Dark Matter is out on 11 August and reviewed
Lighting out in the multiverse
released 11 august 352 pages | Hardback/ebook Author Blake Crouch Publisher Macmillan
When Michael Crichton died in 2008, the world was robbed of the master of what we might call the cutting-edge ideas thriller. Forget Crichton’s latter-day excursion into climate change denial in State Of Fear, in his pomp he was brilliantly adept at finding pop-fictional takes on abstract ideas: complexity theory in The Lost World or the experiential economy in Timeline.
Indeed, the more time that goes by, the more he seems an outlier, possibly the only true master of the cutting-edge ideas thriller. Which isn’t to say writers haven’t tried to follow his example. Philip Kerr once looked as if he might follow Crichton’s path, but latterly seems to have turned largely to crime fiction.
Now step forward Blake Crouch, the author of Wayward Pines and a man who began Dark Matter as a way to grapple with quantum physics and the many-worlds theory. These are subjects where, from a human perspective, the weirdness is intrinsic, bound up with the unsettling uncertainty of what’s going on at atomic and subatomic levels.
For writers, part of the appeal here lies in the idea that characters can step into parallel worlds. Accordingly this is now a wellworn SF trope, but most writers waft their hands over the details of the actual physics, the better to distract you from inconsistencies where more explanation might slow the plot down.
Crouch, though – as Crichton might have done – puts the science front and centre via the two contrasting lives of the same character: Jason Dessen. In one universe, Dessen is a college physics teacher, a man who gave up a promising research career when he got married and became a father. In another world, he became a research whiz and built a machine (think the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment) that enables people to travel between different worlds in the multiverse. Dessen the teacher is kidnapped and taken to Dessen the researcher’s world.
You can see why Blake chose this set-up. It’s an easy idea to grasp, even when you’re reading on a crowded train or bus. And yet there’s a weakness intrinsic to it too. In presenting Dessen’s life choices as essentially binary, as being about happiness versus success – at least at the beginning of the novel – Crouch edits out the kind of complexity Crichton would have tried to sneak in. Worse, he edits out human complexity. Life isn’t just about success or failure; it’s a question of degree. Even Paul McCartney, it’s said, felt a little inadequate when confronted with the flowering of Brian Wilson’s genius on Pet Sounds.
This sensation of reading a book that’s aiming too low is only emphasised by Crouch’s writing style. He likes short paragraphs. He likes short paragraphs a lot. Every so often he writes a paragraph that’s two or three sentences long. This varies the pace a little. It also gives him the chance occasionally to explain things that are difficult to get across in short paragraphs.
The irritating thing is that Crouch is a better writer than this. His plotting is terrific and when he slows down long enough to do some character building you get hints of a far richer, more accomplished novel.
But let’s not be too critical. Compared with Crouch’s earlier work, there’s a huge leap in ambition here. In addition, the book seems primed for sequels, so perhaps we should reserve judgment until we’ve seen those. Plus, having criticised his writing style, it seems only fair to acknowledge that, in the final 100 pages or so, it drives the narrative forward brilliantly.
Neither failure nor triumph then, but a solid place to build from, in itself perhaps a reminder that life in this part of the multiverse is often complicated, non-binary.
Hugh Everett, pioneer of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, was the dad of Eels frontman Mark Oliver Everett.
Crouch is a better writer than this