laboratories only to find out that his home is not his home, that Daniela is not his wife, and that Charlie does not exist. Daniela is a famous artist currently dating Ryan. She used to date Jason 15 years ago, but the relationship ended when she became pregnant. On the other hand, he has won the Pavia prize for devising something revolutionary.

Attempting to escape, he is caught and brought back. He pretends to be who they think he is, anxious to go back to the world where he was a happily married man, even if that world appears unreal.

Soon he learns that the Jason in this world has created a box that leads you to the alternate realities spun off the choices that we make in life. A box that is both horrifying and fascinating at the same time.

Jason and Amanda, the psychologist working for Velocity, escape into the box. He is intent on returning to his own world, she on escaping this one. They leave with 50 ampoules of a drug that allows the mind to even conceive these alternate realities.

But which reality is more real? How can he prevent this reality from engulfing him? How can he get back home?

The beauty of this book goes beyond the adventure it brings to us, the story that holds us transfixed. The highlight is the possibilities it conjures up before our eyes, of endless worlds, with versions of ourselves, all in the same space and time.

The book kept me up late, way past my bedtime. And it wasn’t only reading. Even in the dark, I stared at the ceiling, imagining myself with Jason and Amanda, walking down that endless corridor, entering strange worlds with versions of myself that were either slightly similar or totally different.

Each time I found my reading interrupted, I couldn’t wait to resume where I had left off. The premise of the book reminded me of Frost’s “Two Roads diverged in a wood, and I…”

The story comes to us in the first person point of view of Jason. The use of the present tense gives us a sense of urgency and immediacy. On the few occasions, the author shifts to third person, it serves as an eye-opener for us.

The author succeeds in thrusting us in the midst of the action, within no time at all. While the science fiction bits were interesting, what I found most intriguing were the philosophical bits that tempered this book. The worlds that Jason and Amanda conjure up exist, among an infinite number of worlds, but they become accessible on account of their thoughts. Truly, thoughts become things.

Throughout the book, Jason is desperately anxious to return home to the world he knows, a world that is a grain of sand on a never ending beach. He describes Daniela as being an amazing wife and mother, but I never got the feeling that she was awesome at her relationships. She failed to impress me, either as an individual or on account of the intensity of her filial relationships. Instead, it was Jason who came across as the most amazing husband and father. I couldn’t understand why she evoked the kind of passion she did.

The book raises questions, what if we are not as unique as we are led to believe. If you strip away all the trappings of personality and lifestyle, what are the core components that make me me? It also reminds us, Until everything topples, we have no idea what we actually have, how precariously and perfectly it all hangs together.

I dutifully read the book, even the part about Schrodinger’s Cat, which I couldn’t quite understand. At one point, the story got even more freaky, but I’m not about to give out any more spoilers. At that point, I, for one, was glad the story was in first person.

The style of writing was good. Some of the lines were really short, staccato bursts that keep our pulse racing. One sentence I liked: Whole Foods smells like the hippie I dated…a tincture of fresh produce, ground coffee and essential oils.

I also loved his description of youth: There’s a weightlessness that permeates everything because no damning choices have been made, no paths committed to, and the road forking out ahead is pure, unlimited potential.

Towards the end, the pace got tighter, and I found myself wondering just how the author would resolve the problem. The end, when it came, was a little hard to grapple with.

I just hope there’s a Book II.

(I read an ARC from First To Read.)

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