Dark Mat­ter is out on 11 Au­gust and re­viewed

Light­ing out in the mul­ti­verse

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Brought To Book - Jonathan Wright

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

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